What Does It Mean To “Hold Steady?”

I often use the term “holding steady” in my work, and in my blog. But what is “holding steady”?

Holding steady is a key relationship skill–for all relationships, romantic and otherwise–because it is foundational to sharing your truth with others, as well as hearing someone else’s. Today I’m going to take a moment to describe what it means to hold steady, and discuss how you can build that skillset, or help your clients build it. 

Have you ever overreacted in a stressful moment and said something you didn’t really mean? Or shut down completely, so that an important conversation couldn’t continue until you had recovered? Or felt emotionally ragged when things are not going according to plan? Most everyone has. Holding steady is how I describe the skill of maintaining emotional groundedness and emotional steadiness, even under stress.

Holding steady is a choice that you make in a moment of tension. It starts with paying attention to your body, mind, and stress responses. When you notice early signals of rising tension–your heartbeat quickening, your breath coming faster, your muscles tensing, your thoughts getting extreme, mean, or focused on what is wrong outside of yourself–you have a choice. You can let your physiology and self-protective brain run away with you, and probably end up getting angry or shutting down. Or you can choose to do something counter-intuitive: you can decide to purposely slow down and hold steady. This might involve slowing your breathing, slowing your heart rate, reaching for calm, and shifting how you are thinking, rather than simply reacting. 

Holding steady is a skill that you get better at with practice. Lots of practice. Your body’s natural reactions to stress are deeply ingrained. Ultimately, they’re adaptive–they’re linked to the instincts our ancestors developed to stay alive in a world full of life-threatening dangers. The self-protective responses that tell us to fight, flee, or freeze occur instantaneously. This is fabulous when you need to run away from a saber-toothed tiger, but not so good for having an empathetic, emotionally-vulnerable conversation about a painful topic with a loved one. 

Nobody comes into the world with the ability to hold steady through a tough conversation. We all have to work on it. But the good news is that it gets easier every time you do it. You can accustom your body and your mind to slowing down, breathing deeply, and resolving not to react too quickly. You can learn to disarm some of the intensity of the perceived threat.

I don’t want to make holding steady sound easy. It isn’t easy, not at all! It takes some serious motivation to overcome the impulse to save yourself or attack the perceived threat. Here is a short checklist of questions that can help motivate you to hold steady: 

  • Ask yourself, why do I want to hold steady rather than reacting automatically? List all the reasons it would benefit you, other people, and your relationships.
  • Are you clear on exactly what you want to do differently? What is your first experiment with holding steady going to involve? Here’s some ideas to get you started: counting to 10, taking a walk around the block, splashing water on your face, slowly exhaling while telling yourself calming things, etc. What is your action step? It should have something to do with slowing down, and it should be specific and actionable. You should ideally be about 80% confident you can do it. 
  • List ways your life will be better when you have succeeded at this project. How will you feel about yourself? Your partner? Your relationships?
  • Get all of this at the forefront of your mind. When you’re under stress, you will forget unless it’s front-and-center. Make up a mantra or power word, or write it on your hand. Get it to the front of your mind and keep it there. 

Now that you have your motivation and strategy in place, it is time to change the thoughts that get you worked up and escalate stressful situations. Your new strategy will certainly involve slowing way down. It will be very helpful to come up with new thoughts that you can tell yourself that diminish the perception of threat and slow things down. You will be your own coach for this process, so think ahead and come up with some great self-coaching lines that will help you stay steady when intense feelings arise. 

Here are some things you might try telling yourself:

  • It’s okay if you don’t come to an agreement in this discussion. 
  • There is no rush.
  • This is not actually an emergency. Look around and notice how things are basically ok. Everyone is breathing, nobody is bleeding, and the house isn’t on fire.
  • If you can get curious, you might learn something interesting about how your partner sees things.
  • Be a leader. Emotions are contagious, so ask yourself: which emotions do I want the other person in the discussion to catch? Calm, loving feelings, or escalating freak-outs? You choose.
  • It’s okay if you don’t get all of your points across right now. 
  • Do you understand why the other person/people are responding as they are? Get clear on that by asking them and saying it back until you get it right.
  • This can just be the first of many conversations. 
  • It is better to take a break than to say something damaging. Take a break if you need one.
  • The stories you tell yourself when you’re feeling bad are always distorted. Wait till you are calm before drawing conclusions or making decisions.
  • Do not say anything mean. I promise, it will make things far worse. Stay steady and be as kind and warm as possible.
  • The most important thing is connection and respect for one another. If you maintain those things, you can resolve anything, or agree to disagree.

Holding steady through a tough conversation will allow you to go deeper into the topic, which will help you understand other people better, and give them the opportunity to understand you better. It will save you the regret of realizing you’ve said something hurtful in the heat of the moment, and the work of repairing the rift that comes with that. And it will give you the power to control your emotional responses, so that you can act as the best version of yourself in every moment.

What Happened To The Spark?

Here’s a common relationship problem, and a frequent question I get from relationship therapists: What do you do when the “spark” fades from the relationship? 

This is an interesting question, because it is actually several questions disguised as one. Here is my rundown: 

  1. Why does the spark fade? Is inevitable?
  2. How can we navigate the transition (from super-hot to less-hot) gracefully, in ways that promote a deepening connection?
  3. Is it possible to get the spark back after it is gone?

This week, I’m tackling part 1. In the next two weeks, I’ll address numbers 2 and 3.

Let’s imagine a couple who has had a blissful first year or so of their relationship. They fell in love. Everything felt like a romantic movie. But now, they are starting to have some uncomfortable feelings, experience some disappointments, or notice things about their partner they don’t like so much. Maybe one notices their sweetie leaves socks in the middle of the hallway as a regular practice, not just once in a while. Or they don’t carry their dishes to the sink, or are obsessed with sparkling clean counters in a maddening way.  Or maybe one partner starts to miss their friends, who they haven’t seen much of lately during the flurry of new love. 

Or…maybe some issues are showing up in the bedroom. Often this starts with one partner realizing they are slightly (or not-so-slightly) dissatisfied sexually. They don’t know how to talk about it, they worry about hurting their partner’s feelings, they think there is something wrong with them, they think there is something wrong with their partner, or they don’t think it is ok to discuss sex for any number of reasons. Here are some common scenarios:

  • One partner realizes there is a sexual activity they used to really enjoy, that their new partner doesn’t seem to like, or doesn’t often engage in. 
  • One partner hasn’t been experiencing orgasm, and one or both are distressed about it.
  • One partner either takes hardly any time to reach orgasm, or “too long”, and it is distressing
  • One partner hasn’t been experiencing orgasm, but the other partner thinks they have; discussing it will reveal the deception.
  • One partner experiences painful sex and is afraid to bring it up 
  • One partner has anxiety about sex that results in various misunderstandings and difficulties
  • Erectile difficulties or other sexual function challenges create misunderstandings 
  • They don’t know how to talk about a perfectly normal difference in level of desire
  • Now that sex has settled into a routine, one or both partners are a little bit bored 
  • Something one partner is doing in bed is somewhat anti-erotic to the other, and the sexy-hot vibe has cooled enough for this to be a problem. 

I could go on, and on. There are many, many sex-related issues that crop up at this stage of relationship.

Now let’s go back in time, to the earlier stage of the relationship. Our couple has been dizzy with love for several months. They have eyes only for one another. They play together, look forward to seeing one another, talk about everything under the sun, revel in every discovery of commonalities. They are having so much fun together, they don’t want this stage ever to end. They are also becoming exhausted by staying up too late at night and they haven’t been able to find time for friends, or mundane tasks of daily living. 

This is the first stage of relationship, and is referred to as symbiosis. (I’m deeply indebted, by the way, to Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson for this concept, and for creating the Developmental Model of Couple Therapy!) In the symbiotic stage, we look for, notice, and maximize all the ways we are similar to one another. We bond. We give and receive love, and feel cherished. We create as much same-ness as we can, in an effort to create emotional safety. We stretch ourselves to get curious, agree, try new things, explore. We want to share activities and interests with our new love, even if it is a bit of a stretch, and this can produce some pretty amazing personal growth outside of the previous restrictions of our comfort zone. All of this bonding is very important; it creates a foundation that is (hopefully) solid enough to hold us together as a team as we face life’s inevitable challenges. But symbiosis is only the first stage; there are other stages still to come, and each stage has some important aspects that lend support to subsequent stages.

The next stage is differentiation, and it usually starts when one or both partners start to notice some differences between them. Remember the dishes left out, hyper-clean counters, and sexual disappointment? If the couple succeeded in creating some significant amount of emotional safety in the symbiotic stage, it can feel like there is a lot to lose if the relationship doesn’t work out. That fear, the fear of losing the relationship, acts as an inhibitor to disclosing things we think our partner might have a hard time hearing as we start noticing differences and feeling uncomfortable feelings about it. (Refer back to the list of sex issues that often crop up, and consider the many other aspects of life in which such differences might emerge.)

So, now we have a couple who are disappointed, in love, fearful, hopeful, exhausted, probably somewhat out of touch with their friends, and sexually frustrated. They are trying to figure out how to stay connected while making sense of sudden realizations of differences between them. They might be questioning their judgment, making decisions about whether to stay or leave, or just trying to figure out how to have a conversation about sexual pleasure in a culture where we don’t generally do that. For most people, not much in life has prepared them to be able to do this easily, or in a way that fosters connection and increased intimacy. 

So you can see, sometimes the spark just gets lost in the shuffle. None of the above are sexy scenarios, and most people are terrified to talk about sex under even the best of circumstances. 

That’s why, even if it’s not entirely inevitable for the spark to fade from a relationship, it’s extremely common–and it’s pretty hard for people to know what to do about, especially since what will ultimately help (speaking up and saying the scary thing you’re afraid your partner won’t want to hear) feels like the worst possible thing to do, as it threatens the comfortable illusion of sameness that was created during the symbiotic phase. 

Things look tough for our couple now–but hope isn’t lost! Tune in next week, when I’ll discuss how couples can navigate the tricky transition from dizzy-in-love into a more mature stage of their relationship–and what you, as a therapist, can do to help. 

Working With Relationship Problems in Individual Therapy

A few weeks ago, I asked my readers to answer this question: “What is your single biggest challenge when working with clients with sex issues?”

I’m so grateful for all the thoughtful, nuanced answers I received. I’m still sorting through them (and they’re still rolling in; bring it on!). Over the next few months, I’ll be answering as many of those questions as I can, beginning today. 

A few people wrote to me about the challenge of working with an individual client whose partner has problems that they are unwilling or unable to work on in therapy, and which are negatively affecting the relationship dynamic. This can manifest in a huge variety of ways. Perhaps the partner has a medical problem that is affecting both their lives, but they are unwilling to seek treatment. Perhaps they have difficulty self-soothing and managing emotions, and that’s contributing to unnecessary stress and tension in the household. 

In any case, it can be a tremendously frustrating position to be in as a therapist. What do you do when you know that you have interventions at your fingertips that could help your client and your client’s partner, but you’re unable to directly reach the person who needs them the most? 

  • Consider bringing them in for a joint session. This hinges on your client’s partner being willing and able to access therapy. But if it’s an option in your case, it’s a great idea. You can get a fuller, more accurate picture of the dynamic at play, and speak directly to the partner. I often provide a bunch of psychoeducation about sex in this manner, so one partner isn’t in the position of carrying information home to their partner from me, some of which might be a little challenging to hear, and some of which might lose something important in translation. In particular, if sexual satisfaction, desire, orgasm, or consent/willingness are part of the issue, I always prefer to see both partners together if possible. 
  • Consider collaborating with a relationship therapist. Again, this hinges on your client’s partner being willing and able to access therapy. 
  • Get some inspiration. I often suggest the book It Takes One to Tango to clients in this situation. It’s written by a Developmental Model therapist, Winifred Reilly, and is about how she used the Developmental Model to transform her relationship–all without her husband’s participation. If you want to help your client feel empowered to make a change in their relationship single-handedly, in ways that are compatible with the Developmental Model, this is a great place to start. 
  • Focus on your client’s part. Part of the challenge of being an individual therapist is that, when you’re talking about relationship dynamics, you only get one part of the story. Everything you hear is coming through the filter of your client, and they are almost certainly missing important aspects of their partner’s perspective. It is incredibly tempting in individual therapy to focus on the many annoying things their partner does. Don’t do it! Instead help your client identify their own meaningful goals for change…within themselves. If their primary distress is relational, ideally the things they decide they want to change will have something to do with improving how they show up in their relationship. At the end of the day, all any of us can change are things that lie squarely within us. 
  • Help your client show up as the partner they aspire to be in their relationship. If your client lacks insight into what they might be able to change that will make a difference in their relationship, here are some very common areas of potential focus:
    • Does your client self-soothe well? 
    • Are they able to figure out what they want, feel, and think? 
    • Are they able to communicate those things to their partner in non-dramatic ways?
    • Can they tell the difference between things that are about them, and things that are about their partner? 
    • Can they hold steady when their partner is telling them something they find difficult to hear? 
    • Can they take action on their own? 
    • Can they recognize a desire to set a boundary, and then set one? 
    • Can they hold that boundary warmly if pushed by their partner?
    • Does your client listen well, and then are they able to get curious about what their partner’s experience is?
    • Can they express empathy, even if they don’t agree?
    • Can they show love even when they are annoyed or disappointed? 
    • Can they feel their partner’s love even when they are annoyed or disappointed?