It wasn’t a great day for the Kumars. Ninety-nine percent of their days were really wonderful, but this wasn’t one of them. If a video of that day existed, they would want to buy and destroy all the copies.
It all started with an innocent comment from Joyce about a project she and George were doing. “Hey George! Good News! I figured out how we can make this work!” Little did she know what a storm would follow those few innocent words.
George should have felt happy about the solution. “Good job! That’s great!” That would have been a healthy response. But he didn’t. George became sullen, brooding, and angry. He said some very damaging words, even slammed a few doors. His reaction shocked his wife and surprised him. He certainly didn’t plan it. So, why?
George analyzed that for hours. As we discussed the reaction, he said that he felt offended that he was left out. He wanted to feel that he was part of the process, a supplier of answers, a problem-solver. Instead he felt useless. Joyce surely didn’t need his help. She had it all figured out.
With his stormy words, George was actually accusing Joyce of an unloving, thoughtless attitude. We know Joyce. She doesn’t deserve that accusation, for that is never her attitude. She is a supportive and loving wife. Why, in that moment, did George believe a lie so easily?
One of the greatest fears for an army on patrol in hostile territory is the booby trap. The enemy stretches a thin wire across the trail, just at ankle level. When the soldier trips it an explosion blows off his foot or leg. If he lives, it takes months for the wounds to heal, and the painful memory could well last for a lifetime.
The atmosphere changes when a soldier trips a booby trap. Every other soldier acts more cautiously, and no one wants to lead the patrol.
That happens in marriages, too. Unexpected explosions cause tension. Neither partner wants to take the lead in communicating for fear that some innocent step will cause an explosive reaction. Admit it. We are a booby trapped race. The trip wires, innocently triggered by our spouses, prompt reactions that surprise us in their intensity.
Where do we get them? Who planted these lethal devices in our lives? Hard questions, and the answers depend on how you look at life.
Some psychologists believe that we base our actions and responses almost totally on inherited characteristics, or our nature. Others believe that our upbringing is more important in determining how we act and respond.
I tend to believe that actions and responses come from three sources: nature, upbringing, and life experiences. We do have inherited tendencies. We did develop some reactions because of earlier unpleasant experiences in our homes or schools. And life itself, with all its joys and trials, has left an imprint, too.
How does a person defuse a booby trap if he or she doesn’t know it is there? Let’s see if we can dismantle George’s booby trap and examine its mechanism.
- There is a lie: Recalling my earlier story, since Joyce found a solution to the problem, George believed his own work had no value. A lie, of course, and how easy to recognize it in hindsight, but not at the moment of explosion.
- There is a false assumption: Since his wife solved the problem George’s mind told him his part was unnecessary. She didn’t need him. For that matter, did anyone need him? Wasn’t he just a stupid, unimportant man?
- There is a false accusation: “Joyce has discredited me. She does not appreciate me or the work I do,” his mind said.
George really did know better than that. He is blessed with a wonderful, loving, supportive wife. They had developed enduring habits of caring and helping. Nevertheless, in the moment the booby trap exploded, nothing true seemed real. The lies looked like the realities.
The process resembles dynamite. With dynamite you need a fuse, a trigger of some sort (usually a blasting cap), and the dynamite itself. We believe a lie, then attach a false assumption to it, then make a condemning accusation. Soon we have all the pieces in place for a powerful, destructive explosion.
I should add that some people do not respond by exploding. They respond by imploding. Outwardly they are quiet, almost too quiet. That’s because all the force of their reaction has gone inside. They sulk. They allow the lies, like shards of broken glass, to tear them to pieces. In other words, they internalize the destruction. Imploders may look untroubled, but the lies are still there, lacerating their souls.
After an explosion we often blame our spouse for triggering it. “If you were more careful with your words, I wouldn’t explode!” we tell them. We feel embarrassed because we reacted so explosively, so we accuse the person who innocently stepped on the trigger.
We can also blame ourselves. “It’s all my fault!” we exclaim with a snarl or a pout. We kick ourselves like a hateful man kicking a mongrel dog. We become depressed and close everyone out.
Toxic blame creates toxic shame. What is left if blaming others or ourselves causes such damage?
Here’s a helpful strategy:
- Cool down. That may take a little while, but it is absolutely necessary in order to restore clarity.
- Tell your spouse you’re sorry for the reaction, without any hint of blame.
- Learn the truth about your explosions. Until you do, there will always be another one.
Wise spouses give each other time and space to cool down. They forgive impulsive responses. They accept apologies, whether the apology comes in formal words or in actions. Wise spouses reassure the exploder of their love and acceptance. And they do not blame themselves for the blowups they did not cause.
Clearly our mind is the place where booby traps lurk- the source of our intense, unreasonable responses.
Here is the good news: your mind is flexible, not set like concrete. It is possible for you to create new connections and pathways, simply by telling yourself the truth. Every new and truthful connection leads to more freedom and fewer explosions.
Even so, making the choice to change is often harder than we imagine. Many of us would rather live with our booby traps than work at removing them. Will we ever get rid of all our booby traps? Perhaps not. But the explosions will be less frequent and less damaging if we respond in the right way, with a reasonable attitude.
Think, Act, Pray
In each of these stories try to identify the lies, distortions, or false assumptions. Then identify a true statement that would replace each faulty thought.
1. Heather had spent two hours making spaghetti sauce according to her mother-in-law’s family recipe. When Charles tasted it he commented that he thought it needed more salt. Heather dissolved in tears. “I’m a terrible cook,” she sobs. “I’ll never be able to please you.”
2. A colleague casually mentions to Robert that he had seen his wife, Cheryl, having lunch with another man. Seething inside, Robert went home that night in a dark mood. He doesn’t speak during dinner, and hardly looks at Cheryl. She wonders what is wrong? Finally, in great anger, Robert shouts, “You are having lunch with other men! Am I not good enough for you? Maybe I should find someone else, too!”