“Embrace the suck” is warrior slang. It’s the language of self-discipline and shared meaningful suffering. It isn’t merely sarcastic; it’s a reminder of the importance of commitment, confidence, and courage.
Thanks to researchers such as John Gottman, Brent J. Atkinson, Amy Cuddy, Brene Brown, Eli Finkel, Brian Ogolsky, and many others, science-based couples therapists can help hurt partners manage predictable triggers after their partner’s infidelity has been discovered or disclosed.
While every story of infidelity is unique, with distinct triggers and toxic narratives, the research on how trust is torn down and rebuilt has shown us the path back to repair, empathy, and connection.
There’s no “getting over” infidelity, there’s only getting through, and that means you must find the courage and the grit to embrace the suck.
Neuroscience tells us that our brains are conditioned to respond to certain challenges in particular ways. Our brains do this by propelling us into pre-determined templates of thinking and action.
Here’s a scary idea.
When we find ourselves in the middle of these automatic responses, we’re physiologically activated, and often lose our capacity to independently choose our own responses. This happens when a Hurt Partner is triggered.
Our experiences in early life highly influence our future ability to self-regulate and choose our emotional and cognitive state.
In order to respond differently, we need to change our state. Embracing the Suck is a behavioral stance toward that end. Learning how to change your state is the first task of Affair Recovery; Hurt Partner Stabilization. Good science-based couples therapy can teach you what to do, and help you to install the ability into your nervous system.
But unless you Embrace the Suck, you will always defer to the automatic program that you are unfortunately choosing to run instead.
The “Embrace the Suck” meme is American military slang, as crude as it is concise, Embrace the Suck encapsulates a spiritual truth. Accepting what is beyond our control, and doing everything within our purview to achieve the best outcome. Soldiers on a battlefield must face what is in front of them, and so must hurt partners.
Embracing the Suck for Hurt Partners is consciously accepting that triggers are unpleasant and unavoidable.
I’m delighted to see more couples therapists discussing the importance of the Embrace the Suck meme, but I haven’t seen anyone try to describe an Embrace the Suck stance toward trigger management. But there are a number of methods, and that will be the subject of this blog post.
One compelling way to Embrace the Suck is the research by Amy Cuddy. Dr. Cuddy is a social psychologist, award-winning Harvard lecturer, and an expert on the behavioral science of power, presence, and prejudice.
Her 2012 TED Talk, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are,” was named by The Guardian as ‘One of 20 Online Talks that Could Change Your Life,’ has been viewed more than 50 million times and is the second-most-viewed TED Talk of all time.
Her research is not without controversy. Dr. Cuddy’s research on body language reveals that we can alter our mood and even our own body chemistry by merely changing body positions.
It may sound unbelievable, but when you assume the assured body language of “Wonder Woman”, or the “Superman” arms akimbo pose you can literally change your body chemistry. Postures which are open, expansive, and occupy space can change how you respond to the stress of a trigger.
“How we move, think and feel have an impact on the stress response through real neural connections.” Peter Strick Neuroscientist.
Use the body language that corresponds best to the emotional attitude you’d most want to become a habit.
Stand up straighter to project more confidence. Lean back to relax more fully.
Amy Cuddy explains how her research has expanded how our body. Our body poses can dilute negative emotion, and make it easier to Embrace the Suck.
Within a few minutes, after assuming a power-pose, some study subjects reduced their cortisol levels by a whopping 25%.
Our non-verbal body language can direct how we think and feel about ourselves. Amy’s work may offer a powerful tool for Hurt Partners to help down-regulate their nervous systems.
This is interesting research. I feel that Dr. Cuddy was unfairly ganged up on by male colleagues who found her work challenging to replicate, but many of her ideas have been backed up in more recent studies.
The key idea is this…our bodies can change our minds, our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes.
There is a very specific stance that’s associated with embracing the suck, and it is this: verbally complain, but with tonality and body language that convey positivity and totally contradict the negativity of your words.
If you and your partner are both invested in staying together and rebuilding trust, here’s some science to help you.
Science-based couples therapy continues to become informed by neuroscience. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, the most exhausting study in the field, has taught us three essential facts about the human condition.
“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” ― Ursula K. Le Guin
Gottman, in his book The Science of Trust, concluded that loneliness is (in no small part) the inability to trust.
Atkinson might wisely point out that early childhood experience might trigger an inconsolable state.
Unfortunately, the state of failing to rebuild trust tends to perpetuate itself.
For when we don’t trust, over time, neuroscience tells us that we will become less able to read other people and may even acquire an empathy deficit.
“Lonely people are caught in a spiral that keeps them away from others, partly because they withdraw to avoid the potential hurt that could occur from trusting the wrong person. So they trust nobody, even the trustworthy.” John Gottman
This spiral is an automatic program that impedes our ability to self-soothe, change our state, and Embrace the Suck.
According to both researchers, it’s rather the small, daily interactions that build trust up and break it down.
These are the trivial, seemingly inconsequential day-to-day interactions we have over breakfast while riding in the car or sitting in the kitchen at midnight. Embedded within every singular act of communication, there is an ongoing opportunity to build trust and repair the connection.
What we don’t repair…we repeat. Gottman calls these the “sliding door moments.” The moments that could go either way. Our relationships do not die from one swift blow. They die from the thousands of little attachment injuries that precede it.
We all have a baseline risk tolerance informed by our families of origin.
Brene Brown’s research describes how she sees the paradox of trust: we must risk vulnerability in order to build trust, and simultaneously, it is the building of trust that inspires vulnerability.
And she recommends cultivating a delicate balance, one where we are kind in our assumptions of others and simultaneously able to set firm boundaries as a means to maintain our trust in fellow man.
Good couples therapists are paying more attention to the emotional brain.
The briefest and most effective couples therapy models “zero in on retooling beliefs and behavior” according to Brent Atkinson.
Treat Triggers “as if they had a mind of their own.”
Treat them with courtesy and respect. When a client can be “curious instead of furious” The opportunity for insight is unlimited. This is the moment of Coup D’oeil.
According to Atkinson, when a couple in therapy can hold a “not knowing…what’s this? kind of stance, they can better learn how to shift and change.
When one of my clients struggles with triggers during a session, I’d rather explore the feeling first before layering on options for thinking and acting differently. But acting differently can lead also to thinking differently.
Here’s why you benefit from assuming that triggers have a mind of their own. When you’re little, your relationship with your caregivers shapes a part of your brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is conditioned earlier than the other, more recent parts of your brain.
During the stress of a trigger, another part of the brain has a role in creating memories. The hippocampus can become overwhelmed with massive levels of stress hormones to the point where it can no longer hold short-term memories (Siegal, 1999). If this stress hormone assault continues, it can result in the death of neurons in the hippocampus (Siegal, 1999) or even cause the hippocampus to shrink in size (Bremner & Narayan, 1998).
As the hippocampus shrinks and fails to process memories as efficiently, the repeated introduction of stress hormones kicks the amygdala into overdrive (LeDoux, 1996). The amygdala gets dibs on all incoming information before it goes to the shiny new neocortex.
The bottom line is that the amygdala can create emotional memories and emotional reactions without any significant cognitive contribution. In other words, your deep inner brain will keep triggering you much more quickly than you can even decide whether or not that is a good idea.
When it comes to trigger management…this persistent neurological hijacking is the suck you are being invited to embrace.
Relatively new research by research psychologist Richard Davidson and many others have discovered the critical role of the left side of the prefrontal cortex.
This newer part of the brain is the traffic cop between the cognitive and limbic parts of the brain.
An essential goal of Affair Recovery is to help both partners to activate their pre-frontal lobes so they can safely shift from anger and fear and into feelings of vulnerability and grief.
The important thing is this; change can’t happen without noticing first. To Embrace the Suck, the suck must first be noticed.
But not in a state of being startled or fearful. Notice when you are triggered. Externalize the feeling. Jot down external and internal triggers in a notebook. Treat these triggers are mildly unwelcome guests. They are the suck that you embrace. Treat the suck like a drunk in a bar. Loud. Rude. But harmless.
Your amygdala will trigger you without your permission or consent. Personalizing emotional states is a neat trick in affair recovery. Research tells us that when we create a “personhood” in our imagination (in this example a drunk in a bar for an infidelity trigger), we can psychodynamically engage with the emotion with more creativity.
The fireworks of the amygdala will always go off long before you open the picnic basket of cognition. Stop trying to fight science. Your best thinking will only work when you’re calm. Restoring calm to the nervous system is always your first task.
That’s why it’s so important that you notice how you are triggered, and the emotional stories about your old wounds that get re-visited.
Approach the drunk in the bar with respectful curiosity. What story are they telling? Listen deeply to your triggers as you would someone who you just met for the first time.
Post-modern thinking on “reality” was preceded by John Gottman’s research on memories and stories.
Memories are an ongoing process. They change and evolve over time. When a relationship ends, at least one partner has a new narrative.
This sums up our struggle with the fundamental attribution error (FAE).
Our FAE speaks to our tendency to believe that our spouses do bad things because they are bad people.
Negative sentiment override makes it easy to ignore evidence to the contrary. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we also have a blind spot.
We tend to minimize or overlook what our behaviors say about our character.
In other words, we’re inclined to give ourselves a pass while not extending the same courtesy to our partner.
“We are meaning-making machines wired for survival. Anytime something bad happens, we scramble to make up a story, and our brain does not care if the story is right or wrong, and most likely, it is wrong.” Dr. Brene Brown.
We create a “partner in our head.” Then we put them into a story and then we let the story decide how we will treat our partner. The moment we have a hero, the villain shows up. The narrative becomes inhabited by partners in our heads.
Neuroscience taught couples therapist something kinda scary. It’s why a real couples therapist doesn’t play “find the bad guy.” I think Tatkin put it most directly:
“We are mostly misunderstanding each other much of the time, and if we assume our communication, memory, and perception is the real truth, that is hubris.” Stan Tatkin.
We can choose Amor Fati, to love our fate by first taking control of our perceptions, and then by turning our new paradigm into action. Holiday writes, “Once you see the world as it is, for what it is, you must act.”
Brene Brown suggests employing the “Embrace the Suck” meme by noticing what is sucking us into the vortex our automatic, storied responses.
Both Gottman and Brown were influenced by the Stone Center’s Strategies of Disconnection, which posited that human beings respond in one of three ways when hurt: by moving against the source of the pain, moving away… or moving toward.
Brown and Gottman share the Stone Center’s strategies of disconnection model, but each has a different emphasis.
Brown’s gaze is more internal, and perhaps more differentiated. Brene invites us to “lean into” and be curious about our emotional discomforts, as well as our vulnerabilities and fears. Gottman suggests “turning towards” your partner.
Most parents don’t do to great a job teaching their kids about unpleasant emotions. Such discussions would require us to actively discuss feelings of not being safe, and as parents, this topic would violate what feels like a boundary with our kids.
But when you factor in parents who are fundamentally unsafe, you can see how trauma invites us to numb ourselves to negative emotions…and our positive emotions as well.
When you learn to accept all the feelings you have, Brown points out, we may have a series of major and minor “reckonings.”
When a Hurt Partner is triggered, the trigger can be noticed.
“What is going on right now?” I am clearly being triggered.
“By what am I feeling triggered? A thought that I generated. A thought which evokes a story, my story, the same story I always pull up.
Triggers keep us stuck when we honor them by keeping their secrets. Triggers pull up our story. And our story exists to assure that our wounds are predictably shorn up as we hobble through time defended, lonely, and devoid of trust.
Does your story focuses on “me” and not “we?”
If so, you’ll eventually strip your memory bare of many fond memories of your partner.
Your nervous system will eventually have callouses where the triggers once sparked. A narrative that heals is a shared narrative.
We sometimes inflict damage on our spouses when we deny our own pain but send it onto them anyway.
Yes, running headlong into pain is running directly into your capacity for vulnerability. It tests you.
It involves uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. This is often the work we do during an Affair Recovery Intensive.
But, as Brown reminds us, vulnerability is the wellspring of courage, love, and empathy.
You have the option of meaningless suffering which is to keep the trigger all to yourself, and while in its throes, make no mention of it.
Like a drunk in a bar who says “Trust me…I can drive.” and you go along…
The “Embrace the Suck” meme reminds us that Suffering in silence is not noble…it’s suffering in silence.
Try meaningful suffering instead. Tell your partner you’re triggered…by what…and ask for support. Start by telling them what you want instead.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.