How The Nervous System Messes With Our Relationships

John Wood, Founder of Rageheart

by John Wood

How the nervous system messes with our relationships

Rageheart Academy member Misha says:

It would be interesting to see some specific newsletters where you go into how the nervous system messes with our romantic relationships, i.e., the divorce rate is 50% in the US! Nervous system is definitely involved in that.

This is an excellent question.

Before I discovered the world of nervous system healing, relationships were challenging at the best of times. Especially romantic relationships 💔

I’d say or do something and my partner would react in the most surprising and unexpected ways.

I’d think that we’re talking about one thing… and later I’d discover that we’d been talking about something else entirely.

What seemed like such a small thing to me… would turn out to be a massive thing of earth shattering significance.

I did my best to make sense of things…

…but it wasn’t until I discovered the world of nervous system healing that everything started to make sense.

In my last relationship, it took me almost 4 years to realise that I had emotions 😳

Early on, I remember telling her that I just wasn’t angry person.

“Maybe once every now and then when I’m driving, but other than that, I just don’t get angry.”

Fast forward 3 years…

“Hey babe, I’m feeling angry about…”

I wish I could tell you that this was smooth sailing. That she took it in stride, we talked it over and then went back to “happy couple in love”.

But alas…

That’s not what happened at all.

I think part of her reason for being with me was because she thought I didn’t get angry… and that made her feel safe.

Why?

Because her Dad liked to get angry… and she didn’t feel safe (there’s that nervous system word) around angry dudes.

And fair enough, right?

Angry people can be scary. Angry people can make you feel small, vulnerable and ashamed. Especially when they’re your parents.

So she chooses a guy who doesn’t get angry because it makes her feel safe…

…only to discover that the guy she’s with (ie. me) does in fact get angry.

Maybe not in the same way that her Dad did… but still, he gets angry.

And that guy’s anger (MY anger) is the trigger for her unresolved feelings of fear, shame and insecurity from her childhood.

So then she reacts to my anger with the same unresolved feelings she has towards her Dad (without realizing it)…

…and what could’ve been a quick conversation devolves into a relationship-ending fight and break up.

She decides that I don’t love her anymore…

…and both of us feel misunderstood, invalidated and unsafe (there’s that nervous system word again).

It wasn’t just her though.

I was 100% part of this unhealthy dynamic too.

Why do you think I hid my anger for the first 3.5 years of our relationship, even from myself? 🤔

Because I was shamed, guilt-tripped and manipulated as a kid to think that I shouldn’t feel angry.

And if I did, then it was MY fault… not the other person’s.

So without even realising it, I buried my anger deeeeeeeep inside me where no one, not even me, would find it.

As a result, I misled her into thinking that I wasn’t an angry guy.

Why?

Because it didn’t feel safe (due to my childhood) to feel anger.

Interesting, right?

In reality though…

it wasn’t her fault for choosing a guy who “didn’t get angry” or my fault for not revealing or expressing my anger in the early days of the relationship.

We were just 2 dysregulated (and traumatised) people trying to make a relationship work…

…but without a nuanced understanding of the nervous system and the survival (fight/flight/freeze) response), we were lost at sea without a map or a compass.

This is a great example of how the nervous system messes with our romantic relationships 😣

We think we’re coming in with a clean slate.

We think we’re interacting directly with the person we’ve chosen to be with.

We might even think that “love conquers all”.

But in reality, both partners come in with a surprising amount of dysfunctional scripts, programs and emotions that were created during our childhood.

For example…

If, like me, you were made to feel bad for feeling angry as a kid, then you may have a tendency to disconnect from and suppress your anger.

Maybe your parents sent you to your room when you were angry… or perhaps the teacher sent you to detention.

The specifics aren’t all that important.

What’s important is that we learned that this feeling, this ANGER, is wrong.

Worse yet…

Since we don’t have direct control over our anger, we’ll assume that if anger is wrong, then it means we are wrong. That something is wrong with US 😓

And that’s just one emotion!

Think about my ex partner.

Her Dad was angry and made her feel unsafe, misunderstood and vulnerable.

Unconsciously, she then sought relationships where the guy didn’t get angry…

…but unbeknownst to her, guys who don’t get angry are actually just guys who suppress their anger…

…and that means that sooner or later, that anger is going come out.

And since it’s been suppressed for so many years, it’s probably not going to come out in the most graceful way…

…which means she unintentionally recreates the circumstances of her childhood, where she’s with a guy who gets angry and makes her feel unsafe.

I did something similar.

By suppressing my anger, I ended up with a woman who didn’t like anger.

Then when I finally started expressing it, she didn’t like it and I ended up feeling like something was wrong with me for feeling angry (yet again), thereby recreating the same situation from my childhood.

This is known as “trauma reenactment” – where we recreate the original circumstances that caused our pain in order to gain a sense of mastery over it 😐

Does this make sense?

It all goes back to the nervous system… and like I said, this is just one emotion:

Anger.

Then there’s sadness.

It’s (usually) ok for girls to cry but so often, boys get told that “boys don’t cry”.

What does that do to the authentic and healthy sadness that some men have?

On the other hand, it’s (usually) ok for boys to get angry but not girls.

What does that do to the authentic and healthy anger that some women have?

What about a child who develops a belief that something is wrong with it?

What happens when they turn 35 and have a difficult conversion with their parter that triggers their childhood shame?

Do they react from the healthiest place, taking the feedback onboard and mending any tears in the relationship?

Or do they lash out in order to protect themselves and restore a felt sense of safety?

I’ve mentioned this before.

I’ve talked about confronting people over some mistake and instead of responding in a mature way, they attack me 😡

They resort to manipulation, guilt-tripping and minimisation.

“It’s not THAT big of a deal… grow up.”

“But I’ve done so much for you!”

“That’s not what really happened… you’re the one at fault here.”

Why do they respond in this way?

Because they’re feeling ashamed, they don’t like it and by telling a story about how you’re the one at fault instead of them, they don’t have to feel ashamed anymore.

As I keep saying…

This ALL comes back to the nervous system and the work I do at Rageheart.

If these people had worked through their shame… if they’d cried the tears they need to cry… if they’d learned to work with their aggression, discharging it in healthy ways… if they’d brought safety, regulation and flow to their nervous system…

…they wouldn’t need to attack, abuse and manipulate the people around them to feel better.

This is how the nervous system messes with our romantic relationships 😤

We think we’re reacting to the present situation in our relationships… but so often, we’re reacting to the unresolved feelings in our nervous system that the present situation triggers.

If you confront me over some mistake I made, instead of simply feeling a little healthy shame over the fact that I made a mistake, I might end up feeling all the toxic shame of my childhood.

If that happens, I might believe you’re saying that I’m a monster… not realising that you never actually said those words to me… not realising that if I’m using those words, it means there’s a subconscious belief IN ME that I am a monster (fueled by the unresolved toxic shame in my nervous system).

Fascinating, right?

This is one reason why I believe in nervous system healing so freaking much.

Because so much of what ails us in our relationships is not the other person but all the unresolved shit from our past that lives in our nervous system 🤯

If we don’t resolve it on our own terms – by learning to feel, express and emote – we will use the people around us to feel better.

But while that might help in the moment, all it does is perpetuate the same feelings.

When parents shame their kids to avoid feeling their own shame, it doesn’t get rid of the shame… it just passes their shame onto their kids.

Then if the kids don’t deal with it, they’ll do the same to their kids… and those kids will do the same to their kids.

When partners do it to each other, they’re not getting rid of it. They’re just forcing it onto the other person.

It’s not my fault. It’s YOUR fault.

If that person doesn’t deal with it, they’ll pass it onto the people around them. Their kids. Their next relationship. Their friends.

On and on it goes…

…from our ancestors, through us and into future generations…

…until someone stands up and says ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

This is why I started Rageheart.

It’s why I write these emails.

It’s why I do the monthly Rumble.

And it’s why I built The Rageheart Academy.

To help people who have finally realized that…

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

So…

How’s that for a lighthearted Weekly Growl?

If you’re sick and tired of your past messing with your present – in your relationships, in your work and in your life – stick with me.

Keep reading these emails.

Come to the next Rumble (2 weeks from now).

And when you’re ready, join me inside The Rageheart Academy and learn how to purge all the bullshit from your nervous system.

Cheers,

John Wood

P.S. As always… consider this your weekly reminder to Rage.

One part of Rageheart is simply new perspectives, like what’s in this email. A new way to look at your life and your relationships. A new way to see yourself.

Another part is the practical aspect.

That’s where you learn to work directly with your nervous system.

One place to do that is inside The Rageheart Academy.

Another place is wherever you are right now.

Simply look around the room you’re in and see if it’s safe.

Then feel the ground.

Then notice your breath.

It all starts there.

Don’t underestimate basic practices like these…

…they might sound simple, but if you really commit to them and make them a part of your life, you will be amazed by how far they take you.

Almost 4 years into my nervous system journey, these 3 things – ground, environment and breath – are still the core of my practice.

So give it a try… and let me know how you go.

Peace ✌️

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