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When couples consistently practice a series of unnatural acts to calm themselves down, while staying connected and protected, they are well on their way to building a successful relationship. I am continually moved by the fearlessness of some of the couples in my practice who are willing to step outside of their emotional comfort zones to create a different, new way of relating to each other. I tell them they’re truly engaging in heroic acts, because it takes courage and perseverance to learn new skills. In addition, I compliment them on their willingness to practice becoming a good relationship team, because willingness is all it takes to start learning.
One exercise I do with my clients is to ask them: “When there was tension between your parents or carers, did you actually see or feel them using calming behaviours?” Not many couples answer that they witnessed effective communication or conflict management skills when stress was present at home. They usually saw parents or carers being frighteningly angry or coldly withdrawn. Most of us have not had healthy modelling for dealing with relationship conflicts when we were young.
It’s therefore natural (but not helpful) to react to stress according to our biological wiring, a result of millions of years of evolution. This means that under stress, effective communication is statistically exceptional. It goes out the window – fast. Most of us revert to earlier (younger) coping mechanisms, unless we train ourselves to manage our reactions better. This deliberate practice of unnatural acts has huge pay offs for us individually, as couples and as role models for our children and communities.
Work at becoming exceptional under stress
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 rarely taught, unnatural acts. These are the skills of emotional regulation, communication and conflict management. I wish I’d learnt these when I was young!
In the absence of these skills, it’s natural to defend yourself when your partner is critical. It’s natural to protect yourself when you feel emotionally hurt. It’s natural to avoid emotional pain that reminds you of similar hurtful experiences in your past. It’s natural to feel alone when your partner goes into withdrawal to protect themselves.
But it’s unnatural to practice emotional regulation and restraint. It’s unnatural to be patient, understanding and curious when your partner has been triggered and acts out against you. It’s unnatural to recognize and then acknowledge that we all communicate ineffectively when we feel “under attack.” It’s unnatural to admit to your partner that your actions were ineffective. It’s unnatural to stop expecting them to change. By doing any, some or all of these, you’re being exceptional because you’re practicing totally unnatural acts.
Masters of Relationships
Research by the Gottman Institute shows that effective and courageous couples, become “masters of relationships” as opposed to “disasters of relationships”. These master couples are exceptional because they make time to practice unnatural acts, using proven skills and tools to improve their relationship. And they do this regularly, consistently and often. They continually stretch themselves to grow and learn to manage their own reactivity. Practicing in this way means they can’t fail to become exceptional, because they’re actively learning from any mistakes they make along the way. They take calculated risks and are not afraid to make mistakes. And they do this over and over again until these new relationship skills become their new normal. Most importantly, they practice these relationship skills while staying true to their own values and integrity, as well as to their personal and couple goals. You can see why it takes lots of practice to balance all these factors!
One important thing I tell them is that even if they’re using the skills badly, their relationship will feel better because they’re struggling together to learn these new skills rather than fighting with each other. By repeatedly acting in these unnatural ways, they’re learning new behaviours and rewiring their brains to create new repertoires of behaviour to modify their fight, flight, freeze, submit and attach survival reactions. This is exactly the process that distinguishes the masters of relationships from the disasters of relationships. There are no short-cuts to becoming a master of any skill set.
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 because we all go crazy at times. I regularly need to practice these skills and so does my husband – and we’re both psychotherapists! If one of us manages not to go crazy in the face of the other’s craziness, we can work through the issue as a team. If we’re both overreacting at the same time and not practicing the unnatural acts of taking a responsible time out, self soothing and then making an appointment to have a repair conversation, we look just like any other unskilled couple.
Practice is required
The formula to do this is simple but not easy. We all must practice to listen, to be honest with kindness, to be curious about our partner’s stresses 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 and respectful partner, true to our own values and integrity, while still staying connected to our partner.
You must take the initiative. One of you has to go first. If you keep waiting for your partner to change first, this leads to unhappy patterns of interaction which can continue for years. We are all confined by the walls we build for ourselves and must do the work to stay protected while being connected. Watch Terry Real describe how important it is to be protected while staying connected. This means practicing to maintain healthy boundaries while holding on to healthy self-esteem. A healthy relationship is a balanced version of where these two skills intersect. Each partner is both connected and protected, and comes from the belief that their partner is equal in worth and deserves respect.
It’s all about deliberate practice, practice and more practice of many unnatural acts and skills. It’s precisely skills like these which build the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual muscle to develop successful relationships.
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This post is adapted from Dr. Peter Pearson of The Couples Institute, California.