It is said in Genesis that Adam and Eve are : Ezer K’Negdo — helpmates that are also opponents/opposites. A primary relationship is both of these. How can opposition-moments be masterfully turned into deepening intimacy? Skillfulness in navigating emotional/ physiological relational triggers significantly shapes the quality of relationships.
Emotional minefields require superb mindfulness, attention to both microcosmic, internal and inter-active effects, for safe navigation! Preferences, needs and desires, conscious and unconscious, can be cross-triggered in ways that activate what I like to call “dueling sympathetic nervous systems”. Couples can get locked into dueling entitlements and competitive triggered-ness.
The physiology of co-regulation is observable and trainable: our limbic systems are exquisite instruments that need continual calibration and tuning. We can learn to play like musicians, striking notes intentionally and collaboratively, listening to our co-musicians, their responses, keys and timing!
We’ll address that in this article, guiding you to recognize your and your partners activation patterns and to find keys and practices you can apply to prevent, navigate, repair and re-harmonize from disruptive conflicts!
Let’s start with an assessment:
1. How closely connected, secure and durable is your relationship?
2. When your beloved gets hurt or offended, how do you respond?
3. What do you do with your hurts and vulnerabilities?
4. Is your relationship a “safe haven” to bring your wounds?
5. How does honesty and truth-telling work in your primary relationship?
When we’re triggered into our wound-distress patterns, we can lose our minds; our kindness, humor, compassion, presence, patience and graciousness are challenged. Defensiveness, avoidance and retaliatory patterns often get activated and it’s off to the flight/fight/blame/shame zone! These distress-events can ruin a nice evening or an early morning, mess with our stability and sense of well-being, and set a difficult tone that needs attention and repair.
I have been married and divorced. I am highly aware of what can go wrong within a relationship and have often faltered myself! Sometimes we learn from others, sometimes from experience. Sometimes one informs the other. As a couples and marriage therapist for over thirty years, I have seen and guided highly functional couples that needed tune-ups and much more dysfunctional couples on the edges of divorce. I’ve burned and been burnt, and have learned a few things as I’ve seasoned in the frying pan of romance!
When we are able to shift those crazy, limbic-brain co-activation moments into inquiry, insight, integrity and intimacy!~ we build relational security, confidence and trust! Making conflict productive is the hallmark of a healthy relationship! Solving the moment and re-establishing secure connection is more important than solving the problem or driving an agenda. Like in baseball, home-base needs to be safe, not by avoiding conflict but by skillful means!
What are some helpful keys and practices?
Making conflict safe, creating what I like to call “a culture of candor” is a good beginning. If we have an agreed upon process for learning the air and sharing grievances, then we give permission and parameters to our disagreements, boundaries that, like in sports, creates fair and foul territory, rules for engagement, and a general sense of security.
Let’s start with: Making Agreements on how to have fights. It helps for each partner to determine what each of your needs, signs of distress, growing curves and conflict-mastery keys are
We can start with some questions for each partner:
- When I am feeling angry, upset or triggered, I need_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
(Space? Touch? To be heard? To be held? Re-assurance that you are loved? Praise? Patience? THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG HERE)
- Some of my signs of distress are _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
- What I want you to understand about me when I’m upset is _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
- When I see you in your anger and upset, I feel _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
- My biggest fear when there is conflict is _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
- What I want you to know, but can’t say is _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
- Something I notice about you when you are angry is _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
- An area that I could use some support and mastery in is _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
- I admit, I contribute to our conflicts by _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
- Other helpful insights I want to share and remember when we are in a conflict are _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
How do we make it safe for our partner to speak their minds and express potentially conflicting information? We can be gracious and let them clear the air first. Let the other express what their needs and feelings are. Listen, be curious, ground and regulate your own nervous system*(how?), empathize with their plight without personalizing, defending, explaining, picking apart, fixing or analyzing. This is half the battle. Own your own contributions to the conflict. Admit and apologize. Wait and earn your turn!
Easier said than done? What gets in the way of your listening and understanding? Anxious? Angry? Defensive? That’s because it is (easier planned than implemented:) We are often learning these skills through post-fight repair, reconciliation, and reflection!! That’s why preparation for prevention and escalation prevention is the key!!
How to successfully navigate triggers and grievances:
- Notice when you’re triggered and engage your curiosity.
- Post-phone launching your story. Ask to “clear the air” and gain “consent to vent” first. Extra-credit (best non-sarcastic): thank your partner for triggering you and giving you an opportunity for some real deep healing and intimacy. Ask your partner if they can and are willing to witness you. If they are triggered too, then first follow these steps apart and then come back together when you can witness each other after having done your own work.
- Set a place and a time rather than automatic, presumptuous dumping. Most people (including your spouse) like to have a choice about listening to grievances. Respect and timing matters in the process and results. And the process matters! Letting them go first (like in orgasms:) is very gracious. Requires containment and discipline, to become the listener and understander that you are seeking. Give what you want!
- Best to not go forward with persuasion and trying to get your needs met until you hear your partner’s position to your partner’s satisfaction. Responsibility is not just on the listener (i.e. demanding a certain kind of listening) but also on the speaker. Empathy is a capacity that we can grow and request, willingly, not best demanded. State your complaint or grievance as a positive need rather than as a demand or an entitlement.
- Let your partner have his/her own triggers, wounds, perceptions and stories. Step back and listen, non-defensively and without personalizing what isn’t yours.
- A nice rule of thumb from attribution theory: if making a negative attribution to your partner, try to see this trait in yourself. If making a positive attribution to self, see that in a partner. Ask yourself and your partner: What are the dreams within this conflict?
- Identify the stories you’re telling and how old (repetitive) they are. If repetitive, you might be carrying over something from previous threats/upsets/traumas.… Step back to find the emotional signature* That is high art and may need professional support.
- Own your contribution to the cycles between you and partner. That will disarm the tumult cycle. I call that “The power of admission”. Recognizing and owning our part in the theatre is empowering, taking us out of the victim and into the sovereign authority of our own narrative.
- “Deeper Dive” Trace your story back to its origins. When is the first time you felt that way? What’s the chain, the sequence that this pattern is following? How did your sense of security and/or trust get damaged there? What stories or beliefs formed in your identity? What did you feel then? What do you feel now as you remember (physical sensations, emotions, needs, impulses)
- Witness your projections, your transferences of familiar patterns onto your relationship. Respect its power. Bow to the opportunity the Gate of Awareness is presenting to you for your growth. Forgive the Messenger as you find and mine the gems.
- Thank and acknowledge your partner for listening, witnessing and loving you through your process.
Forgiveness is Sexy: and the sooner, the better! Disruptions will happen: when we bring curiosity, respect, kindness, compassion and a willingness to listen, allow and forgive, conflict deepens into incredible intimacy, love, a sense of seeing and being seen and a depth of aliveness that would otherwise be suppressed by the typical avoidance of conflict and candor that can typify stuck relationships.
There are many avenues to deepening your intimacy. These avenues require great mindfulness, skill, courage, and willingness. We have those qualities and can draw upon those resources to cultivate a culture of candor! I hope this has been helpful.
Want to have a happier, healthier marriage?
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.