Relationship SOS: The value of s l o w i n g down

Sarah Murphy, LPC on Mar 03, 2023 in Relationship and Family

Your significant other holds your heart, and you hold theirs. But often couples’ interactions are anything but gentle. It is exactly because of our closeness that we can be so triggered by our loved one. (Read about the role of attachment in relationships here.) Sadly, fights can get brutal, love can get bruised, and relationships can become distressed. Here are some tips for relationship SOS.

There are strategies that every couple can learn to use to keep things cool. Psychologists and therapists, like the Gottmans and Sue Johnson, have set themselves to the task of finding out what works in healthy relationships and how to apply strategies to couples in distress in order to help them function better. We are beginning to understand what works.

One of those strategies is to s l o w down.

Many of us will have to learn entire new ways of communicating because we probably heard a lot of “You did this!” and “You never do that!” and “You make me so angry!” when we were growing up. Those words put the listener on the defensive and do not help us solve our problems!

The formula: I feel _____ about ______, and I need (ask) _____.

A better strategy is to slow down before we speak in anger. It is far more effective for the long-term success of our relationships to take a moment to look underneath our anger and find our more relevant vulnerability and speak from there.

For example, instead of saying, “You don’t work hard and don’t make enough money,” say, “I am feeling vulnerable about our family’s financial position, and I need for us to come up with a plan for spending and saving.”

The formula: Validation precedes problem-solving

Now it is the listener’s turn to take it slow. Instead of being defensive, make sure your partner knows that they’ve been heard. Say something like, “You think ____ and feel ____; is that right? I’d like to share my perspective.”

This offers a springboard for collaborative problem-solving. When we remember that our relationship is important, that our partner is important, and that we are important, we are able to speak with kindness and compassion.

But we are only human after all, and when we get upset, part of our brain goes offline.

Sometimes when we are very vulnerable, our best attempts at careful speech and “I” statements will fail us (or our partners). When things get heated, we become flooded with stress hormones and lose contact with our frontal lobes, which are responsible for impulse control and reason.

The best practice when things are too hot is to stop the conversation and give ourselves a time-out. We have to shift our concentration to something else ― a walk, a game, the laundry, a song ― so we don’t keep thinking about the problem. This provides all those stress hormones the chance to exit our bloodstream and returns our access to our whole brain.

Then we can begin again with the formula: I feel _____ about _____ and need _____. 

Validation precedes problem solving: “You feel ____; did I get that right?”

Arguments happen. Every relationship has conflict, and most of it can’t be resolved, just managed. We are just human, after all. We know that there are tremendous benefits of healing and maintaining our relationships ― better health, less pain, more resilience, etc. All of this makes the effort worthwhile. Slowing down will go a long way toward keeping our relationships strong!

Sarah Murphy is a Counselor in Bryn Mawr, PA.

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