What's Your Couple Culture?

Every couple has one.

When I first met Marcus and Jennifer, I was struck by their comfortable, at times even gentle, relationship. Marcus never raised his voice and Jennifer rarely started arguments. They played with each other, sharing jokes between casual comments about the weather or politics. In our first session together, we traded the usual small-talk about Austin traffic, connected over our shared passion for hand-crafted beer and wine, and even indulged in a few campfire stories about Southwest Virginia after Marcus pointed out the Virginia Tech diploma on my wall and explained that he was raised in the heart of the Hokie Nation.  

Your couple culture sets the rules of engagement.

Once a pregnant silence fell over the conversation, I asked the couple if they were ready to discuss what brought them to see me. Marcus looked over at Jennifer, revealing the telltale sign of a man dragged to therapy. Jennifer explained that she had recently disclosed her infidelity to Marcus, informing him that she would be leaving the relationship. I learned that after Jennifer and Marcus were married, Jennifer felt like Marcus stopped loving her the way he had when they dated. After the birth of their second child, Jennifer fell into a deep postpartum depression, needing Marcus more than ever. However, when Jennifer reached out to Marcus, she could not find him, and although she tried to tell Marcus how she felt, he shut down or become defensive. Marcus retreated from conflict, fleeing to another room or leaving altogether. After years of loneliness and relationship neglect, Jennifer decided to separate, and during that separation she became involved in an emotional affair. It was at this moment that Marcus finally experienced the crisis Jennifer felt for years.

What rules do you follow?

Despite Marcus and Jennifer's pain, they remained polite and friendly, hiding despair within a chasm of comfortable distance. With time, we discovered that Marcus’ culture of silence in his family of origin left him ill-equipped to handle Jennifer’s emotionally expressive roots. When Jennifer reached out to Marcus out of her need to connect, Marcus retreated, feeling inadequate. Interpreting his retreat as apathy, Jennifer’s loving feelings slowly atrophied. 

Change your culture. Change your relationship.

Isn’t funny how our romantic feelings for our partners wane while our desire for Hollywood-style infatuation thrives? Marcus and Jennifer shared a culture of distance, a culture in which vulnerability was exchanged for withdrawal and blame. Each contributed to the culture, but neither was directly responsible for it. Both wanted to connect, but Marcus’ inability to express his affection left Jennifer feeling lost and lonely. The more inadequate Marcus felt, the more he retreated, and the more Jennifer felt like he didn’t care. This was the culture of emotional poverty that brought the couple into my office. When I asked them what prompted their phone call, they told me it was an affair; but the truth was that they had been dialing for years.

This story has a happy ending.

Marcus unearthed his fears, and in a moment of courage, exposed his vulnerability and desire to Jennifer in a way she could understand. Jennifer recognized her betrayal as an act of desperation, sincerely seeking Marcus' forgiveness, which he offered, again, and again. 

Relationship change causes thinking change. Your couple culture changes the way your brain works. Jennifer’s fear-regulating limbic system interpreted Marcus’ apathy as a threat to her emotional safety. As a result, her slower thinking prefrontal cortex was kindly dismissed from their interactions, “I got this,” said her amygdala, and from then on, her “flight or fight” brain was on autopilot.

This, by the way, is why couples fight for silly reasons.

All it takes is a look, and before your prefrontal cortex has an opportunity to recognize that look as “tired,” your amygdala has you convinced that your partner wants nothing to do with you. It doesn't matter if you're fighting over an affair or folding laundry, your brain reacts to the threat either way.

So what’s your couple culture? Do you notice that your interactions with your partner are dominated by defensiveness? Stonewalling? Blaming? Insults? These are the hallmarks of a brain on run, embedded within a culture of fear. Do you find yourselves arguing over nothing?

Maybe it is time for a culture check. You could prevent a culture of despair and fear before it ever begins. Before your amygdala go into autopilot, invite your prefrontal cortex back to the conversation, and cultivate a culture of safety.  Within this culture, relationships thrive. Fear is replaced with vulnerability, blaming with empathy, and anger with compassion. Don't wait for a crisis. Take a chance now and create a culture built on acceptance and connection. What do you have to lose?

Dr. Mathis Kennington