Don't Look at Me in that Tone of Voice

Have you noticed that you occasionally have what seems like a disproportionate reaction to something someone says or does? I can recall plenty of times when my wife and I were having a conversation and she diverted her attention for a brief moment (usually when one of our kids need something) and without warning I experienced a sharp sting in my chest and felt as though she was ignoring me; I typically reacted with anger. This automatic and negative reaction is the result of unresolved emotional injuries that are encoded in our implicit memory.


Implicit memories are developed and used unconsciously and allow us the ability to perform certain behaviors (like driving) without the conscious awareness of past experiences. In other words, you can experience an implicit memory without the sensation of remembering a past event. Dr. Daniel Siegel says, “The brain is an anticipation machine that shapes ongoing perception by what it automatically expects based on prior experience.” Implicit memory tells us what to expect around every corner based on what we experienced in the past. Past experiences have a significant impact on how our minds function. The reason that I reacted in anger to my wife diverting her attention away from me is because I associate that type of turning away with being ignored and feeling that what I have to say doesn't matter. This is what happens when the past becomes present.


This is one of the most common issues that I see with the couples that I support. Both spouses will tell me that whenever they have a “petty” disagreement it will quickly intensify into an argument where they both say hurtful things to each other that they later regret. This is what it looks like when spouses trigger each other's implicit memories. Since we don't experience the sensation of remembering implicit memories, we feel like we are reacting to the present situation. If they're unaware that their implicit memories are hijacking their relationship, they will continue this negative cycle of hurtful communication.


The first step in breaking this pattern is knowing and becoming familiar with your own story. Sometimes this process is painful so it is important to partner with a therapist who can help you work through your story and help you find meaning in it. The second step is sharing the parts of your story that led to emotional wounds with your spouse and what your spouse does that trigger these memories. This type of openness and vulnerability can seem scary at first but it can lead to a deeper understanding and compassion of each other. When I first began working through my story and becoming more aware of the painful events in my life that became encoded as implicit memories I was amazed at how much impact these unresolved emotional wounds were having on my marriage. The more that I've focused on staying in the present moment, I've noticed the less likely am I to allow implicit memories to hijack my relationships.




Chris Ellman, MSW, LCSW, SATP

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