You get into a fight with your partner. Again. You can’t figure it out. You’re both intelligent, educated people who pride yourselves on good communication.
But when one or both of you get triggered – forget everything you know about non-violent, healthy communication. You don’t recognize who you – or your partner – become.
You (or your partner) might say things like, “What’s wrong with you?” (Notice the judgment in this question.) Or you create conflict in order to get space for yourself because you don’t have the words to use to ask for space in a kind way. Or you say things harshly even though you really care about your partner.
“What is going on?” You wonder. “Are we doomed to keep having the same fights forever?”
What I’ve seen in my own personal life and in my clients’ lives is that even the best of us – when triggered – default to what I call the “Language of Abuse.” This is definitely not PC, non-violent communication! I know first-hand how the Language of Abuse hurts and causes damage. I also know how frustrating it is because you’re smart and you think you should know better.
However, when we get triggered we no longer have access to our rational, thinking mind (our neocortex). Our intelligent mind goes offline and we default to our reptilian brain. This is the part of our brain that determines, “Friend or Foe?” Usually, while fighting, we see our partner as a foe. That’s when our reptilian brain tells us our options are, “Fight!” “Flight!” Or “Freeze!”
If you have a history of abuse, this response may be amplified. If you or your partner (or both of you) are in this reptilian mode – it does NOT work to try to rationalize your way out of the trauma response that is occurring. The best thing to do is use these keys below to move out of conflict and into a safe space. Only in that safe space can you move towards communion again.
6 Keys To Unlock Yourself From The Trauma Response
Key 1: Create a Safe Word
This is something you do when you are NOT in conflict. Discuss a “Safe Word” you can use with each other so that if one or both of you gets caught up in a trauma response, one of you can call out your safe word. Agree to honor use of the safe word.
Your safe word is a signal to STOP the conflict and put the next keys into action. Keep it simple. You might even write it down – both your safe word and all these keys – on an index card and carry it around with you or post it somewhere in your house. The biggest thing is to remember to use it when in conflict.
Key 2: Use Your Safe Word
Like I said: the most important thing is to remember to use your safe word when you and or your partner are operating from your reptilian brain. This signals it’s time to STOP TALKING. It is very important that you both honor the use of the safe word. Don’t try to get one more argument in or the last word. Once the safe word is spoken, STOP TALKING. (Either person can use the word.)
Key 3: Sit Down And Look Around
No matter where you are or what activity you may have been involved in, have the triggered one – or both of you – sit down and feel your feet on the ground. Look around and notice what you see around you. Ask the one who is triggered to (or both of you can) share your observations. “What do you notice in the room?” “How many windows are there?” “What color is the wall?”
Bringing attention to these basic sensory details calms the triggered response. There is more breath and space to see beyond the “Fight or Flight” trauma response. However, this calming down process may take a few minutes or a lot longer, depending on how severe the trauma response.
Key 4: Consciously Connect Or Create Space
The action you take when using Key 4 really depends on your unique requirements and your partner’s. One or both of you may desire to take some time apart – to go get a breathe of fresh air, go for a walk, or do something to tap into your wisdom beyond your reptilian brain! Or, one or both of you might desire some quiet, calming, soothing connection.
If you both desire connection, I recommend not talking for awhile. However, sitting and holding hands, laying down with each other and holding each other, or some kind of gentle, kind contact can move you towards communion even though the issues may not have been “resolved.” What’s valuable when using this key – if you’re able to do this – is to receive each other without waiting for a resolution.
If you desire different things, come to an agreement. Perhaps the person who desires some time away can say, “I am going to leave the house but I’m not leaving you. I will be back in an hour and then I can hold you or we can choose then what we would both like to do.” This is an invitation to the person who will be on their own for an hour to practice some self-soothing techniques. See Key 5 in this case.
Key 5: Self-Soothe
It can be really tempting to want to self-soothe using drugs, alcohol, smoking or some other unhealthy habit. I recommend you don’t use these methods to self-soothe.
Instead, see how you can give yourself the love and nourishment you desire: curl up on the couch with your favorite soft blanket over you; take a bath; read some poetry; light a candle and write in your journal. Keep it simple. Keep it quiet.
What are your favorite methods for calming yourself down and returning to that “safe space” inside? Write these down so when you need them, you can refer to your list! (Often we forget our own favorite methods when coming down from a triggered place.)
Key 6: Repair And Resolve
Taking time to repair after an argument is essential. The sooner you can “repair” the less likely you are for your brain to register this present-day conflict as a trauma.
Share what you appreciate about each other. Take responsibility and apologize for what you might have said or done that caused harm or hurt. Share more gratitude with each other.
And resolve to do something different: either get support individually or as a couple so you can move beyond the abuse that’s popping up in these trauma responses; learn new communication skills with each other; commit to doing what it takes to no longer continue the language of abuse… These are some options to choose from, and of course, you can create your own.
Moving from the language of abuse to the language of kindness requires patience, vulnerability, respect, courage and a commitment to change.
The good news is that you are not alone and nothing is wrong with you. You also now have tools you can use – these six keys – for unlocking yourself from the trauma response and moving from the conflict into a safe space. From there you are in a stronger position from which to create communion.
Be You. Beyond Anything. Create Magic.