When a series of irritable interactions happen, you probably wish that you and your partner could just calm down.
I’ve been a couples therapist for nearly 20 years now. One detail I often share in therapy is that couple’s communication is incredibly subtle and quick. Couples have a special radar for the smallest cue of a potential negative reaction and once things heat up, it's hard to calm down.
The tiniest sniff, shift or smirk can enrage a partner, even if it has nothing to do with them. In all this time, no one has ever argued my point. Couples always grin and shake their heads. Yes, sometimes it takes next to nothing to bug your beloved.
My husband and I go through this too. Having been together for 37 years, it’s no wonder. What I notice is that we’ll get in a little negative communication trend, what I might call an “overheated” period in which we are especially sensitive or touchy. Summer vacations seem to be especially ripe for these moments. We’re usually tired, excited, a little financially stretched, off schedule and spending a whole lot of extra time together.
I’m not suggesting that couples (or friends) should just avoid conflict. But there are times when the energy between you is so reactive, no good conversation can happen. For those times, here are some tried and true methods straight from couples therapy that really work to push the reset button and move forward with some peace.
The first step is always to slow down and breathe.
Just take a moment to move, if you can, and stop what you are doing or saying. Let your partner know that you just need a second to collect yourself. I realize this is easier said than done, but if you can agree to a safe escape plan before you get into an argumentative mood, you will both understand that it is a good calming tool rather than a way to avoid or disregard the other.
Next, acknowledge to yourself that maybe it is “both” of you.
(I know that every part of you probably believes it is really him or her). But for just a second, take a breath and own that perhaps you might have just the slightest bit to do with the interactions you are having. Trust me, when you own 100% of your part in a relationship, you’ll have a lot more power for what happens within it. After you’ve slowed down and shifted your attention inward, you open the possibility that you can learn from whatever is happening, Now learning something about yourself has become your “win.”
From this perspective, as a fellow human being, see if you can feel a bit of love toward your partner.
If it's genuinely possible, offer your loved one of these three gifts: patience, curiosity or compassion. I don’t care which one, as long as you can sincerely feel even a tiny bit of any of these characteristics. Here are a few of the countless ways an exchange based upon these qualities might sound:
- I see that you are hurting. I'm calmer now and can get a little curious about what is most hurtful for you.
- I feel a little stuck and frustrated when I really just want to feel loved and understood. I imagine you might feel the same way. Let’s try to get on the same side.
- I feel really confused right now, by both of our emotions. How about we take a few moments when I can get clear about what I need and open up to hear more about your thoughts as well?
- I’m sorry. This is a familiar fight we’re in. I bet you feel it too. I love you, you know.
- Listen, I’m a little upset, and I can see you’re feeling some strong feelings too. Maybe we hit a nerve, huh?
When you have a second to yourself, take a deep calming breath and notice what you feel like in your body or what you hear yourself say in your mind.
I encourage you to get enough space from this feeling to be able to feel or hear it as just a part of you (rather than the whole). This part of you, too, needs some loving care. If, for example, you hear yourself say that your partner is being “selfish,” rather than focusing on your partner’s selfishness, focus toward the part of you that feels harmed by selfishness.
What is the pain this part of you feels? Sometimes parts of us hold very deep feelings about not being acceptable or enough. You might learn that you have a part that feels deeply disappointed and unloved or unlovable. Early life experiences influence the development of our personalities. Don’t be surprised, when you examine these deeper parts of yourself, if you feel very young. See if you can notice what age you feel. This may be when you developed this part of you that holds hurt feelings.
It may feel in the moment that it would just be easier to be angry with your loved one and blame them for these feelings.
However, in the long run, what you learn about your own reaction, your feelings and beliefs and the parts of you that hold these deeper sensations will create a springboard for improved communication and self-confidence. This is the gift of conflict – not how we can change the other but what we can learn about ourselves.
After you do all of this, you now have genuine options about how to proceed.
With your nervous system calmed, your mind is freer to think. With your emotions heard by you, you are in a better position to share without shaming. When you acknowledge young parts of your personality that may be taking over the conversation, you can have a more mature, clear and present-day conversation. Now you can do what feels the kindest to both of you. You may want to ask if you could share with your partner what is happening for you. Or, you could ask if there is anything your partner would like to share with you about how they are feeling.
I’ll share one more tidbit from couple’s therapy.
When a couple is able to really slow down and get curious about what is happening inside themselves (rather than just defending against the other), they generally want nearly the same thing. Take a moment and imagine that you and your dearest may want the same thing – like to be heard and loved – but you have been going about it in the wrong way.
I will guarantee you that at first you will feel very awkward chilling out in these ways. See if you can practice together with a little humor and lightheartedness. If you’ve been in a long-term relationship, let’s face it, you’ve probably practiced arguing plenty. Why not give calm connection a try?
For more ways to get in touch with yourself to reduce stress and gain self-confidence, check out my book: Calm Your Worries: Unlock Your Secret Code to Lasting Stress Relief and Self-Confidence – TODAY!