Peter’s couple therapy blog

Relationship repair part 2 of 10

This is an edited extract of a longer article, which can be found here

2. Communication is in 2 parts: Content – the what – and process – the how.

In an argument about whether to go to Brunswick Heads pub on Sunday or Byron pub, the facts of your case about Brunz and against Byron are content; the fact that you are both getting upset and arguing is the process.

Process always triumphs content. When emotions heat up the problem in the room is the emotions, not the content of the argument. When emotions amp up, we escalate with content as a way of dealing with emotions – you want to get the other person to get your position. Anything you say is like throwing fuel on a fire — it’s likely to be misheard, misinterpreted, because the process is the driver and the flight/fight/freeze endocrine system has taken over.

If you can de-escalate you will do so by directing awareness to the a process, emotions and actions, which likely have familiar, repeating and orderly steps like a dance. It may feel chaotic but in fact most of these sessions have a well know beginning, middle and end. You could signal that by saying, “we are beginning to argue, I’m starting to feel frightened for us and next I know my anger will take over and then it’s too late for us to stop”.

Self-soothe strong emotions with deep breathing and slowing down, calming yourself, or even walk away for a few minutes rather than storming out. Stay out of content; if you don’t you’ll wind up talking about how Brunz is better than Byron.

Over time you may have noticed that your relationship process follows these patterns. You and your partner each have your own ways of dealing with tension and conflict. Your overall way of handling stress and emotions – your default process of withdrawal, anger, passive accommodation, invariably and consistently triggers the other person’s default, which in turn fuels yours. Quickly you both get into a negative loop that becomes your combined standard way of dealing with conflict and tension — anger / withdraw, withdraw / withdraw, anger / anger, etc. Your goal again is to soften the pattern.

The easiest way to do this to try doing the opposite of your default – if you tend to withdraw, try stepping up and speaking up; if you get angry, calm down and listen; if you accommodate, figure out what you really want and say it rather than walking on eggshells. Your change will encourage the other to do the same.

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