Based on the book Five-Minute Relationship Repair
Some couples seem blessed with everlasting love. Then, there’s the rest of us — who start running into trouble once the honeymoon is over. We encounter differences, disagreements, disappointments. Buttons get pushed. And communication breaks down as issues become increasingly hard to resolve.
What do couples blessed with ongoing happiness know that we don’t know? In a word, they know how to REPAIR. They are good at quickly mending the little glitches that every relationship encounters. Those of us who do not naturally know how to do this suffer a buildup over time of unrepaired ruptures. Neuroscience shows how these accumulate in long-term memory and result in more reactive communication. Eventually this buildup leads to feeling unsafe or guarded with each other. Ultimately, the survival-threat alarm systems of our primitive brains start to hijack our loving relationship. And we find ourselves feeling less intimate, less relaxed, and more alone.
So if you and your partner are experiencing lack of intimacy or a buildup of unresolved frustrations, it’s time to learn this three-step formula for resolving communication difficulties: Pause, Calm, Repair.
It is vital to quickly interrupt your reactive cycles so that you don’t make matters worse. Discuss and agree on a short, one or two-word signal or nonverbal hand gesture that either person can use whenever you feel over-loaded with too much input, flooded with emotions, or whenever you find yourselves going around in circles in your attempts to be heard and understood. This could be a “time-out” hand signal or saying the word, “pause,” or “let’s pause.” Choose something you can agree on — something easy to remember and recognize under any circumstances.
Make sure your signal is neutral — so it does not trigger more confusion or upset. Agree together that any time either of you gives your special Pause signal, you will both stop talking so you can Calm — the second step in this three-part formula.
During your Pause, the aim is for both of you to calm your over-activated nervous systems. Do anything you know that works to calm you. For instance, take some slow conscious breaths, feel the chair you are sitting on, or notice the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. Reassure yourself that you are safe, that your partner is still your friend. Remind yourself that your primitive survival brains have probably gotten temporarily triggered due to unhealed wounds in each of your pasts. Remember that even though your partner may seem angry or upset, this behavior represents a protective pattern. It is not how your partner would behave if he or she felt safe.
The next step, Repair, involves both of you getting back to a sense of safety together. We’ll get to that step in a minute. But before you can engage in Repair, you have to get your higher brain functions back. When you’re triggered or upset, it’s hard to feel empathy or care for your partner because being triggered means you are operating from the primitive, survival-oriented part of the brain. But once you’re calm again, and your higher brains are back on-line, then you’re ready to reveal to your partner your deeper, truer feelings and needs.
If you can, it’s useful to offer your partner a hug or a simple statement of reassurance right after calling for a pause. You might say something like, “We’re still friends here. I trust we can solve this.” Such blanket reassurance can help both your nervous systems calm down more quickly.
Once your nervous systems are calmed down, it’s time to engage in the Repair process, which is described in our book, Five-Minute Relationship Repair. Yes, it can be done in five minutes! Actually, if you spend more time talking, you probably will trigger each other even more. The goal of this step is to repair any damage that may have occurred to your trust or closeness and to deepen your empathy for one another’s sensitivities and needs.
So during this Repair step, you let your partner know that you now realize you were triggered when you did what you did or said what you said before the Pause. You let each other know what fears got triggered in each of you — such as a fear of rejection, abandonment, criticism, being controlled, or of not being accepted, loved or respected. These are some of the common fears that get stirred up (often unconsciously) when we find ourselves blowing up, shutting down, or over-talking.
Then, you each reveal what you now feel and need — now that you are calm. While one person reveals this vulnerable information about themselves, the other partner listens intently and responsively. The book provides a step-by-step procedure to help you get in touch with your deeper feelings and needs so you can communicate with each other in a loving, reassuring, and healing way.
Agree to Rewire Your Partnership for Safety
Each time you catch reactive communication and use Pause-Calm-Repair, you will rewire both of your nervous systems to become a more secure functioning couple. You will get better and better at spotting reactivity before it goes too far. And you will more instinctively begin to reassure one another whenever you see signs that someone is in a protective or reactive pattern.
Ironically, this means that emotional reactivity in a relationship is the ideal vehicle for fostering emotional healing. Hair-trigger reactions and insecure circuits in the nervous system need to be activated a little bit in order to be rewired, but not over-activated. So it is best to catch reactive incidents early.
The more consistently you can remember to use this three-step formula, the more you create a relationship that nurtures your deepest longings for love, trust, safety, intimacy, and respect.