This post is adapted from Dr. Peter Pearson of The Couples Institute, California.
I am continually moved by the fearlessness of some of the couples I see in my practice who are willing to step outside of their emotional comfort zones to create a different way of relating to each other. What they’re doing without realizing it, is doing a series of unnatural acts to calm down. These acts build successful relationships.
One useful exercise I suggest they do with me is to brainstorm a list of effective communication behaviours and attitudes which they believe humans are capable of doing. I then ask how often, when there was tension in their families of origin, they actually saw or felt these behaviours. I have not had many couples answer that they witnessed their parents effectively communicating when stressed. Most of us have not had healthy modelling for dealing with relationship conflicts. It’s therefore natural (but not useful) to react to stress according to the biological wiring brought about by millions of years of evolution.
This means that under stress, effective communication is statistically exceptional. It goes out the window.
I describe many of the couples I see in my practice as normal couples who are working at becoming exceptional. What I mean by exceptional is that they’re learning and practicing rare and unnatural skills.
It’s natural to defend ourselves when our partner is critical. It’s natural to protect ourselves when we feel emotionally hurt. It’s natural to avoid emotional pain that reminds us of similar hurtful experiences in our past. It’s natural to feel alone when our partner goes into withdrawal to protect themselves.
But it’s unnatural to practice emotional restraint. It’s unnatural to be patient, understanding and curious when our partner has been triggered and acts out against us. It’s also unnatural to recognize and then acknowledge that we communicate ineffectively when we feel “under attack.” When we admit to our partner that our actions were ineffective and stop expecting them to change, we’re really being exceptional and totally unnatural.
What has been shown in the research by John Gottman is that effective and courageous couples, the “masters in relationships”, often practice the unnatural in consistent ways. They continually stretch themselves to grow and manage their own reactivity. Practicing in this way means they cannot fail to become exceptional, because they’re actively learning from any mistakes they make. They take calculated risks, over and over again. They practice new relationship skills to stay true to their own higher values as well as their personal and couple goals. By doing so, they slowly rewire their brains thereby creating new repertoires of behaviour to modify their inbuilt reactions to stress. This is the process that distinguishes the masters in relationships from the disasters in relationships.
When your partner gets triggered, when you get triggered, can one of you avoid overreacting? A teacher of mine once said that a successful relationship is created when only one partner goes crazy at a time. These words have stayed with me. A good relationship is nearly impossible if you both overreact at the same time.
The formula is simple but not easy. We all must practice to listen, to be honest with compassion, to be curious about our partner’s stresses, uncertainties and fears as well as about their joys, hopes, goals, and values. We need to strive to stay in alignment with how we aspire to be as an effective partner. Take the initiative. One of us always has to go first. If you keep waiting for your partner to change first, this leads to unhappy patterns of interaction, which will and can continue for years.
It’s all about practice, practice and more practice of these unnatural acts. It’s precisely exercises like these which build the muscles to develop a successful relationship.
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