It’s easy to listen to your partner when you’re happy with each other. When trust is strong, even criticism doesn’t hurt.
It’s not as easy when you are in conflict. Your wonderful partner is now being stubborn, wrong, or unfair—sometimes all three. Frustration grows, then anger, at hearing yet one more demand from your not-so-wonderful-after-all sweetheart. You think, No more putting up with this and you respond, “Hey, if we’re going to talk about problems, let’s talk about what you did yesterday…”
And away we go.
Gottman calls this attack/defend pattern between couples an “absorbing state of negativity… These unlucky partners are imprisoned in a roach motel for lovers: they check in, but they can’t check out.”
It comes with raised voices (or cold silences), rolled eyes, and harsh tones—too many ways for a couple to sink into the quicksand of battle.
But it’s all fueled by the one trap that takes place inside your head: “Courtroom Brain.”
Disorder Inside of the Courtroom Brain
Courtroom Brain is a term I coined to describe that part of you that negatively judges your partner. It exists in the first place to protect you, telling you to take care of yourself. Charlie said he’d pick up the groceries after work, but he forgets things! You’ll have to remind him. Again. This part of your brain tells you not to trust Charlie because if you relax your guard, you’ll be disappointed. After all, it’s happened before.
The Courtroom Brain comes with a judge. This internal judge invites you to air your grievances.
Your Honor, I’m tired of reminding him. He’s not a child and I’m not his mother. He’ll call me a nag and give me that impatient look. And if I don’t remind him? You know he’ll forget to stop at the store and then blame me for not reminding him.
You can’t simply lock the door to the Courtroom Brain. That door swings open whenever your partner triggers you by doing something upsetting. It’s remaining in Courtroom Brain that’s the trap and where you have a choice, as you’ll see later.
Once you’re in front of the judge… well, you’ve got a case to present! And your original complaint often looks rather thin. So, you look for more evidence that Charlie is thoughtless. If you look for evidence that your partner is flawed, you will find it.
Your Honor, last week Charlie ate the pie I told him I had set aside. So, he’s thoughtless and selfish!
And so it goes. Once you’re in Courtroom Brain, it readily feeds itself. Think about it. You are actively rehearsing bad thoughts about the one who is probably the most important person in your world.
Notice how this fits the adversarial feeling of a courtroom. After all, courtrooms are not known for helping people be friends. The Courtroom Brain creates stories, but not just any stories. They are stories of resentment. My partner hurt me and could have avoided it. If only they had been more [thoughtful/kind/loving/responsible], but they weren’t!” You rarely see resentment because you think you are just getting in touch with your anger, which is a legitimate feeling.
Anger vs Resentment
It’s surprising to many to realize that anger is an expression of emotion where you seek connection with your partner. See me! Pay attention. This matters to me. If done correctly, anger is an invitation to take a conversation deeper. This is important. I actually want us to talk, and I’m willing to hang in there. What about you?
But resentment does the opposite. It stops the conversation. It lashes out, pushes away, and punishes your partner, saying, You’re broken! It proves you don’t care! You clearly have important emotions to express (fear? sadness?), but resentment hides those feelings under a very negative story—the story of your partner failing you.
Resentment = Courtroom Brain
It’s too easy to confuse anger and resentment (hence the trap). This is why I invite couples to use the term “Courtroom Brain” instead of “resentment” because then it is easier to remember that
Anger is a feeling.
Resentment is a story.
One of those you get to use; the other uses you.
Anger invites exploration. Resentment shuts down.
So how do you exit Courtroom Brain? Remember, this is in your own head. Whatever your partner did, they are not responsible for what’s going on in your head. Again, taking care of yourself is NOT the same thing as attacking your partner. Only you can challenge your unfair judgments.
How to Exit the Courtroom
First, confront the lies. Just as you can find any flaw in your partner if you look for it, you can also remember the genuine qualities you love about your mate. When you catch your Courtroom Brain saying to you, Charlie is so thoughtless, stop and ask yourself, What are three examples of how thoughtful Charlie is?
You now have the opportunity to feel less trapped. When you’re not strangled by your own resentment, do you truly believe that Charlie is the poster child for “thoughtlessness”? If you do believe that, then get to a therapist quick. Otherwise, it’s only when you’re not resentful that you can ask your partner to listen to you and be present with your struggles.
Secondly, humanize your partner. If your hostile thoughts are screaming how selfish your partner is, stop and ask yourself, Are they really selfish? Have I, by any chance, ever been selfish towards them? The moment you ask this, it’s hard not to honor that, of course sometimes, you’re selfish—just like your partner is being selfish now. In other words, your partner is a flawed human being just like you, just like everyone. How can you resent that? You acknowledge that your partner did something you didn’t like, but that doesn’t mean they are a criminal to be ripped apart in court. With this approach, your partner is no longer your enemy.
Mercy in the Court
That’s the saving grace of refusing to remain in your Courtroom Brain. If your partner is your enemy, you won’t really try to talk things out. If you refuse to live in resentment, if you remember that your partner is part of your heart, then it’s possible to speak up (firmly but kindly) and say, “We need to talk.”
Exiting the Courtroom Brain makes it easier to stand up for yourself, while not standing up against your partner. And doesn’t that have possibilities?
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