“He never listens to me!”, “She always has to be right!”These are the kinds of stalemate situations that couples in conflict often experience. There’s a feeling of being stuck and helpless, not knowing how to feel heard, understood and comforted by your spouse or partner when you have a tug of war with decision making – whether it is what school our kid is going to, or where are we going to go for our next vacation or even something more mundane like, the proper way to load the dishwasher.
However, when we examine these situations closely, we find that the stuckness is caused by anxiety that says, “if I agree with him or acknowledge that I understand her point of view, then he/she will think that they are right and I am wrong. Thereby, my feelings and needs will go unrecognized”. So, couples tend to dig in their heels and protest vigorously with the hope that their feelings are validated. Unfortunately, when both parties want to be heard first, no one is listening!
It doesn’t need to be this painful. I’d like to give couples 3 effective steps to help them be able to diffuse conflicts in their relationships, and have a more positive and emotionally connecting dialogue, that brings them closer to each other.
Though what you say matters, it is equally important to pay attention to how you express your point of views. Tone conveys an emotion – irritation, impatience or genuine care or compassion. Tone also gives your partner insights into your thought process. For example, an irritated tone conveys a thought, as in “I can’t believe you forgot to pick up the clothes from the dry cleaners again!”.
When your partner senses your accusatory or frustrated tone, his/her brain then detects danger and goes into a flight-fight mode to defend against a perceived threat. On the other hand, when your tone is gentle and compassionate, the brain sends a signal to relax and tune in to your partner’s words without any fears.
So, when you find yourself getting agitated and restless in the moment, take a deep breath and remind yourself to keep your tone positive, calm and relaxed.
2. Emotion regulation
Contrary to what couples might believe, it is not often the resolution of problems that is the primary goal of most conflicts, but the validation of their feelings and suffering in the moment. However, it is very difficult to acknowledge your partner’s feelings and needs when you are not in control of your emotions and are feeling highly charged and triggered in the conflict dialogue.
One way to de-escalate from conflict and help you manage and regulate your emotions is to practice a ‘timeout’ ritual. Yes, you heard it right! Time outs are not just for kids. The real purpose of a time out is to help each party involved gather their thoughts, feelings and needs and to be able to regulate their emotional triggers.
When you find yourself getting agitated in a conversation with your partner, have a mutual plan to take at least 20 minutes for a time out ritual. Find a quiet corner each in the house where you can calm your nerves, and practice the following steps –
1. Take a few deep breaths, and scan your body for any tightness and discomfort and notice where you are holding your stress and anxieties.
2. Ask yourself, “what am I feeling right now?”, “what are my needs at this moment?”, “what do I want my partner to know and understand about me at this time?”.
For instance, your self-reflection might look something like this, “I feel anxious right now; I need to receive some reassurance that I matter to you; I want you to understand that in this moment I am struggling with a feeling of incompetence, since I couldn’t remember the errand you had asked me to do”This conscious exercise helps to distill your thoughts, feelings and needs in a clear manner, and arrest it in the present. Thus, the urge to revisit old memories and wounds are thwarted and it aids in significantly reducing aggravation, when partners are able to share and discuss about their internal process after a timeout exercise.
The next step is for each partner to validate, appreciate and acknowledge the feelings of vulnerability that has been expressed in the re-engagement after the time-out. Acknowledgment helps to calm and soothe each partner’s anxiety, and they can begin to drop their defenses as their brains stop sending the danger signals. This kind of interaction builds respect, trust and confidence in the relationship.
When couples acknowledge each other’s pain and needs in the conflict, they are in essence externalizing the problem, and recognizing that they are both on the same team. They acknowledge that you are not the problem; the problem is the problem. They can then begin the dialogue of moving towards constructive solutions.
When each partner in the relationship is able to moderate their tone of communication, regulate and calm their strong emotional response, and are able to reach out and express to the other what they are experiencing in the moment of their conflict, it brings them closer and makes their relationship more intimate.