An alarm grabs your attention, and focuses you on a possible threat. It propels you to address a danger: to get out of a burning house, or to let your nurse know you need urgent attention.
Relationships have alarms too, but relationship alarms can be confusing. They do not usually sound like alarms at all, which makes them easy to misinterpret. A relationship alarm may make you think your loved one is upset with you, you might experience an alarm if his/her words sound like an attack. You sense an urgent need to defend yourself. When you defend yourself, however, rather than making things better, things get worse. Even though there is a desire for love and connection, suddenly you are having a fight.
An example: Amber notices that Ethan did not greet or kiss her when he came home from work. She is already feeling emotionally distant from him because she just worked twelve hour shifts, three days in a row. The emotional disconnection sets off a “loss of relationship” alarm in Amber. Amber, in quasi-automatic response to the alarm, complains, “You never take me out anymore.” Ethan feels attacked and defends himself by listing all the times he offered to go out but she said she was too tired. At the end of this interchange, Amber feels un-listened to, blamed, and alone. Ethan feels criticized and hopeless. They both go to sleep hurt, scared, wondering why marriage is so difficult and if it will ever get better.
Not only are relationship alarms easy to misinterpret, but they are often false alarms, or at least mostly false. Since primary attachment relationships are vital to a person’s emotional, social, and even physical well-being, the relationship alarm system is sensitive and is designed to give off false positives. Like a smoke detector in a home, better a false positive from cooking than a false negative when the house is on fire. God has designed us to survive and thrive in close relationships: "It is not good for man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18) . Isolation is not only emotionally painful, it can be physically and psychologically dangerous. The lone human in the jungle is not as safe as in the company of his/her tribe. Infants and children obviously need parents to survive. Adults thrive and even heal faster physically and have lower mortality rates when embedded in a web of caring relationships. We know instinctively that without close relationships we are vulnerable. Attachment relationship problems are a contributing factor in most mental illnesses. We need a sensitive system with built-in redundancies to protect our life-enhancing, and life-giving relationships—hence, false alarms. Better a system that alarms too quickly than not quickly enough.
When Ethan failed to greet Amber, she felt disconnected and thought, "What does this mean for our marriage if he so totally takes me for granted and ignores me?” Amber’s alarm system activated to decrease the emotional distance between her and Ethan. Unfortunately, her fear was reflected in her voice. Rather than sounding like an invitation to reconnect, Ethan heard her attacking his performance as a husband and began defending himself. In turn, Amber felt pushed away, alienated, and began pressing more intensely to emotionally re-engage, which only made Ethan feel desperate (his loss of relationship alarm was now sounding too). In this story, the alarms were mostly false—Ethan was preoccupied and did not notice that Amber was home. Ethan and Amber were indeed somewhat disconnected because of divergent work schedules but it was nothing a bit of face-to-face talking, snuggling, and sleep would not rectify. Their relationship was solid, just slightly neglected.
One of the best indicators that a relationship alarm is a false alarm is that it is turned off with relatively minor expenditures of emotional energy: re-engagement, apology, listening, eye contact, physical touch. But false alarms, if not addressed skillfully, can become true alarms—distance can grow, hurtful things can be said and done, and the relationship can be damaged. If Amber and Ethan interpret their feelings of danger for what they are, a loss of relationship alarm, and turn toward each other to reconnect emotionally, they can use the alarm to strengthen their relationship.
In counseling one of the most effective ways I help “alarming" couples turn off their alarms and reconnect is to coach them to confess their wrongs to each other and ask forgiveness. The New Testament writers repeatedly assert that confessing sin and forgiving each other is central to healthy relationships with God and each other (Mk 11:25; James 5:6). Forgiving each other our grievances is the foundation of relationships characterized by compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and unity (Col 3:12-14). Forgiveness keeps the toxic root of bitterness from growing up and poisoning our relationships (Eph 4:31f; Heb 12:15). And it can start with paying attention to “relationship alarms”.
Learn what your loss of relationship alarms "sound" like. Think back over a recent conflict with a loved one. You probably felt alone, misunderstood, neglected, even abandoned, and your best efforts to fix the problem made it worse. What if the primary problem is not that your loved one is uncaring? What if the primary problem is that you are emotionally disconnected and your loss of relationship alarms are sounding? Learn to recognize how you feel when you are out of step with a loved one and find ways to skillfully turn toward each other to reconnect. I think you will find that when you take care of the disconnection problem, the “alarm” indicator will take care of itself.
"With a chemical alarm, you're going to build one that is oversensitive because you would rather the alarm go off and give you a false alarm than to err on the other side." ~Norman Schwarzkopf
"...put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony." ~ Col 3:14