8 months post D day. I’m the WS.

I don’t know how to stop shutting down emotionally when my wife elevates. I can say the right thing but the emotion isn’t there. Last night she had a full on meltdown. The more elevated she got, the more numb I was. 

How do I feel at all when shutting down is so automatic?
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There are three key ways to deal with severe stress - fight, flight or FREEZE.  FREEZE  is your safety mechanism of choice.  To stay present with her will take a LOT of practice.  This is an internal habit that is very hardwired in you.  You likely learned this in early childhood as a means of self-protection when people were angry with you or expressing disappointment in you.  A way of warding off the feelings of shame and not being good enough.

It won't get fixed overnight.  Here's a couple suggestions that I think will help you - and by extension, your wife - a LOT.

1) Talk about it when she is NOT melting down.  Let her into your head.  Tell her the cycling thoughts, the disconnection to your emotions you feel when it happens, etc.  Most of us BS WANT to understand our spouse's better.  We will try very hard to meet you half way.  But we need to understand what you are experiencing in order to do that.  Let her know that you aren't proud of this - that you know it is hurtful and that you are trying to learn ways to stay present.  Even letting her into your struggles is a bridge.  

2) During one of these talks, establish some practice that you BOTH agree on, that can give you a minute to try to bring yourself back to the present and reduce the physical stress that is pushing you to FREEZE.  Many of the same techniques that help stop or reduce panic attacks will work here (your body is experiencing something very similar.)  I might suggest starting with a deep breathing technique.  I need to look it up, so I will post it later.  But lets say, it is taking a deep breath for a count of 7, then holding it for 4 and then blowing out your nose for another 7.  And repeating this 5 times. 

If you'd talked about this BEFORE - she'd understand when you are having a scary conversation and you suddenly say, "I really want to stay present for this and be here for you right now, but I can feel a freeze coming on.  Can we do the deep breathing technique together and then continue our conversation?"  She will recognize that this isn't something you are doing to try and get out of the conversation (which she likely needs) but instead, you are trying to work with you own self not to run away (even if it is only on the inside.)  Not only will this allow your body to recognize that a tiger is NOT, in fact, approaching and begin to cycle the stress response down - but if she joins you in the practice - it could help her feel more calm when expressing her thoughts and needs.  It also puts you on the SAME team - not two fighters entering the ring.  But two people helping each other to have a productive discussion.  

3) Now for TWO BIG ONES.  First - Start asking her how she's feeling and if she needs to talk about anything LONG before she cycles.  This means when she looks like she feels fine.  And when you notice a little storm crosses her face, but hope it is related to work and not you. etc.  When she gets a little too quiet in the car or watching TV.  In the beginning this might need to be more than once a day... but at least once a day.  

I cannot stress enough what a game changer it will be.  Every time you do it you are literally handing her a Hallmark card that says - "I love you.  Your well-being matters to me.  I am willing to talk about something that makes me feel scared and ashamed because your happiness is more important than my comfort."  Given that infidelity is the exact opposite (a selfish choice) - it tells us we matter again.  That you really ARE sorry.  That there might be a glimmer of hope that you really are changing and that you mean it when you say you don't ever want to hurt us like that again. 

4) Try to listen to how she is feeling, what she is thinking - without getting defensive or making excuses.  Trust me, I know how hard this is.  But these last two tips I have given you are what saved my marriage and made it really, really happy.  It took my husband almost 18 months to master the art of not shutting down or getting defensive... but when he did - my healing went into hyper-drive.  I felt safe with him in a way that i hadn't since DD.  It made our love and commitment swell.  He started listening to me to UNDERSTAND rather than RESPOND.  He stopped thinking about how to protect himself but how to "hear" me.  And there is NOTHING he could have done that could have helped me more.  

I know so many WSs feel like they've said sorry sooooo many times.  They feel like they've listened and heard what we are feeling ad nauseum.  And they likely have.  In the early days (first 12-18 months) - our need to hear sorry and feel understood is almost insatiable.  Because while you are freezing... we are typically squelching a desire to run away nearly every day, multiple times a day.  The act of staying and finding love again with someone who hurt you on this level is bravery of a monumental level.  It feels like hanging off a cliff and at any moment you could fall.  It feels this way for a REALLY long time.

So, we need your expressions of love, of care, or being willing to examine the hows and whys of making those choices, your willingness to make changes that seem punitive (sharing passwords, restricted going out, etc) not to control you - but to still the rising fear that we will get sucker-punched again. 

Have you ever seen a dog at a shelter that has been abused?  They cower in the corner, jump at the sound of human's voices, refuse to take food they are STARVING for out of fear to get too close to the source of their pain (humans) etc.  As dramatic as it sounds, I now know first hand.. that is what a new BS is like.  Their faith in the WORLD as being a safe place is shattered.  Their trust in themselves is non-existent because they were the one who trusted you in the first place.  

But if you've ever worked with abused animals, you will see their will to live and love is STRONG.  They want to be well, they want to trust again - they want to be happy.  They are not cowering or refusing food because they are being dramatic, or trying to punish you.  They are doing it from their own unrelenting fear.

So if you can be very, very careful, very loving and very patient... they will blossom.  But it will be on THEIR time, not yours.  And so, you will have to dig deep and find wells of strength, resilience and patience you didn't know you had.  But the rewards are sweet.  You have the peace of mind of knowing you helped be the solution - not just the problem.  And you watch someone you love regain their capacity for love, joy and happiness. 

Good luck.  I hope some of this helps.  And if you are interested in learning more about the breathing technique I mentioned just DM me and I will send it.
BS - Female
Married 27 years, one adult child
DD May 2016

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” - V Frankl
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Thank you. This is a lot of helpful context and advice. 
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