I’m sure you’ve been there: in a haze of hurt and resentment, you blurted out something cruel. You know that you didn’t really mean it, but, days later, your partner is still hurting from your unkind words. You wish you could time-travel back to that moment and clap a hand over your mouth, but it’s too late now. You can’t unring a bell.
It’s possible to avoid moments like this. It takes effort and practice to learn, but you can do it.
My goal as an educator and a couples therapist is to help you build the skills you need to have a more fulfilling and satisfying partnership. That’s why these past three weeks I’ve been sharing my strategies for managing your reactions to conflict.
Last week we talked about “timing out”, a method of preventing a fight from damaging your connection with your partner. When you start to get triggered, and can’t control your rising anger, “time out” is a great tool. But you can go further, and learn how to prevent yourself from getting completely triggered in the first place.
This week, I’m sharing my set of strategies for slowing down your stress reactions to conflict. This is a deeper practice than “time out”; it is preventative. Learning and practicing holding steady in a hard conversation will help you experience less pain and more connection. If you want a relationship in which both you and your partner feel safe sharing every part of yourself, these are the skills you need to build.
Start practicing these skills at the very first sign of trouble, ideally before you start getting upset. Maybe you notice you’re suddenly discussing a hot button topic. Start then. Or maybe you feel the prick of tears; start then. Maybe you feel like defending yourself. That’s also a good time to start. If you catch your reaction soon enough, you may not have to “time out,” and you’re certainly less likely to say something hurtful in the heat of the moment.
- Slow down. When you first notice your stress rising, slow down your reactions. Pause and consider your next sentence before you speak, and take another long pause to consider what your partner says in response. As the conversation continues, hold to this pace–don’t let anger speed up your reactions.
- Breathe. Take a deep breath in, hold it for a moment, and then let it out very, very slowly. Make your exhale twice the length of your inhale, or even longer. This has a powerful physiological calming effect on your body and will help you stay in your thinking brain.
- Let your partner slow down. Slowing down yourself can encourage your partner to match your pace, which will help them calm down, too. So don’t get upset if they take a long moment to respond–use the time to breathe and talk yourself down. You can do this.
- Get grounded, literally. Sit down, put your feet on the floor, and feel the stability of your position. Let it in. You are ok.
- Look around. See that there’s no danger. Calm yourself by using the classic trick: try to find five blue things in the room, then five red things, then five green things, etc. Tune into the moment, and notice that you are just fine. No machine guns, no saber toothed tiger. You will live.
After following the first five steps, check yourself: are you still thinking thoughts like “My partner never understands,” or “How dare my partner say that?!” or “but I DID…”. If you’re still in a blaming or defending state of mind, continue to slow down, breathe, and stay grounded until you feel able to empathize with your partner again. Sometimes a quick bathroom break is helpful, or maybe you want to walk the dog together and take a little vacation from processing. If you’re not totally activated, a mini-time-out can really help.
Now that you’re holding steady and feel ready to engage more deeply with your partner, turn to the next five steps.
- Remind yourself you want to know this person deeply. Try to listen from their perspective, without immediately jumping in to tell them that they’re wrong. Remember: you have plenty of time to work things out. You can just listen for a bit and share your perspective later. Whatever they are saying, it is not about you. They are telling you how they see things. This is not a truth, it is a perspective. You don’t have to agree, but it would be helpful if you could listen, hear, and validate that you get how they could see it that way.
- Get curious about how they are seeing things. For the next ten minutes of the conversation, ask only questions. Make sure they are only genuine questions of curiosity, not loaded ones like “How could you think that?” or “Why would you do something so stupid?” If you’re able to get curious about your partner’s perspective, you may find your anger dissolving as you realize “Of course–that’s why what I said got under your skin so much!” This is an opportunity for greater intimacy, a vulnerable moment in which you can learn more about your partner’s unique self.
- Tell your partner how you are feeling. By this, I don’t mean “I feel like you never…” . I mean what emotion are you experiencing? Tell your partner why this topic is difficult for you. Talk only about yourself, your perceptions, your feelings, the meanings you make of the topic. Don’t let the word “you” start your sentences. When your partner asks clarifying questions, stay loose. They are trying to get to know you better too.
- Tell your partner something you appreciate about them. At this point, or any point in the conversation you can shift the energy. Help each other get grounded. Try telling your partner something you appreciate about them, and why it feels important. That might be as simple as “thank you for letting me know how important this is to you, and why; I want to know you well, and this way I don’t have to guess what’s going on for you. Thank you.”
- Get curious about your own reactions. Ask yourself: why did this get under my skin so much? What does it symbolize or mean to me? This is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, too–and understanding more about what set you off in the situation will help you manage your reaction better next time.
This post is part of a series about navigating conflict in relationships. Check out last week’s post about timing out, or read about how I learned to stay steady in tough conversation with my partner.