Relational Passwords [55]

By Dr. Keith Witt
May 20, 2012
iStock_000018901377XSmallIn the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick had HAL the computer be an immature, petulant, super-powerful machine God who waged war on two poor astronauts who were just trying to make it to Mars. Most of us have had similar computer/human intimate moments (“What? Where are my files?!”). On the other hand, when a document comes out the way I want, I’m soothed that my computer has listened and—yes!—done exactly what I told it to do. The needs for computer security and privacy have given us passwords–secret combinations of letters and symbols accessing special personal realms of knowledge and power. Well, nervous systems—arguably super-computers—also have passwords that open up to both blissful and horrific states, memories, and reactions. In intimate relationships, partners naturally generate both negative and positive passwords they instinctively go to in moments of distress or pleasure.   Negative passwords: “You’re just like your mother!” in an argument tends to be on the horrific end of the continuum (though, in defense of loving mothers everywhere—I have heard this phrase used as the most profound form of compliment). Usually the password, “You’re just like your mother!” evokes outraged states in our spouse—often leading to indignant fiery defenses and nasty counterattacks. Doesn’t it seem a little strange that a husband or wife—having used such a loser password repeatedly with agonizing/destructive effect—would fling it again in an angry moment? If insanity is repeating the same behavior while expecting different results, isn’t it insane to look at your angry wife for the fiftieth time and say the magic “You’re just like your mother!” password? Yes, it is insane. But there is neurological method to this madness. This husband’s brain has been conditioned to believe “You’re just like your mother!” actually protects him and serves his wife by trying to wake her up to change for the better. He has not yet done the necessary work to condition his nervous system to automatically deliver superior responses, so he reflexively–habitually–goes to the old stupid standby.   We can change such habits by consciously deciding enough times to say something potentially more likely to get us back to love (see Blog #14), that we replace the old “You’re just like your mother!” with something different and better–positive passwords.   Positive passwords: There are positive passwords we can hear or say with magical effects. They can help husband/wife/children/friends/workmates/family shift from disturbed, regressed states into more caring, mature and joyful states. For instance:
  • “I’m sorry you’re distressed. How can I help?” delivered with love feels pretty wonderful.
  • “You’re right. I do need to change this bad habit. I will make progress.” This reassures your partner that you receive positive influence.
  Each time we refuse a negative and choose a positive password, we take a step forward in social power and capacity to generate love.   Brenda and Doug: Brenda and Doug, a couple in their forties, finally got the power of passwords in the middle of a heated argument, almost two years into their therapy. Brenda would never validate or acknowledge Doug’s points. His angry, dismissive demeanor and shut down emotional body were like fingernails screeching on a blackboard to her, and the last thing they made her want to do was be generous, caring, or inclusive. Doug would never let himself see Brenda’s yearning for love and communion beneath her superior, alarmed, or dismissive attitudes, so he kept grinding her in conflict rather than learning ways to reach her heart. In this breakthrough session I said, “Look Brenda. You want Doug’s warmth and masculine presence. A positive password validates the worth of his ideas and acknowledges the efforts he’s making.” I turned my head, “Doug. If you want to be heard by Brenda, your password is to see her as her adorable self, yearning for love. Always speak to that adorable Brenda.” They both sat in stunned silence for a bit. Such insights can be both exciting and confusing. Later in the session, Doug became dismissive and critical, caught himself, and smiled, saying, “I know you’re adorable and want to love me better right now.” Brenda laughed, warmed up, and responded with her own positive password, “You make good points about how critical I can be, and I will get more appreciative and praise you more.” Doug lit up hearing this. Brenda turned to me and said, “This has to be a chapter in one of your books, Keith. This password thing is so true.” She’s right. Our nervous systems are programmed to respond in certain ways, and we can use this to support harmony/love/evolution. If you want to go deeper, I suggest you try this exercise:
  • Make a list of pronouncements you typically make to your upset partner that never make things better, and usually make things worse.
  • Now make a list of specific statements that might actually help.
  • Do the same two exercises for positive and negative statements your husband or wife makes. You know, upset pronouncements that never make things better, and then a list of specific statements that might actually help.
  Share all this with your partner/lover/spouse and see if you can have a conversation of positive passwords. If you can, I guarantee you’ll get closer and sweeter. If the exercise doesn’t work, but you still want to make progress, call a therapist and ask for a little help. Sometimes having a supportive third party point out positive and negative passwords makes them more visible and changeable. Either way, noticing the power in relational passwords expands your choices in how to love better.

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