Via Alyssa Nobriga for Elephant Journal
We’ve all been in a conversation with a loved one that suddenly shifted into a discussion filled with reactivity and defensiveness.
You’re with your partner—maybe at a party or hanging out at a favorite coffee shop. Maybe you’ve just been talking about how you want to hit the gym more, and you’ve been feeling a little “blah” about your eating habits.
You reach for a cookie and your partner says “Honey, are you sure you want to eat that?”
Whoa. Instant hackles raised, right?
Excuse them? How dare they tell you what to eat. Are they calling you fat? What are they trying to say, exactly? You didn’t pick on them when they ate three cupcakes at your mom’s house over the holidays. The nerve! Seriously!
Alright now let’s hit pause on this scene. This moment is about to escalate into an unwanted argument. We may feel uncomfortable, feeling the fight coming on, but not knowing how to change directions and return to the genuine, heartfelt confection we desire with our partner:
We know that the right thing to say is something like “Hey, that hurt my feelings. I know I’ve been talking about losing weight, but you watching what I eat for me is not so great.”
But, being triggered like this can make us feel five years old when we speak to our partners—because, in that moment, we are five years old! In heated arguments, the part of our brain that controls our higher reasoning isn’t working as effectively.
In essence, we revert back to basic survival defense mechanisms, a.k.a. the habits we developed as kids. But we don’t have to let ourselves react this way. In fact, there are a number of ways we can redirect the conversation and keep the peace.
Here are some insights that can be applied to change the direction of any conversation as soon as things are heading south. We can use these tools in any experience, as an effective way to relate to partners and create deeper intimacy between the two of you.
Take a conscious breath. Exhaling longer than the inhale will help calm your nervous system, so you can reconnect with your body and the present moment. When you do this, you give yourself space to respond from a conscious place rather than unconsciously reacting from a triggered one.
Take a moment to decide if you need to step away in order to calm down. But don’t just storm off! Share with your partner when you imagine you’ll return so their mind doesn’t go into fearful abandonment thoughts and reactions, bringing up the tendency to either “cling” or “avoid” in unhealthy ways.
After walking away for a beat, you may notice you feel refreshed, and in a completely different frame of mind to return to the conversation with new insights.
With curiosity and acceptance, simply allow yourself to physically feel into whatever sensations are present in your body. Rather than staying in your mind and analyzing, actually drop down into the sensation (without the mental story) and allow it to be fully there—even if for just a short while. See what happens when you stop resisting it.
See if this emotion is familiar to you in any way- prior to being with your partner. Often times our partners bring up old younger wounds within us so that then we can heal them. When we stay stuck in the ‘mental story’ or blaming our partners, there’s no moving through it.
4. Take the high road.
Choose to speak about what just happened from an elevated, conscious state, rather than a triggered place. Using phrases like: “What do you think just happened?” can be useful in this moment.
Integrating this technique will support your transition from talking ‘from it’ to talking ‘about it’.
Einstein said, “You can’t solve a problem from the same state of consciousness that created it.” And the man had a point!
5. Speak from the trigger.
Another option is doing the exact opposite of the above, and actually speaking from the trigger. This means giving a “voice” to the hurt inside, and allowing it to speak directly to your partner.
However, this technique is recommended only if you are absolutely clear that your partner is resourced enough in the moment to handle it. If they are, remind them not to take it personally, and that you’re simply allowing the pain inside to speak in an effort to release it.
When your partner just holds a loving, non-personal space for your frustration to be expressed, it is often enough to begin the healing process, and quench your anger at its source.
As an alternative, you can also do this for yourself or with a trusted friend, coach or therapist.
6. Move the energy.
Take the conversation into another room, outdoors, or go on a walk together. This can be a simple ‘pattern interrupt’ that helps reprogram the psyche and lighten the moment.
7. Create a plan.
Set aside some time when you and your partner are not upset to create an ideal way you’d both like to move through upset, and develop a deeper connection with each other.
Commit to using this technique when a triggered event occurs and emotions are strong. This way you already have a go-to plan that you can use, rather than emotionally reacting from past conditioning and current upset.
8. Just Drop It.
Often, the perfect option is to just drop it! Sometimes it really can be that simple.
Let’s learn from kids! They don’t harbor resentment. They may get in a fight in one moment and say “I never want to talk to you again,” walk away, and within five minutes ask: “Do you wanna play?”
And remember: there are also going to be times when a simple apology and a hug are all that’s needed. Trust that you and your partner will intuitively know which of these tips will be the right step at any given moment. Agree to try them in different situations and learn to strengthen your ability to navigate moving from an upset to a more loving connection.