The Science of Marital Discord

I try to make every day count, to find joy and purpose, to connect in a positive way with those I love most. The day started this morning with a woodpecker pecking at my window. That made me smile. It was a good way to wake up.

I preparation for my recovery weeks I set up several bird feeders close to our house, a few right outside our kitchen bay window and one that sits against the bedroom window and has a two-way mirror/window. The birds can’t see into the feeder but I can see out. We have many beautiful birds now feeding regularly and I’ve had the time to learn their names. The large yellow bellied sap sucker (a handsome woodpecker) seems to not like the competition of his reflection, and pecks at it each time he lands on the feeder. When his reflection does not strike back, he settles in and feels safe enough to feed. He repeats this ritual multiple times a day.

Why do men need to be more aggressive? Don’t answer. I know why. They are conditioned to protect, their territory, their mates, themselves. It is a biological response that is often reaffirmed by conditioning. It is a response that bypasses the frontal lobe of the brain the place where this occurs:

  • planning
  • organizing
  • problem solving
  • memory
  • impulse control
  • decision making
  • selective attention
  • controlling our behavior and emotions

The Amygdala is the area of the brain that responds to risk or fear with a “fight or flight” response. As we all know, women tend to flee while men tend to fight. This most often occurs instinctively, without “thinking” (running the info by our frontal lobe” to process before reacting), especially during or even after a traumatic event. When I get spooked I tend to shriek and run. When Grant gets spooked he unconsciously puts his fists up or moves towards the danger. He kind of physically puffs up too, while I tend to shrink.

It’s no secret that Grant and I have been having relationship problems. And it’s no secret that we’ve been through trauma, had to face a huge potential danger (cancer). I wonder how much of our disconnect has to do with my tendency to shrink and pull away while his it to puff up and aggress?

22 thoughts on “The Science of Marital Discord

  1. Sara,

    I haven’t commented much but I just wanted to thank you for letting us watch you go through this struggle. It would be so easy for you to only write about the good months, or to promise yourself that you’d blog “once everything is better”. But the truth is, hearing it as you live through it (even through your writing filter) is about as honest as you can be.


  2. Fists cocked, chest out. Yup. That’s our first reaction to danger.

    When something or someone threatens Lynda, I know what to do: get aggressive, get bigger and louder. I get that way when when Lynda gets sick, only there’s no one to threaten or beat up. Perhaps that’s why I have gotten mad at her for getting sick. I’m poised for battle but there’s no enemy.

    When we’re afraid, we’re aggressive.

  3. Hi Sara,
    I have been reading and sharing your blog with my husband for some time. I have never commented before, but not because I haven’t found your writing to be insightful and thought provoking, the contrary is true. It sometimes hits really close to home.
    The fight or flight instinct, in my experiences with my husband, are divided neatly along gender lines. My lifelong impulse to lift my skirts and run for the hills has caused no end of trouble as my husband marshals the wagons into a circle at the first sign of trouble.
    I am working hard at trying to take his direction for our family and marriage, and to do that I have to trust his guidance more than my own sense of self preservation. Historically that meant, he would have to fend off dangers with one hand, while duking it out with me simultaneously.
    Not all couples have this problem. I have noticed this dynamic working in other relationships, and I have concluded some women are just better at it than others. They acquiesce to their husband almost from the beginning of their marriages, it seems (from an onlooker’s point of view) so natural and effortless. I, on the other hand, have really struggled to let him wear his pants – sometimes nearly ripping them off him – as I have grappled for control. I once considered myself a strong woman – now I think I have just been a fearful idiot.
    It is comforting to know that it is scientific and that there are people like yourself & Grant and Mick & Lynda who address this issue with such sincerity and candor. It would be terribly dark out here without the enlightenment you folks provide we readers.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head. To protect ourselves our natural defenses kick in. As the fear subsides, the defenses gradually disappear.

  5. Funny you should mention the woodpecker, it seems apropos somehow given your struggles of late. The woodpecker has to struggle through the bark to get to the reward. It may seem that they are just banging their heads against the tree, but they are making progress, little by little. It seems you and Grant are too. I have every faith you’ll get there.

  6. Serenity, your words mean a lot to me. It’s very hard to write about the real stiff when it’s not so pretty…but it is what is real for all of us in life.

    I have seen that at home Mick, and men continue to confound and confuse me at times.

    Thanks for letting me know you are reading here Lillian! I too wrestled with Grant for control for many years, and it is an ongoing challenge, and yes, it most often comes from my own anxiety.

    We’re driven by our natural instincts Sunny Girl, all of us.

    “Banging my head against a tree”! Cygnet, you have captured the experience perfectly!!! ;)

  7. I think you have it right. I know I have seen it in my own marriage. Him puffing up to face the danger and me withdrawing to a good book.

  8. The fact that you planned ahead like this makes me smile.What a simple but clever idea.Something to distract you and yet enjoy.There probably isn’t usually much time for that.So the fact you are making a good fist of it leaves me in no doubt you two will get there.Thinking of you.Sarah,LD,UK

  9. I think that generally people have reasons for what they do – even if we don’t understand or agree with them. I think we have to allow ourselves and others some leeway to be true to those feelings. In the end, authenticity is the secret to success. I think it was Carl Rogers (?? you probably remember better than I) who said the experience of showing someone else our true selves and being accepted unconditionally and then being able to look at someone else’s true self and accept them unconditionally was necessary to develop as humans. It sounded so profound and romantic when I read it back in college – but I think that in reality it often looks much like your marriage looks right now (and how mine has looked like in the past).

    I’m so glad to hear things are feeling better and you are enjoying happy moments.

  10. I can tell that you’re trying to work through this from all angles. I hope it’s helping. I have to admit that when I read the title of this post I was thinking “What? Really?” But, of course it’s helpful to understand your own response as well as Grants and how they differ and may have (be) affecting your relationship.

    I hope the two of you enjoy your weekend!

  11. Oh! Got it- yellow bellied=fearful/aggressive. Just like men so naturally react. I needed to read the comments to get that.
    I love that you put out the feeders before you had to convalesce. Clever girl! And look how it’s helped you to figure out so much! I love it! :-)
    Please forgive my “bird brain”. It’s late. ;-)

  12. Thank goodness I love to read D’s Rose!

    I am indeed a planner Sarah!

    Lori, reality isn’t always quite as romantic as we would wish, is it? :shock:

    Grace, I always try to look at things from all angles…and then a few extra, just to be sure! :)

    Elysia, the woodpecker just got me to thinking about nature, and fight or flight…and us. The birds are interesting to watch!

  13. It still surprises me to see you blogging. I am glad each time that I see you are well enough to write. Nothing to comment regarding your post, just gladness that you are here.

  14. Ana, it took me aback that you are surprised to see me blogging, and Joanna 2nd’s your opinion. It got me to wondering, again, if I should be? But then…at the end of the day, I am here for me. And then yes, I should be here…because this blog helps me to get through our good times and our bad. I hope it’s not too much of a grind to read? I won’t feel bad if you choose not to!

  15. I hope your enjoying the weekend Sara.

    Why doesn’t it surprise me that you planned ahead for your recovery:) You both will get there Sara, I have no doubt.

    Love and hugs,

  16. “I wonder how much of our disconnect has to do with my tendency to shrink and pull away while his it to puff up and aggress?”

    I think you’re onto something here, Sara :-)


  17. I don’t have much to add but I always appreciate your insights. Hope you weekend is going well and that it is not as crazy hot there as it is here.

    Birds are delightful to watch but I have to say the woodpeckers can stay away. Too many unwanted holes it the siding.

  18. Sara, you are a wonderful writer and I really appreciate you sharing your journey with us. I hope that you can put your faith in Grant and he, in return, can do the same towards you. Seeing the differences between men and women does not make things easier when it comes to a marriage. But knowing the differences does help when trying to make sense of things. You are a strong person and you will make this work. I am praying for you

  19. Of course it’s not too much of a grind! I am just used to clicking every once in a while to see if you are blogging again and being disappointed/worried…so when I click and *do* see a new post (sometimes several!) it surprises me all over again. I only meant that it’s a nice surprise each time I visit. :)

    And of course you should blog for you.

  20. I missed this Sara. I enjoy watching all our woodland birds and how they interact with each other. I’m glad they are bringing you some smiles.

    Instinct is a funny thing. It seems like the more we allow ourselves to simply be without questioning each response, the more natural our responses become. I used to puff up and move towards the danger but don’t do that so much now. M has always been protective but has only recently given himself permission to be a little aggressive.

    Very interesting…will have to think on this some. Good for you for continuing to dig and try to understand.

  21. Because you would have planned ahead as well Ronnie! ;)

    Anna, we do tend to set each other off with our opposite instincts.

    Zoe, it is crazy hot here too. I have had no problem with the woodpeckers attacking the siding…but maybe that’s bc I feed them?

    Blondie, making sense of things, for me, helps a lot.

    Thanks Ana, and I did know what you meant, but I am wondering myself at times.

    Susie, there are times I will plant my feet and face danger, but it’s a fight response that comes after my flight response, which I have learned to quiet. If startled, especially when I am at home and relaxed, I naturally pull back first. Instincts ARE interesting!

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