When a couple gets trapped in ongoing distress and reactivity, each partner feels a lack of ability to turn things around. Each concludes the other needs to change in order to reduce tension, upset, distancing, or discontent. As if taking a victim role, each believes they have no power to influence the situation.
A major turning point comes when partners discover the power to change their dynamic. This occurs when someone makes a new move in the dance that gets better results. In our coaching practice, we often help partners make new moves. An example is when a normally avoidant person discovers the positive impact of moving toward their upset partner. This is a dance move opposite of the self-protective distancing they normally do. They find out the power of this new dance step in that it actually calms the tension they typically attempt to dance away from.
Until such new steps are discovered, partners feel they have little power to get better results and reduce the degree of upset, distress or distancing in their relationship.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We are continuously exerting a powerful impact on our partner and on how our relationship functions. When one person in the relationship starts demanding that the other change — by complaining or criticizing, for example — it will be heard as a threat to feeling safe and secure. This is because nobody knows how to change on demand (just try it). So hearing critical remarks about oneself usually feels like you cannot just be in the relationship as you are. And since nobody knows how to change who they are, you feel in danger of being rejected, of being thrown out of the relationship unless you somehow shape up and become a better person.
Of course, this triggers insecurity, and, as a result, more insecure behavior and reactivity. When criticized, for example, the receiving partner will likely try to self-defend, distance, avoid, ignore, or shut down. This is not the hoped-for result, so feeling even more insecure and unheard, the complaining partner will escalate the level of criticism, still assuming it’s a powerful tool for change.
Criticism does, of course, have a powerful impact, but unfortunately only to make things feel more unstable and insecure. So it won’t seem you are having an impact because you are not getting the results you need. But it’s vital to realize that you are always having a big impact on your partner. Your words and actions directly impact how your relationship feels — secure or insecure. Even the most innocuous behavior — say, simply avoiding and hoping things will calm down — will have an effect. As they say, not communicating is communicating. Your partner will see it as a sign that you don’t care enough about them to show up, which will, of course, generate more insecurity.
There is no way around the fact you are always having an impact, so you might as well use your power for the better, to get the results you really want, and to generate more secure functioning in your relationship. We are always rewiring each other’s brains to feel either more secure together — or more insecure. Which road do you want to travel as a couple? The choice is yours, and whatever you choose will influence the choices your partner is able to make.
Suffering a barrage of criticism, for example, your partner may simply duck further into the foxhole, which is not what you want. However, you can help lift your partner out of that hole.
We are constantly wiring each other’s brains to feel secure or insecure with one another. So take responsibility for the impact you have, and use your power wisely. It’s like there is a radio in our brain that plays only one of two channels. On the secure channel, we hear self-talk messages saying that we are loved, adored, respected, needed, appreciated, cared about, important, and so forth. On the insecure channel, we hear stories in our head that say we are not good enough, unlovable, flawed, unimportant, abandoned, or rejected.
You can alter the channel that’s playing in your partner’s brain — through the words you use, your voice tone, your eye contact, your facial expression, your physical distance, and whether or not you are giving supportive touch. Use your power for positive change. To the best of your ability in any moment, make sure your partner’s brain selects their secure channel. Head off any insecure messages your partner’s self-talk may generate.
Let your partner’s core fears and vulnerabilities inform how you to communicate. If you know that your partner sometimes hears your complaints as evidence of not being good enough, make sure you say things like, “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. You are great just the way you are!”
Always do your best to communicate in a manner that boosts the strength of the secure channel in your partner’s brain. As you speak, tune into the channel that is currently playing in your partner’s head — by noticing their facial expression, for example. Do they appear to feel secure with you? If you see that the insecure show is playing, do your best to help your partner’s brain to switch channels. Slow down, take a breath, say something positive, smile, reach out and give supportive touch.
And the flip side of this equation is just as true. Learn to speak openly about your core fears and needs — in plain, simple language. Get in touch with your core feelings, what you need to feel secure. Ask your partner to reassure you that you are good enough for them, or important to them. Let them know this not through indirect reactive behaviors like complaining or criticism — but directly and vulnerably.
In our book, Five-Minute Relationship Repair, we help people know and express their core feelings and needs in a way that repairs rifts and reconnects them with each other. Offering simple scripts that guide you to speak about what you really need — and how to respond to your partner — the book gives you a road map and tools to build a deeply secure partnership that supports lasting love and intimacy.