A month ago I wrote about the importance of putting together a proactive plan to go through the holiday season well as a couple. Even though this time of year is supposed to be fun, celebratory and relaxing, many people find it is actually the opposite.
Stress and unmet expectations are two ingredients that lead to conflict between couples, or at least becoming disconnected. In Part 1 of this series, I detailed the important conversations to have as a couple to help you two thrive through the end of the year. However, sometimes our best laid plans don’t turn out well, which is why we need a Plan B.
Every couple needs a reactive plan for those times their proactive plan isn’t enough. This post will detail the elements of a reactive plan, and everything you need to handle things well when life doesn’t meet your expectations this Thanksgiving, Christmas and the days in between.
Create a Holiday Reactive Plan
We can prepare all we want and put together the perfect plan, but sometimes that doesn’t work out. Life is unpredictable, and people are too. It’s hard to predict everything that will trigger us, and it’s scary to get caught off guard.
A reactive plan is an important piece to put in place to make sure you and your partner have a great holiday season and navigate the stresses and challenges well.
Every reactive plan has three foundational elements:
- Awareness – how you will know you need the plan.
- Action – how you will stop and reflect on what is happening.
- Adjustment – how you will change direction and move forward.
Because you can’t predict when you will need a reactive plan it’s important to put together a set of steps that can apply in most situations, regardless of issue or trigger.
You sat down with your partner and talked about the six conversations of a proactive plan. All of a sudden things aren’t working out as you planned. You’ve gotten triggered. A relative flew off the handle. Something didn’t work out as you expected. You and your spouse are in a huge fight. What do you do?
The first step is to recognize when things aren’t working out as you planned. The awareness phase has three components: physical, emotional and intellectual. Each of these components include specific signs that tell you things aren’t going as you planned.
Our triggers usually start on a physical level, and often times we miss the signs. Think of your last argument or conflict. Forget about the topic right now, do you remember what you felt in your body? If you take a minute and think back, I’m guessing you experienced one or more of the following feelings: shortness of breathe, increased heart rate, tension in one or more areas of your body, flushed face, tightness in your chest, a pit in your stomach, blurred vision.
The fight or flight response first gets activated in our body, and those physical symptoms signal the activation. When this primal system goes online, our intellectual ability drops considerably. Studies have shown that when we get angry or afraid our IQ actually drops a significant number of points. We literally become “stupid.” But as adults we developed brains, we tend to keep talking about or engaging in the triggering activity on an intellectual level.
Nine times out of ten continuing on the current path only makes things worse. How many times have you felt yourself physically escalating the more you talked about a trigger topic? This is a signal that you need to stop talking and address the physical response before you go any further.
It’s hard to be that aware of and present with your body. So don’t worry if you miss the physical cues, you can always try to catch things on an emotional end.
Although we first get triggered and activated on a physical level, it’s often times easier to recognize things aren’t working well when we start to feel familiar emotions.
Fear. Anger. Frustration. These are the body’s check engine lights’ warning us that something is wrong and we need to stop and pay attention.
Again, think back to your most recent conflict or argument. What do you remember feeling? I’m guessing at a surface level you felt, scared, angry or frustrated. Or maybe you felt sad, disappointed, discouraged, or hopeless, to name a few more. These are all primary emotions alerting you that something isn’t working right.
The last line of awareness is an intellectual one. This is your thought process and the perspectives you start to develop of yourself, your spouse or your relationship.
Again consider the last few arguments you had. How did you see your partner? How did you view your relationship? What do you remember thinking about the other person? You might not be aware of it, but every time you get into a conflict you start to see and think about the other person in a certain way. This can be a simple thought like “you never care about me.” Or you might start to doubt your relationship or doubt that your spouse is in your corner.
Once you identify the three main warning sign areas, your next task is to stop escalating and take a different course of action.
It’s one thing to recognize you are on a road that leads off a cliff, it’s another to stop the car.
I often describe the process to my clients using the analogy of a car going off a cliff. Imagine you are driving along and all of a sudden you find yourself on a road, going faster and faster. At the end of the road there is a cliff from which you can’t return. There are signs along the way warning you to slow down and stop the car, but you feel so out of control you can’t help but hit the accelerator and keep going.
Conflict works a lot like this. Once you realize you are escalating with your partner it’s often too late to stop. It feels like all of a sudden you found yourself on a road that leads off a cliff, and there is nothing you can do. You’ve been down this road before and you know what it feels like to go off the cliff. But try as you might you can’t stop the car.
The problem for most couples is they don’t realize the first warning signs of being on that road. Most of us know what it looks like when we are almost to the cliff, but we often miss the first few signs of getting on that path to begin with.
The previous section detailed those initial warning signs, so now you should be able to identify when you are on that path that leads no where good.
Your next task is to act by stopping the car, and either start going in a different direction, or just stop moving till you can make a good decision as to what direction you should go.
There are three tasks in the action phase:
- Stop the car
- Physically, emotionally and mentally deescalate.
- Reflect and decide how and why you will reengage.
This is as simple as calling a time out, walking away, or saying you need to take a break from this conversation. Ideally the two of you have talked about this moment before it happens, and agreed upon a mutual ‘stop’ plan. Whatever that might be, it’s important you follow it and change the trajectory of your conversation.
For some couples it’s as simple as calling for a time out. Other couples develop a safe word or phrase together. If you two are in a really bad place it might be enough to just say you can’t keep going with a conversation and need to walk away for a while.
Talk about this ahead of time and decide what would work best for the two of you, then follow it.
Once we are on the road to the cliff we forget to pay attention to what is driving the car forward. This is often that fight or flight response, projected physically and in our behavior and emotions.
It’s critical that we address the fight or flight response before we try to reengage with our partner.
Once you stop the car, your first task is to slow your body and your emotions. Essentially you are getting control of the out of control car. You can use deep breathing or progressive relaxation techniques. Or maybe it’s as simple as getting out of the house and going for a walk. Other people find it helpful to journal or call a friend. There is no one right way to do this as long as you are deescalating your physical and emotional feelings.
Once you have calmed down physically and emotionally, it’s time to reflect on what happened and how you want to reengage.
During this time it’s helpful to consider the following questions:
- Why did this conflict start in the first place?
- What are you trying to accomplish in this conversation with your partner?
- What values, needs or feelings are present for you that you want your partner to know and understand?
- What is your goal in reengaging around this issue?
You won’t have all this figured out before you talk to your spouse again, but thinking through these things will help direct the conversation when you come back together.
Reengage and Adjust
The final task is for the two of you to come back together and figure out a different path to go down. There are a couple of important tasks in this last step.
What is the goal?
It’s important to know why you two are coming back together in the first place, which means you need to come up with a goal.
First you need to appeal to your core relationship goals – why are you doing this in the first place? Most couples desire a closer, stronger and more secure relationship. So remembering that and getting grounded there can help keep your emotions at bay and work together towards a solution. If you two haven’t come up with some core relationship goals now is a great time to have this conversation. These are the kind of goals that act as an umbrella over everything else you do. For example,if one of your goals is to build trust, then anytime you make decisions the idea of trust should be kept in mind.
This is especially important when it comes to conflict because it is so easy to get stuck in the “me vs you” mentality that comes with disagreements. But if one of your relationship goals is to create a stronger sense of “us,” then you will be able to appeal to that when conflict arises.
The second goal is situational. What are you trying to accomplish in the moment? Is it making a decision? Is it being heard? It’s easy to forget what we are trying actually do when our emotions escalate.
Hear then be Heard
We love to talk about ourselves and we want other’s to hear and understand us. It’s actually one of the qualities that makes the process of therapy fairly easy at times – once we start going it’s easy to keep going.
What’s difficult is to stop, listen and understand someone else.
One of the best tools to deal with conflict is to work to hear first, then be heard. I often remind my clients of what will happen if they keep trying to press their point with one another – the conversation escalates and both partners come out feeling hurt.
This part is especially important if one of you is getting triggered but the other one isn’t. The person triggered needs to talk and figure out what is going on and will need help regulating and deescalating. One of the easiest ways to do this is to support that person through listening and being present.
If you missed part one of this series go back and check it out as it lays the foundation for part two. If you two are still stuck, consider sitting down with someone to get some help putting together a reactive plan and figuring out those details.
An experienced couples counselor can help you pinpoint the areas that need to be addressed, provide guidance on what to do and set you two up for success during the holiday season. I would love to see you two navigate this time of year well, and not only stay relationally healthy through it but actually thrive and grow closer together.
Ready to figure out your plan? I invite you to call me and we can talk through what it would look like for you two to navigate the holidays well and grow closer together (720-588-2005). Or you can schedule an appointment online today.