Boundaries In Marriage – Part I: Couples In Intimate Relationships

Couple On A Crumbling Wall

Boundaries in marriage pose challenges to many. Even as I began to understand Personal Boundaries, I am still stunned by what happens with a couple in a committed relationship.  People constantly tell me that they can get along with anyone except their partner at home. I frequently watch professionally competent couples in my office act like little, tantrum-throwing children. I’ve frequently seen couples, wearing microphones and sitting in front of a large audience, completely forget about being overheard by hundreds of people as they react deeply to each other. I believe that getting along with your intimate partner can be 40 times more difficult than getting along with people at work.

Boundaries In Marriage & Committed Relationships

What are the boundary issues that make the experiences of couples, or intimate relationships, so precariously powerful and challenging? This series of articles covers what I have learned is happening.

I want to thank my wife Sandra for her original thoughts and observations that formed the foundation for this series. She observed that when one partner was angry, that partner did not seem to be focusing so much on his/her partner as s/he seemed to be focusing through his/her partner on someone else. She tried setting up two additional chairs in the therapy room to help the couple direct their attention. She called this a four-chair technique. Each partner could focus their distress at the chair sitting next to their partner. This series on boundaries in marriage evolved from those experiences.

Two States or Two Balls

I’d like you to begin by becoming familiar with two states or conditions within yourself. For a moment, just focus on these two. On the one hand sometimes you are calm, collected, peaceful and centered. On the other hand, sometimes you are strung out, wild, panicky, reactive and “a mess.” Before I go further, give each of these two states a name. I called mine Mature-Man and Crazy-Man. Come up with some friendly names for yourself.

You Have A Lizard And It Is Reactive!

Let’s add into this picture how long it takes for you to shift from your grounded state into your panicky, reactive state. Most people can make this shift in less than a half-second. Sometimes people say they can sense themselves slipping – that they are about to panic. But once it happens…Bang! they are there. Dr. John Gottman calls this “flooding.” I think of it as “falling apart” or panicking. If you have read my paper on Safety, this is the shift from feeling safe to the feeling of not-safe. Your reptilian brain is designed to make this shift in split seconds in order to protect itself and you. You are built this way so that you survive.

Now, let’s add how long it takes you to come back: to shift from the reactive state back into the grounded state. Because of the design of your reptilian brain, which I call the Lizard, this cannot happen in less than 20 minutes or so, and often it takes much longer. I’ve asked many couples how long it takes. Some say it can take an hour. Some say it takes days. Most say that sometimes it takes longer and sometimes shorter periods, but it never happens quickly.

The timing of these shifts is simply the normal behavior of our reptilian brains: Quick to go on the defensive, but slow to trust.

Our mental model now looks like this:

The Two States

These two states are fascinating. One way I look at it is that when you are “triggered,” when you have shifted to the right, your Lizard has taken control. Wide awake and on the alert, it is controlling the rest of your brain, and you. I’ve heard this called the “triumph of reactivity over reflection.”

The Two States Annotated

Since Lizards don’t seem very mature (I don’t think they know they are over, say, two years old), we can say that when you shift right, you regress or become like a frightened little kid. I think it is useful to be able to see yourself as becoming a panicky child, within a great big adult body. You might try making a list of the kinds of things you do when you’re in your reactive state. Do you typically flee, freeze, submit or fight? Believe it or not, you are capable of all four. (Reading my paper on Safety can help you with this exercise.)

Two States Further Annotated

Your Lizard will react with fleeing, freezing, submitting and fighting behaviors, but what is it triggered by? What is it reacting to? Many people, perhaps most, feel very confused about what is going on for their Lizards, but I think it is pretty easy to understand. Probably 90% of what a Lizard is experiencing right now is a person’s history of scary stuff, their frightening memories, of which the present situation reminds them. Note that a Lizard cannot tell the difference between reality and a vivid imagination. If something in the present reminds you of past events that were scary to your Lizard, then it takes over…and you find yourself panicked: fleeing, freezing, submitting or fighting.

I discuss identifying and healing triggers in my article Personal Boundaries – Part IV: Boundary Attack Awareness. I suggest you familiarize yourself with it and the entire series if you have not already.

In part two of this Boundaries In Marriage series, we will expand upon the Two State (Two Ball) model. Until then, I welcome questions, commentary, and other discussion on my Turtle’s Whiteboard forum here at Marriage Advocates.

Taken from Boundaries for Couples: The Essay  © Al Turtle 2005.

This entry was posted in Boundaries, Featured Articles, Relationship Safety & Security and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Boundaries In Marriage – Part I: Couples In Intimate Relationships

  1. Sue says:

    Hi Al,
    Boundaries are so important in relationships i think. I have always tried to be careful and up front with my partner when it comes to male friends or colleagues, as i dont want it to become a problem. I think its healthy to have opposite sex friends as long as we stick to boundaries. I’m ok with my partner having female friends. However i feel uncomfortable that my partner remains very close to his ex 7 years after they broke up. And he is hiding it from me. For example, I saw her name came up on his phone, but he told me it was his mum ringing him. Sometimes the phone would ring late at night, and he would not pick it up. A lot of time he would have his phone off when he is with me. Finally i i couldn’t stand it anymore and looked at his phone.. I found that they have been in touch a lot, and saying “i love you” to each other, and catching up behind my back.. I do trust that they aren’t together, if they were, my boyfriend wouldn’t have bothered staying with me. but they are definitely more than friends. It troubles me. But i dont know how to bring it up? My boyfriend is good to me, and i really hope things will work out. But i really dont like the idea of sharing my partner like that. What can I do?!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>