Why have a Relationship First Aid Kit?
All romantic structures are comprised of individual beings who have their own unique personalities, beliefs and nuances. Because we, as our unique selves, are naturally imperfect, we create naturally imperfect systems that occasionally can erupt into tension and conflict. It is critical to the sustainability of the relationship that we have protocols in place to immediately and effectively re-connect and repair damage done to the connection. Without the inclusion of a reparative process after a tense, injurious or explosive exchange, resentment can quickly build and lead to intimacy loss.
Rule of Thumb: Aim to engage in repair as soon as all individuals have self-regulated. The longer you wait between the injurious moment and the repair technique, the less effective it may be. This rule of thumb is grounded in Behavioral Theory.
(Behavioral modification, such as reinforcement or consequence, is most effective when immediately following the redirected behavior).
Emotional Awareness. Each individual is responsible for managing their own awareness of rising emotional tension. There is a threshold to an escalation process. Each individual must be able to identify when they are just beginning to feel agitated and there is still time to diffuse conjointly.
Diffusive Techniques. These should be specially adapted to you and your partner(s) unique dynamic.
*See below for examples*
Shared Goal. Pre-determined and verbalized as a cue to redirect the escalation, this will be a source of anchoring for the partners when they may start fluttering into personal defenses and exchange of ammo. Effective shared goals should be fairly global rather than intensely specific, to be applied in multiple situations, and should also be relationship oriented. (i.e. "For us to work this issue out as a team so that we can get back to enjoying life together"). Once exchanged, this helps each partner shift perspective away from hyper-focus on the triggering situation itself and toward the health of the relationship as a whole.
Timeliness. It’s critical to catch an escalation exchange early. Once we reach a threshold where any party is emotionally dysregulated (when they are in a fight-flight-freeze mode), we are less likely to be able to reach the parts of our brain that access clear thinking, decision-making processes and future-oriented planning. This functional limitation prevents the continuation of the dialogue from being constructive.
Types of Diffusion Techniques
- Playfulness (i.e. silly grins or “penguining” your arms while walking toward your partner) - If you and your partner find humor to be a connective force between you, this is a highly valuable technique. Together, discuss if there are any neutrally playful cues that you give to one another to bring about a smile.
- TIP: Avoid using sarcasm or any kind of intense tone fluctuation. Although the intention may be good in the moment, remember that things are already intense and may be more easily misinterpreted.
- Physical Cues – These are pre-negotiated, neutral body movements that signify, "Uh oh, we are talking at each other and not with each other. Let's shift gears together to get back on track." These can be a waving of your hand as if to wave a white flag for truce, a peace sign, etc.
- Physical Touch – Carefully discuss this with one another, as physical touch can further agitate or trigger those with sensory sensitivity and trauma history (i.e. sitting on a partner’s lap, bear hugs, facing together with knees and hands touching)
- Emotion-Focused Dialogues – For those most responsive to verbal affirmation, giving the dialogue some much needed guidance that not only defines the roles of each partner (sender of information or receiver of information) to avoid engaging power dynamics, but also ensures the inclusion of active listening techniques that help the couple emotionally connect. Active listening techniques include affirming body language that you are hearing your partner, validation, empathy, paraphrasing or summarizing.
- TIP: EFT communication scripts are specifically designed to guide in re-connection
Stephanie P. Bathurst, Ph.D., LCMFT, CKCT
Clinical Sexologist and Relationship Therapist