What if you and your partner had a way to avoid getting into escalated arguments? You know, those arguments that don’t go anywhere, where you get irritated and annoyed and angry and self-protective, where you don’t feel heard or understood, and where you lash out at your partner or go off in a huff and nothing changes and the next time it happens all over again?
If you’re like most couples I work with, you are saying “Yes please!” right now. I mean, who wouldn’t want a way to shift a dynamic that is often overwhelming and, worst of all, seems to happen again and again?
This way isn’t easy; in fact, it’s a bit radical. This radical way is to realize, in the moment, that a different way exists.
What happens with most couples when they disagree or argue is that self-protective parts take over. This happens because we don’t feel seen or understood by our partner, and that’s what we want more than anything. But, paradoxically, the way we signal this desperate desire to be seen and understood usually involves blame or avoidance. This is normal for self-protective parts: When we’re in our amygdalas, it’s all about self-protection and not at all about caring for another. However, and as you probably know, this normal phenomenon can wreak havoc on a relationship.
The different way is this: In the moment of escalation, or ideally before you get escalated, take a step back. Take a step back from your triggered part and say to yourself – oh, I’m getting defensive, or, oh, this self-protective part is up. If I’m defensive or self-protective, I’m going to get sucked right into a dysfunctional pattern of interaction. Instead, I am going to choose a different way. Then, in that moment, go ahead and flash a peace sign – or, as I like to call it, “peace out” to your partner.
There! That’s it! Instead of blaming or criticizing, instead of defending yourself or distancing, peace out to your partner.
Peacing out is not easy. It’s actually quite difficult because in these moments of feeling misunderstood, our amygdalas activate and the more rational and relational parts of our brain shut down. This all happens on a subconscious level, and it may feel impossible to unblend from strong feelings that can arise. I encourage my couples to use body cues to recognize when they are in these states. For some, heart rates go up; others get a knot in their stomach or tension in their shoulders. The simple act of recognizing body cues can be enough to take a step back and realize that there is a choice here to do something different – to peace out to your partner.
So. How exactly does it work?
Begin with finding a calm moment and agreeing with your partner that you need a different way to navigate these fraught times. Agree that either of you can peace out when feeling triggered or escalated. Agree that this means that you will both take a break and settle your nervous systems. This could be by distracting yourself with music or social media, or by taking a walk, or by taking deep abdominal breaths, or anything else that works for you. And finally, and very importantly, agree that peacing out means you will return after x amount of time to process what happened. This part is so important! The part of returning to process what happened. There are lots of tools to support this part – I especially love the Grok Cards based on Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication.
I encourage my couples to experiment with peacing out to each other, to try it and see what happens – just as I encourage you now. Just try it and see. It has proven to be a powerful relationship enhancer for my couples. And if you are intrigued but find yourself stuck, reach out to a couples counselor for support.