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Love Smoke Alarms

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Love Smoke Alarms: Time to get out the manual.

Written by Jill Fischer of on April 21, 2014 in Therapy

Have you ever been in a building where a loud fire alarm goes off unexpectedly? You feel an adrenaline rush. Your heart thumps loudly while your brain struggles to catch up and figure out whether there is danger: Is this a real fire? Is it a fire drill? Did someone play a prank? Can I get out? What should I do?

But did you know that there is a part of your brain that is on the alert for dangers to your emotional wellbeing, and in particular, threats to your connection to the people you love?As mammals, our emotional survival is closely linked with our physical survival. We don’t do well when our physical needs are met but our need to be loved is not. In fact, we fail to thrive.Because it is so essential to our survival, the same built-in warning system that alerts us to physical danger also alerts us to possible threats to our emotional connection to our loved one.(If you question whether your own emotional survival depends on being connected to another, consider this: why is complete social isolation the most serious form of punishment used in prisons? Even the most hardened criminals need to feel some basic sense of human connection.)I like to think of this warning system as a kind of “love smoke” alarm. Just like the smoke alarm in your kitchen, it is quietly monitoring your relationship to see if there is any danger to this fundamental human need to be loved. It is asking, “Is everything okay? Are we good?” This is outside of awareness, but it is always there.


What trips off these love smoke alarms? 

Here are some examples:

  •  You share something heartfelt, something very important to you with your partner. His eyes glaze over and he yawns.
  • You are looking forward to seeing your partner at the end of the day. You pull into the driveway just in time to see her get into the car, nod briefly in your direction, call out something about going to the gym, and drive off.
  • Your partner says something that implies that you are lazy and not contributing enough to the household.
  • You are at your spouse’s office party. You know no one and feel very uncomfortable. Your spouse goes off to bring you a drink and gets sidetracked into a lively conversation with a group of co-workers, laughing and joking, seeming to forget all about you.

It may be just a whiff of smoke, but our detectors, in the form of our emotions, say, “Danger! Something is wrong!”

What trips off yours?

Just as sometimes a kitchen smoke alarm may go off without any visible signs of smoke in the room, some people have love smoke alarms that are more sensitive to “smoke” in their relationships. They may easily pick something up that they interpret as worrisome, thus setting off their love smoke alarm.

When their smoke alarm goes off, it often sounds like anger, criticism, or perhaps a quiet but negative “vibe.”

Other people seem to have removed the battery from their love smoke alarms, noticing very little in the way of danger signals in the relationship. For these people only the heat of the flames licking at their heels, usually in the form of their partner’s shrill smoke alarm, gets their attention.

These folks are prone to try harder to “take the battery out” by distancing from their partner’s warning signals, (and their own emotional responses to them!), which usually looks like shutting down or defensiveness.

Let’s go to the first example given above:

I share something heartfelt and important with my husband. His eyes glaze over and he yawns.

Depending on how connected we’ve been recently, my love smoke alarm will either go off internally, with me telling myself something like, “Wow. It looks like he’s not interested in what I have to say. Ouch. Well, maybe he’s just tired. I know he’s been under a lot of stress at work. We had a nice connection time this morning. No big deal.” And that’s the end of it.

However, let’s say we’ve been more disconnected than usual and this comes after a series of such “misses.” I might say, with some irritation, “Hey! Are you listening? You seem really checked out! This is important to me!”

That in turn sets his love smoke alarm off as he suddenly realizes there is “smoke” in the form of my being upset and his having done something to cause it.

His smoke alarm sounds like irritated denial, insisting that he  was listening, and defensiveness about my presuming to know whether he was listening or not. He protects himself and counteracts my smoke with… guessed it: smoke!

His irritation then adds more smoke to the air for my smoke alarm to react to, likely sounding off a more urgent alarm from mine (more angry, upset), which ups the ante for his smoke alarm, setting it off again, and on and on it can go.

The tricky part is that most of us aren’t aware of what we’re doing that sends smoke signals to the other. (See my coming “green thing” blog.)

It is the way that the alarm signals come through—irritation, anger, silence, defensiveness–that adds more smoke to the air, intensifying the urgency and the sense of emotional danger on both sidesThese are not moments of feeling happy, relaxed and at ease. Your brain is busy dealing with signals that it encodes as dangerous to your survival!

The problem is that each person’s reactions to the other’s smoke alarms creates more smoke (and more alarm) for the other,  and it just gets worse!

To use another metaphor, it’s like two people suddenly standing up in a canoe at the same time. The stability in that moment feels shaky. Both people reactively struggle to get the thing back in balance, but without good communication it can lead the canoe to tip over all together!

What to do? Study the manual for your love smoke alarms!

While reading manuals can be a real drag, one way or another you both need to learn more about your own and your partner’s love smoke alarm systems. The key is to better understand the kind of “danger” signals each of your smoke alarms is picking up, and to learn to help each other in these moments of distress.

You could start by reading “Hold Me Tight” or “Love Sense” by Sue Johnson, attending a Hold Me Tight workshop for couples,  getting help from an emotionally focused couples therapist, or keeping an eye out for more of my blogs to come on the subject. These will all give you more of an understanding of these confusing and troubling places you get into.

In the meantime, here are a few tips to get you going in the right direction:

  1. Remember that you both want the same thing—to feel loved and valued. You both hate it when you get disconnected this way. Your love smoke alarms are saying, “Something very precious to me is in danger!” Saying something like, “I’m feeling worried that we are so disconnected right now and I don’t know what to do” can go a long way toward sending a safety message rather than a danger message.
  2. Do not blame your partner for the type of love smoke alarm he or she has. It is not their fault! We don’t CHOOSE the type of alarm system we have. It comes from a combination of temperament and life experiences. Blaming only adds more smoke!Express a willingness to learn more about what you’re doing that is impacting your partner. Saying something like, “I’m probably doing something I’m not aware of right now that is fueling your upset” says that you care and want to understand what that is even if you don’t yet get it.
  3.  Imagine this: It is possible to learn to respond to one another’s smoke alarm signals quickly and in a way that restores your warm loving connection feeling stronger than ever! Time spent on the “manual,” on learning more about yourselves and each other and what you each need at these moments, will be time well spent!

This response process happens instantly. It is natures’ built in warning system that is designed to ensure your survival. Your emotions say, “Take notice!!! There could be danger nearby!!!”and you determine whether to call for help, flee or find protection. This instinct can save your life! In fact, it is designed to do just that.

About Jill Fischer

Jill Fischer, LICSW, is a seasoned couples therapist with thirty years in the field. She is a certified supervisor and therapist of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and is certified in the Gottman Method. Her private practice in Lebanon, NH, is devoted exclusively to couples.
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