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You want to protect your marriage.

But what if protecting your marriage is actually causing you deeper relationship troubles?


This blog about marriage communication will help you:

  • identify why fear is making it difficult to communicate with your spouse.
  • improve your marriage communication.

Does this sound familiar?: Sex has slipped into last place because you’re both so tired at the end of the day, so you say to your spouse, “I made reservations at that cute AirBnB down the street. I thought we could leave work early Friday and meet there.”

“Are you crazy?” your spouse says, “We can’t afford that.”

You feel rejected.

It might be true that money is tight and an AirBnB isn’t a wise expenditure at this time in your marriage, but you wanted your spouse to at least agree with the idea. You wanted your spouse to communicate they care by assuring you: We can’t afford an AirBnB, but we could make a nice dinner and share a bottle of wine.

The good news is that when your spouse rejects your offer in favor of protecting your future, it means your marriage matters to them. Protection and balancing budgets are just lousy forms of communication.

Protecting the bank account is a favorite strategy of our inner lizard brain.

This lizard brain is the oldest part of your brain, and it sends out alerts of impending danger. Think back to our ancient ancestors and the trouble they had when every morsel of food was either hunted or gathered. It’s the lizard brain that alerted our ancestors to danger and protected them from starvation or freezing to death.

This lizard brain—which is still here alerting you to trouble—is wrecking your marriage. Because the protection it offers is a killjoy.

Don't hide from marriage communication.

Don’t hide from marriage communication.

How the lizard brain was born: a slice of life in ancestor relationships

Hota is a fabulous hunter. Hota is strong and brings a giant beast home to the cave to be munched and digested. Because all that Hota does is hunt and eat, though, Hota is lonely in the cave.

Mota lives outside. Mota is fabulous at finding a wide variety of berries in the woods. Mota is well-fed, but gets cold and feels lonely in the expansive darkness of night.

Out hunting one day, Hota came upon Mota picking berries. “What are you doing?” Hota asked, because relationship communication was a thing even before farming or indoor plumbing.

“Picking berries,” Mota replied. “Want some?”

Hota had never had anything so delicious, and Hota asked Mota to come to the cave. “It’s so warm, here,” said Mota, emptying a pocket full of berries onto a flat stone.

Mota and Hota got married and celebrated their relationship by wandering—full-bellied and warm—under the stars. The stars were fascinating to both of them because, before they met, neither of them had time to look up. They were both too busy hunting and gathering. Now they both saw the world anew and it sparkled. Their marriage thrived.


Mota began to get bored of the cave, “It’s hot and cramped in here.”

And Hota was sick of never having time alone, “These berries leave me hungry.”

But when Mota left to find a new berry bush, Hota cried out, “Don’t leave me!”

And when Hota left to go hunting, Mota cried out, “Don’t leave me!”

It didn’t take long for Hota and Mota to grow accustomed to this dazzling new relationship. The same is true for you and your spouse. When you were dating, risks were a natural part of the equation because what you wanted was still out of reach. Once you got married, however, you assimilated that relationship and your lizard jumped into protection mode.

How wanting-energy becomes having-energy, and why our lizard kills sexual chemistry.

Wanting brain is different from having brain. When we want something we don’t have—like a marriage or something to eat—we are willing to risk going out of the cave. But once we have something to eat or the relationship we crave, we switch motivations.

Then we want to protect that door to the cave and not let in intruders. They might eat our berries or steal our spouse.

When you are in wanting mode, you’re willing to take risks. When you are in protection mode, you are risk-averse. Sexual chemistry is fueled by the excitement of risk-taking.

Risk taking is one of the things that made dating and falling in love with your spouse exciting. It’s fun to explore life beyond the cave. Before you got married, when you both learned to ski, you and your spouse were just like Hota and Mota: stargazing and falling in love.

Now you’ve got that married-house and you know how to ski, so you no longer want those things. It’s not that you don’t want to be married. It’s that wanting energy has been co-opted by your protective lizard who guards against any threat to your relationship.

Wanting energy is fueled by new experiences and the excitement of discovering the unknown.

The more comfortable your marriage gets, the more vigilant your lizard gets about protecting that relationship.

Your lizard brain, just by doing its job, has killed all the spontaneity in your relationship. Your communication has shrunk to survival mode, and there’s no time to go stargazing.

How can you keep this lizard brain from ruining your marriage?

Be kind to your lizard.

When you suggest to your spouse that you try learning to salsa dance, meet their protective lizard with gentle kindness. “You might twist an ankle,” their lizard says.

Talk softly in reassuring tones that speak directly to the fears of that protective lizard. I know you’re afraid of trying something new. But part of staying safe in this relationship is keeping this marriage exciting. We need to brave the unknown occasionally.

Invite excitement back into your marriage by wanting more out of your relationship.

As hard as you try, you won’t be able to silence that lizard brain. That evolutionary wonder has been with us for millennium. Instead of warring with your lizard, welcome this protective friend into your marriage and make friends with it. Tame the terror.

Try this:

Notice what you want to create vs. what you’re trying to protect. When you back away from your spouse, or when your spouse shuts down your relationship communication, try to identify the fear that has put you in protection mode.

Revive your want. There was a time when you came home to an empty house, or didn’t have that singular person who wanted to celebrate and cry with you. Before you were married, you wanted to belong to that kind of relationship. Now that you have the relationship you wanted long ago, notice and enjoy that you have what you want rather than leaping straight to protective mode for fear of losing it. Savor what you have as if you still want it.

Bottom line: Let those lizard fears identify the spots in your relationship that feel vulnerable. Ask your spouse for patience. Communicate your fear with a message of reassurance: I love our life. I’m nervous to explore the big, wide world because I don’t want to lose our tiny corner of it.

Then be Mota. Take Hota’s hand and go out stargazing.

(cover photo by Jim Cox)

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