All couples encounter differences and fall out of synch at times. They may disagree about things, misinterpret one another, or get their buttons pushed. Your ability to effectively communicate at such times makes all the difference between resolving issues or getting stuck in upset.
Unfortunately, most of us did not grow up seeing adults model healthy ways to work through differences. So we don’t know how to talk with one another in a way that handles each other’s distress.
We can all learn from couples who share ongoing happiness. How do they communicate and handle distress? A key skill they have is being able to rapidly repair things. They are good at quickly attending to the little glitches that every relationship encounters.
Those of us who do not naturally know how to do this suffer a buildup over time of unrepaired ruptures. Eventually this buildup leads to feeling unsafe or guarded with each other. And we find ourselves feeling less intimate, less relaxed, and more alone.
So if you and your intimate partner are experiencing lack of intimacy or a build-up of unresolved distress, it’s time to learn this three-step formula for addressing and resolving communication difficulties: (1) Pause; (2) Calm; (3) Repair.
Discuss and agree on a short, one or two-word signal or nonverbal hand gesture, that either person can use whenever you feel over-loaded with too much input, flooded with emotions, or whenever you find yourselves going around in circles in your attempts to be heard and understood. This could be a “time-out” hand signal or saying the word, “pause,” or “let’s pause.”
Choose something that both of you can agree on—something easy to remember and recognize when things are difficult between you. Make sure your signal is short and neutral in its emotional tone—so it does not trigger more confusion or upset.
Agree together that anytime either of you gives this signal, you will both stop talking so you can calm yourselves—the second step in this three-part formula.
During your pause, the aim is to calm your activated nervous system by taking some slow conscious breaths or using some other method to relax your mind and body. Sometimes it helps to turn your attention to your here-and-now sensations and perceptions. Feel the chair you are sitting on, notice the rise and fall of your chest as your breath.
Reassure yourself that you are safe, that your partner is still your friend, but has most likely gotten temporarily triggered due to their own emotional make-up. Remember that even though your partner may seem angry, cold, or upset, this behavior represents a protective pattern. It is not how your partner would behave if he or she felt safe.
The next step, Repair, involves helping your partner feel safe with you. We’ll get to that step in a minute. But before you can attend to your partner’s safety, it’s important to get some of your own higher brain functions back. When you’re triggered or upset, it’s hard to feel empathy or care for your partner. But once you’re calm again, then you’re ready to reveal to your partner your deeper, truer feelings and needs.
Once your nervous systems are calmed down, it’s time to engage in the Five-Minute Relationship Repair process, which is further described in our book by the same name, Five-Minute Relationship Repair. The goal of this process is to repair any damage that may have occurred to your trust or closeness and to deepen your empathy for one another’s sensitivities and needs.
During this Repair step, you let your partner know that you now realize that you were triggered or that your nervous system was overly activated when you did what you did or said what you said before your pause. You let each other know what fears got triggered in you—such as a fear of rejection, criticism, being controlled, or of not being accepted, loved, or respected. These are some of the common fears that get activated (often unconsciously) when we find ourselves blowing up, shutting down, or over-talking.
Then, you reveal to your partner some of the things you now feel and need – now that you are calmer. While one person is revealing this vulnerable information about themselves, the other partner is listening intently and responsively. The book provides a step-by-step procedure to help you get in touch with your deeper feelings and needs so you can communicate these in a loving, reassuring way.
Agree to Rewire Your Partnership for Safety
Each time you catch reactive communication and use Pause-Calm-Repair, you are rewiring both of your nervous systems so that you actually become more secure functioning individuals and a more secure functioning couple. You get better and better at spotting reactivity before it goes too far. And you more instinctively begin to reassure one another whenever you see signs that someone is in a protective or reactive communication pattern.
Ironically, this means that emotional reactivity in a relationship is the ideal vehicle for fostering emotional healing. Hair trigger reactions and insecure circuits in the nervous system need to be activated a little bit in order to be rewired — but not over-activated. So it is best to catch reactive incidents early.
The more consistently we can remember to use this three-step formula, the more we are creating a relationship that nurtures our deepest longings for love, trust, safety, intimacy, and respect.