We’ve all been there. We are talking with a loved one and out of the blue something inside of us gets triggered by what they say. Our thoughts and body begin moving faster than we can process and we get that feeling of discomfort deep in our gut or a racing in our chest.
“What did they mean by that?” “Are they trying to say that it’s my fault?” “Are we on the same team or are they seeing me as the bad guy?”
Our defenses go off. Many of us instinctively go to one or a combo of the following:
1. Avoid. I’ll just pretend like it didn’t bother me until this feeling goes away.
2. Fight or defense. I’ll try to defend myself with logic, attack them, or bring the focus to their faults to take the pressure off of me.
3. Flee. I’ll remove myself physically or mentally from the situation. I’ll go to the door, or change the topic, or check out in my head. It’s better to run from these issues than to fight about them.
However, these approaches aren’t connecting or healing in the long run. In fact, when couples get caught in these types of responses they create distance and disconnection to protect themselves and decrease their ability to be real and intimate with each other. It’s hard to be close to someone when our walls are up, or we run the moment things get uncomfortable.
So what can couples do in those “heated moments” to increase connection?
Name it to tame it. This concept was popularized by relationship researcher and neuroscientist Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Dan Siegel. When we are triggered by our partners, one way to increase closeness is to get real with them. Let them know that for whatever reason things are moving fast and something feels not okay. Name our emotion, to tame it. The research shows that it’s empowering and calming for us as humans to own and describe our feelings (good and bad) to another person.
An example might be saying something like, “Honey, for some reason that comment just felt bad/icky/uncomfortable to me and I’m not sure why… could we try slowing things down and talking in a way that feels safe for the both of us?”
Doing this slows the conversation down and increases our personal feelings of calmness and chances for understanding & connection with our partner…
What about when we feel REALLY heated and sophisticated words go out the window?
Then it may be a good time to take a self time-out and calm yourself before going through the name it to tame it process. An example would be saying, “I’m sorry honey. I need a self time-out, things are feeling blah right now… Let’s talk about this in 10 or 20 mins after I’m able to feel more grounded.” In that 10-20 min space, you can take time to do something that is self-soothing to you (cleaning, going for a walk, reading, a bath, video games, etc.) until you’re feeling a bit more calm and able to think and THEN try to name your emotion and express those feelings when you and your partner come back together and you’re able to think more clearly.
Like the scenario above, leaving a situation isn’t always a bad thing, especially when you are feeling extra flooded (that feeling of really intense emotion that impacts your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes or problem-solve). The difference here is that there’s a safety net of telling your partner when you’ll come back to the conversation and that it won’t be something that’s left unresolved.
Naming our hurt or discomfort gives our partner the chance to understand and know that part of us. On the receiving end, it feels good to have our partner open up to us about their triggers and give us the opportunity to re-word things or let them know that we are on their side even if we disagree. It’s not that healthy couples don’t fight or disagree, but that they use those moments to practice care for a person’s differences and to embrace the messier parts of each other. In doing this, we are able to increase intimacy and our feelings of “I can really be myself around my partner, the parts I feel good about and the more insecure parts”. For being able to really be ourselves, and love someone when they are trying to heal and understand their messier parts is a beautiful thing that every human deserves.