The Silent Killer of Marriage

David - State College, Pennsylvania
Entered on June 18, 2008
Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe humans have more in common with animals than we realize. For example, fight-or-flight remains a basic human instinct, and it can have a big impact on relationships. Understanding this has saved my marriage.

In my pastoral counseling as an Episcopal minister, I’ve become an unwilling expert on the life cycle of marriages. I share people’s joy at their weddings and baptisms, as well as the agony of their divorce and custody battles.

But as I sat in so many living rooms full of misery, I wondered: Why do good, committed couples with the best of intentions end up either fighting or fleeing each other, like wild animals?

I found my answer by reading neuroscience: I had forgotten humans ARE animals. I like to believe I act rationally, based on free will. The truth is, I may appear sophisticated, but my fight-or-flight instinct controls much more of my behavior than I realized.

Back in our caveman days, it was good that our survival instincts ran the show, so we could react quickly to predators. But today, our brain hasn’t evolved to keep up with modern society. Although we no longer face the same life-and-death situations, we often overreact to perceived threats, because we still instinctively respond to the world as if it’s a jungle out there.

My wife and I are living proof that our rational minds rarely drive our behavior. For example, it’s easy to recognize my fight instinct when I snap at my spouse, or honk at the jerk on the freeway. But I began to wonder if I am in flight mode from my wife when I stay at work late, or switch on the TV, or make our children the center of my universe.

It never occurred to me that putting my children before my marriage could be a flight response. My wife and I used to believe we just didn’t have time for each other. But the truth is, we often felt more love with our kids than with each other.

We convinced ourselves that putting our kids first was child-friendly, but it became a double-whammy against them: First, it made it hard to discipline our kids because we always wanted to be their “best friends.” Second, as the kids became the center of our family, our marriage dried up and we interacted less like lovers and more like work colleagues discussing logistics. After counseling so many other couples who had drifted apart, I began to believe that the real silent killer of marriage is our flight instinct.

Looking at myself as an animal has increased my self-awareness, because I no longer delude myself that I’m “Oh so rational.” I’m quicker to recognize my defensiveness when I’m in fight mode, and I’m more aware when I’m distancing from my wife. And putting our marriage first reduces our emotional dependency on our kids, so we can “wean” our offspring to grow up as healthy, self-reliant animals.

To raise great kids, I focus on my marriage. To stay happily married, I focus on my fight-or-flight instinct.