To borrow a phrase from the Stephen Colbert show, “Quarantine While“. We have been living within a world with new social and emotional boundaries for what seems to be ages. While many of us still go to work, or grocery shopping and take socially distant walks or runs for exercise, acting responsibly we also have severely cut back on our personal interactive social contacts.
We miss the emotional lift that comes from dining out with friends and family, enjoying a live sporting or entertainment performance with the crowd, going to events with social/ hobby clubs, volunteering together and traveling. Attempting to fill this emotional void has placed considerable strain on our primary relationships. Conflicts with our partners can increase and emotional walls develop. Unless addressed, these strains can create permanent damage and even threaten the continued existence of our primary relationships.
Doing couples therapy, I usually find that when a couple comes to their first session their focus is on blaming each other. They want me to be a witness as well as judge blame as they vent their frustrations. Although there is some short term benefit to emotional release, in the long run this continuous badgering of each other consumes and dooms the relationship.
My first task is to impose a cease fire and take control of the situation. This is challenging in that couples will often struggle to let go and accept this intervention. My second task is to focus their attention toward learning new skills to confront issues. Again there is resistance. Habits and styles based on years of modeling from parents and society can be very stubborn to overcome. Although we know this to be unproductive the tendency is for people to do the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.
When helping couples, my teaching strategies model focuses on four skills to develop or improve. The skills are: We make our own feelings. Know your biological reactions. Active listening. Problem solving.
Skill One. We make our own feelings. From early in our lives we are taught to blame others for why we feel a certain way. We hear repeatedly on many platforms and sources comments like “ you hurt my feelings”, or “ you made me angry”, or “its your fault”. Aside from a direct physical assault in reality our discomfort comes from how we choose to interpret the events around us. I make my feelings and you make yours!
Our brain receives information from our senses and within microseconds interprets that information based on how we have learned to think. For example calling me a name does not automatically directly hurt me. I can think about it in many different ways. I can think who cares and just be mildly annoyed or I can think it is life threatening and take it as so horrible, awful and terrible (HAT) and become very upset from sad or angry. When we put on the HAT we also get stuck demanding retribution.
In all situations we have freedom to choose to think in different ways. It is not easy but it is hard work to teach yourself a new program of how to interpret events around us. When our partner screams at us the typical reaction is to become defensive and fight back. A different reaction could be “ wow my partner and loved one is very upset lets see what is going on.” Take off the HAT and accept that the emotions are at worst only frustrating, annoying and disappointing (FAD). We can better handle FAD when we avoid interpreting the comments as HAT.
Skill Two. Know your biological reactions. As our brain interprets incoming information our body is primed to respond to danger with the flight or fight emergency survival response. We also learn early in life to misinterpret many events as HAT which are not innately threatening. This creates a sensitivity to certain events that we now interpret as a threat to our basic security. I call these sensitivities exposed nerves. They stay with us a lifetime. We can set them off or they can be triggered by someone else either accidentally or intentionally. The exposed nerves often revolve around concepts related to accomplishment or rejection. It is very important to take responsibility for your own reactions.
When exposed nerves are activated we get a strong body reaction. It can be a sudden tightness in the face, chest, stomach, hands and legs accompanied by a surge in respiration due to an increase in adrenaline from the now activated flight or fight response. This feeling becomes a signal that the reaction maybe a false alarm due to our sensitivities. When we know that our alarm has gone off the primary objective is to bring our breathing back under control and reduce body tension. We do not think well when the flow of oxygen to our brain is reduced. This may require taking a step back to a safety zone. This is place where it is safe to expel excess emotion without hurting someone or damaging objects. Scream into a pillow or take a brisk walk or even just sit quietly by yourself to catch your breath. Do not drive.
As the tension rises and arguments gets louder, I teach couples to make a T sign, just like a sports coach would do to stop the current out of control actions of the players. Couples are asked to give each other space to step back to a safety zone in order to gain biological self control. No good comes from prolonged venting of intense negative emotions at each other. Couples must also promise to return to discussions once they have their exposed nerves under control. Failure to return to talking it out will doom this process.
Skill Three. Active listening. One of the most frequent comments that I hear from couples is that my partner doesn’t listen to me or understand what I am saying. Even if one might not like what they hear the act of listening at least gives validation. Try thinking that when your partner is upset it is your task to help them tell you about it. Something is troubling my love one. Usually when each side makes an effort to understand what is troubling their partner they come to see that each side has some valid points.
Listening skills also requires considerable training and coaching. One person is designated to be the presenter while the other is the reflector. The job is to reflect or mirror back to their partner what they are understanding without being judgemental. After one party has presented their issues they switch roles. There is a great satisfaction knowing that no matter what you are feeling it is safe to express your feelings to your partner. These concepts reflect the major contributions of Carl Rogers. He taught us to listen with unconditional positive regard.
Skill Four. Problem Solving. In order to get to this skill it is very important to follow through on the previous three skills. If couples continually lose self control they might not be able to see solutions. If self control is working and from the active listening, a list of concerns is created. The list should be prioritised from easy to complex. Select two concerns to focus on and make plans for change.
The hardest task is to find compromise. This may require an impartial opinion. Couples can agree to disagree and seek more information and accept mediation. Once plans are drawn up with solutions this becomes the goal of the week. Hang up reminder signs about the goals and place them where they can be easily seen. We need constant reminders when we are trying to make changes.
Take some time to work at being aware of your biological reactions to your exposed nerves. Where do you feel it? Know your sensitivities what is the message? Consider how you have learned to view life. Contemplate what events are really life threatening HAT in contrast to just temporarily FAD. Pledge to take the HAT off . Consider where there are nearby safety zones and practice taking a T out. Work together and be willing to seek help to learn conflict resolution. The goal is to get to problem solving and build a stronger union. Now more than ever we so depend upon each other. Try not to project your childhood issues onto each other but rather help each other to grow.
PS. I am working on establishing a virtual psychotherapy practice for people in NY and DC. Details not yet available. Will keep you posted. Thanks