Falling in love is the easy part. Staying in love is another matter. Some couples seem blessed with everlasting love. Then there’s the rest of us — who start running into trouble once the honeymoon is over. We encounter differences, disagreements, disappointments. Buttons get pushed. We watch helplessly as loving feelings start to fade in the face of misunderstandings, blowups, shutdowns, or vicious communication cycles.
What is the main difference between couples who share ongoing happiness and those who don’t? Couples who keep love alive know how to repair. They are good at quickly attending to the little glitches that every relationship encounters. All couples go in and out of synch and will occasionally be at odds. Distress gets stirred up even in the best relationships. How it is handled makes all the difference.
Knowing how to repair and defuse distress is central to the ability to stay happy in love. Unfortunately, most of us lack this vital skill. In working with couples for over 50 years combined, we have developed simple, effective tools that enable partners to deal with the bumps in the road and thrive all the more. These powerful tools are detailed in our new book Five-Minute Relationship Repair.
The following steps summarize what a skillful couple will do if someone is distressed or becomes triggered. This sequence is described from the point of view of you being the partner who is triggered. Of course, it could be the other way around. Say your partner came home unexpectedly late without notifying you.
- You notice that you are distressed or triggered.
- You stop any reactive pattern you are getting caught up in (e.g., interrogating or criticizing your partner).
- You briefly pause to figure out what is really causing your upset at the core level (e.g., feeling low on your partner’s list of priorities).
- You approach your partner and express your distress in a simple, vulnerable way. (e.g., “I need to feel important you.”)
- Your partner responds by giving you supportive touch such as a hug.
- Your partner finds a simple way to reassure you (e.g., “I’m sorry I didn’t call. You matter more than anything else.”)
- This calms and repairs the emotional distress that was triggered in you.
- It also helps you trust that your relationship can handle occasional upsets.
- Since everything usually goes both ways, you also reverse roles and deliver whatever reassurance your partner needs (e.g., to your initial criticism).
- Your connection is strengthened, and your overall trust is deepened.
In a skillful partnership, if you get distressed or triggered (either by your partner or by some life event), you know it is your job to approach your partner for reassurance. You do not expect your partner to read your mind. You don’t avoid your feelings or keep them hidden. You do not try to provoke a response through baiting or indirect requests. You do not blame or guilt-trip your partner. You don’t get caught up in interrogating, complaining, or criticizing. And you don’t avoid, distance, or withdraw either.
If you catch yourself in a reactive pattern, you notice it and revise your approach as soon as possible. When triggered, skillful partners will give a simple, direct distress signal (such as, “Ouch” or “I just got triggered”). This signal will get both of them to slow down and take action to repair what is going on. And they will readily show their need for reassurance rather than acting out their insecurity in some reactive way. Skillful partners will figure out and reveal their soft, vulnerable feelings, core fears, and core needs to each other.
We learn to be more skillful as we develop the capacity to express our needs simply and vulnerably, to reach out for hugs and reassurance, and to respond to our partner’s distress. What we find out in doing so is that our insecure feelings (e.g. not being important) are misinterpretations of situations and these can be easily straightened out by each other. That is what skillful partners do to stay well connected and happy together.
Become proactive in offering reassurances. As soon as you notice your partner is triggered or in distress, don’t wait to be told. Offer a long, deep hug and reassurances of safety right away. Be an early responder. Remember, the longer you wait, the louder the primitive brain’s survival alarm will ring. And if your partner’s alarm is ringing, yours will soon be ringing, too. It is best to calm distressed states as soon as possible. The longer a couple stays in distress, the more cotriggering occurs.
As a preventative measure to triggering, integrate positive reassuring messages into your daily life together. Occasionally saying “I love you so much” or “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me” can help tremendously. A firm but gentle touch on the arm can quiet inner demons. If you are both triggered — invite your partner to pause with you. Then reassure each other as quickly as possible that everything is okay. Turn your relationship into a safe harbor.
Do you know what is usually at the core of your partner’s distress? You will find this out in detail in the book Five-Minute Relationship Repair. Knowing your partner’s core insecurities or sensitivities provides vital information about what to say to dispel these fears. And having a quick repair process such as you will learn in this book is a powerful tool to keep your partnership clear of the built up wounds that eventually can spoil your love life.
As a simple example, let’s say your partner was raised to believe that being loved and accepted was dependent on how well he or she performed in school or sports. And you know that your partner feels insecure about being adequate or loved — harboring a deep-seated fear that his or her value depends on being smart, perfect, right, or accomplished. If he or she comes home one day feeling distressed about a poor performance review at work, you know what to say to bolster self-confidence and turn off your partner’s alarm. Saying “I think you’re great just as you are” can be both reassuring and healing.
Of course, it’s easier to offer reassurance when your partner is triggered by someone other than yourself. But even if your own behavior triggers your partner, you can still stop the reactivity and defuse distress. Just call for a pause, say something like, “I love you. I know we’ll get through this,” and then act in ways to calm the situation down. Becoming skillful in stopping reactive episodes, defusing distress, and offering support to one another you will build a uniquely secure partnership that fosters lasting happiness in love.