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.

Recovering from Dishonesty

As relationship therapists, we have no doubt all seen relationships affected by dishonesty. Some lies are big, devastating, extremely damaging to relationships, and difficult to recover from (think infidelity or large hidden expenditures). Some lies are tiny and kindly-meant, and usually don’t cause harm (think “You look great in that skirt” or “Of course, I love your new haircut”). But today I want to focus on another type of lie, which resides somewhere between these extremes. I’m referring to untruths or omissions that spring from a desire to avoid conflict. 

Conflict-avoidant lies don’t spring from ill will. The person telling the lie, or avoiding telling the truth, is probably thinking along the lines of “What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” or “This isn’t a big deal. It’s not worth the argument, so I just won’t mention it.” Ultimately, the purpose of this type of untruth is to avoid “getting in trouble” or having a hard conversation. One partner is making a unilateral decision about what to share based on their own emotional comfort. 

While this is certainly a flawed approach to relational connection, it is not generally done with an intention to cause harm. In fact, the avoidant person may tell themselves they are doing their partner a favor. But conflict avoidant lies tend to repeat and compound until the interpersonal challenges and dynamics that led to them in the first place are dealt with and resolved.

Very often, clients come to therapy for the express purpose of dealing with manifestations of conflict avoidant deception. Perhaps they’re coping with the aftermath of discovering untruths, or trying to address the conflict-avoidant partner’s lack of follow-through. 

It is easy to focus on the person who tells lies as the primary problem. But in my experience, that approach backfires more often than not. 

For one thing, the client is probably braced to feel shamed in therapy. They have all their defenses firmly in place.They know they lied, or failed to follow through again and again, and probably are not proud of it. It is hard not to take a parental tone. But if you do, the therapy will stall or explode. On the other hand, if you minimize the lying, the hurt spouse will feel betrayed and misunderstood by you!

Untangling this systemic dynamic is more complicated than helping the clients make a repair. Shifting the pattern of avoidance is the key to success. Here’s how I approach this kind of situation:

  • Help the clients reframe the dynamic. Identify conflict avoidance as the underlying issue, not deception for its own sake. Once the conversation is about conflict avoidance, it is easier to help each partner identify their own part in the dynamic, without either blaming the hurt party or shaming the avoider.
  • Ask each of them a pointed question or two to help them identify their contribution to the problematic interactional pattern. For example:
    • What do you do that makes it hard for your partner to open up to you and tell you the truth?
    • What could you do to help your partner feel comfortable telling you a hard truth?
    • Do you want them to share hard things with you, even if you feel uncomfortable, angry, or sad as a result? How will you manage your emotions about it?
    • What do you do that makes it hard for your partner to trust you? 
    • How would it benefit you to open up about hard things more often?
    • What kind of person do you aspire to be in your relationship, and why does that feel important to you?
    • Do you have any role models of people who talk freely about difficult topics and come through it feeling more connected and stronger as a team? What would that look like? If you were in a relationship like that, what would you be doing differently?
  • Consider what lie-inviting behavior might be at play. Once your clients have considered these questions, you have a way of discussing the whole relational system: not just the deception, but also any reactivity on the part of the other partner that may be contributing to the problem. Maybe they tend to roll their eyes, get sarcastic, angry, dissolve into tears, or make sweeping catastrophic statements. Their partner is much more likely to share openly with them if they dial back whatever reactivity is coming across a sign of danger and leading their partner to shut down and go underground with their thoughts, feelings, and preferences. 
  • Help each partner identify something they want to change about their interactions around the problem. For instance: 
    • “I want to listen better, and not get so angry when my partner tells me something I don’t want to hear.” 
    • “I want to start sharing small things I disagree about to give us both some practice feeling uncomfortable, so I can learn how to talk about hard things together.”
    • “I want to remind my partner it is ok if I feel uncomfortable. I still want to hear the truth.”
    • “I want to remind myself that I want to be an honest person, even if it is uncomfortable for us both, because that will lead to us creating the kind of marriage I would be excited to be a part of.”

Most of what I know about lies and deception I learned from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson of the Developmental Model of Couple Therapy. They have produced a lot of great work about the systemic dynamics around lies. In fact, they wrote a whole book about it, which I highly recommend! For more information about various types of lies and how to work with them in therapy, see Tell Me No Lies: How to Stop Lying to Your Partner–And Yourself–In the 4 Stages of Marriage.

Dealing with “New Relationship Energy”

New relationship energy, or NRE, is a concept that comes from the polyamory community. It refers to that heady, overwhelming, crushy feeling that you get in the early stages of a new relationship, when every train of thought gets rerouted to refer back to the person you’re crushing on: “Oh, I’d love to see this new movie…I wonder if Marie likes it…” 

New relationship energy can be a wonderful thing. It’s a delightful feeling, and it helps you bond closely to your new partner. The world would be a duller place without it. But it’s also a powerful force. Often, people just don’t know how to control their impulse to be with somebody when they’re so driven to think about them, contact them, and be near them all the time. As you can imagine, this can cause some problems in polyamorous relationships if the partners don’t have some good strategies in place for how to handle it. 

Imagine you’re in a committed polyamorous relationship, and your partner has just started seeing a new person. They’re head-over-heels, completely obsessed. They might be able to keep a larger perspective in mind, strive to be as considerate as possible, and enjoy the NRE while still being a committed, responsible partner. 

On the other hand, they might get so caught up that they lose sight of the larger picture, in which case things can get a little annoying. Here are a few common ways I see this go awry: 

  • Phone snubbing. It’s no fun to be sitting across the table from someone who is busy texting with their crush. 
  • Mentionitis. Every conversation turns back to the person: “This meal is so delicious…I bet Marie would like this!”
  • Not honoring commitments. Maybe they end up changing plans at the last minute to accommodate the new person’s schedule, or maybe shared commitments start to slip their mind because they’re so focused on the new person. 
  • Being unreachable. This is a very common one: they’re out on a date with the new person when a crisis comes up at home, but they’ve turned off their phone or are ignoring it, meaning their partner doesn’t have help dealing with whatever is happening on the home front. 
  • Breaking agreements about safer sex. This is a bad one. Sometimes people get so caught up in the excitement of the new relationship that they don’t abide by the shared agreements they’ve made about safer sex. This is a real betrayal, because it puts their partner at risk, as well as other partners their partner may have, and the trust in the relationship suffers greatly. 

When NRE is causing problems for a polyamorous partnership, I make sure that my clients know that this phase is chemical and transitory. I say to them, “What’s going to serve you best in the long run? How do you want this to end up? Could you possibly place your need at this moment aside a little bit to attend to your relational contract with your spouse for the purpose of reaching the goal that you want, which is a stable open relationship?” Sometimes a stronger challenge is needed: “It’s not reasonable to expect your partner to show up for you, when you’re not showing up for them,” or  “It’s not reasonable to expect your partner to feel good about you, Marie, or polyamory when you’re breaking agreements.”

I also help the other partner self-regulate as much as possible. It certainly helps if they’ve had NRE experiences of their own and are able to chuckle over mistakes they might have made when caught up in the early stages. It also helps if they have other partners to lean on during this time. If they are able to do it, I truly believe the best strategy is to give their partner a lot of space and minimize expectations or commitments. I call the the “give them as much rope as possible” strategy. I ask: “Out of all the relationships you have ever had in your life, how many panned out into stable, long term situations?” The answer is usually one, or two. Then I say “So, what are the chances this thing with Marie is going to turn into something long term?” Then I offer a challenging piece of psychoeducation: “The one surefire way I know to make NRE last a really long time is to place limits on how much or what kind of contact people can have with one another. Longing obsessively is hot, and on the other hand, spending a little too much time with someone and discovering they are not so sexy after all is much less hot. Under restrictive circumstances, I’ve seen the spark of new love last YEARS rather than weeks or months. I know what I’m suggesting would be extremely challenging. I’m just saying, there is a risk to placing limits on your partner’s NRE. And there is a high likelihood of a good payoff if you give them a lot of rope.”

The one thing we can say for sure is that the NRE won’t last–eventually their partner will have to come back down to earth. Hopefully, it will be a learning experience, and they will be able to resolve to act with more consideration in the future. In most every successful polyamorous relationship I see, both partners have very good manners and act with consideration and thoughtfulness for one another. That said, when there are lapses, they almost always involve NRE. Help your clients manage their impulsivity, and keep their eye on the long game.