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Three Skills for Navigating Emotional Obstacles as a Couple (or with anyone you care about)
Let’s imagine (just for a minute!) a painful interaction that you experienced with your partner. Chances are that the pain you experienced was in response to something that either you or your partner did (or didn’t do).
Now let’s take a quick look at whether either of you were: 1) “snagged” at a high level of emotional/physical arousal of anger, fear, or shame (or extremely under aroused if depressed), 2) that made it difficult to refrain from acting on that emotion in a way that was later regretted, 3) while also finding it difficult to redirect your attention in a more positive or effective direction, and 4) which got in the way of acting toward your healthy goals of how you want to be in this relationship. These four tasks of emotion regulation (modulate physiological arousal, redirect attention, refrain from mood dependent behaviors, and organize constructive behavior in the service of our values and goals) are compromised when we are emotionally imbalanced or dys-regulated.
Typically, our painful interactions are marked by dysregulated emotions. We might describe this as a time of “emotional flooding” or the “red zone.” Knowing when you or your partner are in or are approaching this “red zone” intensity of emotional dysregulation can be potentially useful to help contain a painful conflict or misunderstanding.
DBT offers an approach that is uniquely suited to addressing the role of emotion regulation in our relationships. Many problematic behaviors and difficulties in communication are caused by these times of imbalanced or dysregulated emotions.
In our Family & Couple Skills classes, we use a “Red Zone Worksheet” to identify our personal scale (from 10-100) of increasing levels of emotional intensity (available below). This becomes a personal road map with our unique signposts for when we are approaching the red zone of emotional dysregulation and the likely problem behaviors that cause us regret and our loved ones pain. These signposts include the unique thinking, body experiences and urges that occur at each level of a particular emotion, say fear or anger. We can then begin to notice these signposts when we are in emotionally vulnerable or activating situations.
Back to our imagined painful interaction with our partner…let’s say our partner is in the midst of a highly agitated state of anger or fear, how do we respond in a way that doesn’t make things worse? From a DBT perspective, there are a number of options. You can find several of these discussed in The High Conflict Couple: A DBT Guide to Finding Peace, Intimacy and Validation by Alan Fruzzetti. Another resource that couples might miss is called “The Five Steps Response.” In my experience, Shari Manning has provided a very useful outline that is simple enough to recall when one is faced with such a challenging interaction. You can read more about this in her very practical and helpful book, Loving Someone with Borderline Personality Disorder. In my opinion, this book can be helpful for anyone with an emotionally sensitive loved one, regardless of diagnosis. In part, this is because the focus of the Five Steps Response is on you, not your loved one. As Shari Manning reminds us, “At the end of the day, you can only change your own behavior—your responses to your loved one. The good news is that sometimes when you change your behavior, your loved one’s behavior will change also.”
Five Steps for Responding to “Red Zone” Behavior (adapted from Loving Someone with BPD by Shari Manning)
1. Regulate Your Own Emotion
4. Brainstorm and Troubleshoot
5. Get Info on Your Role and Updates on the Outcome
This can work, right? With practice, practice and more practice, the Five Steps can be very helpful. And the practice can start now. Again imagine your painful interaction with your partner…this time, see yourself pausing to breathe, to tense and release some of the body tension, and to give yourself some validation and encouragement. See yourself turning toward your partner with more caring and openness to express your recognizing and understanding what they are experiencing, feeling, or wanting. Imagine that you then gently ask him or her “Would you prefer that I really listen to how this is for you, or offer advice, or help you figure out what to do?”
Sometimes, the first of the Five Steps is the most difficult. When we are highly emotionally aroused, it can be quite a challenge to self-regulate. Recall, that the four tasks of emotion regulation may be compromised in that very moment for us. If this is the case, it can be helpful to take some time away from the situation and to temporarily separate yourself from your partner. You may simply need to take a break and use that time to regulate your emotional state so that you can re-engage more effectively. This is NOT the same as escaping, abandoning, rejecting, avoiding or punishing your partner. And this needs be clear to your partner! One way for this to be clear is for your partner and you to agree that you will experiment with constructively taking a break or a “time-out.” The analogy of a sports team taking a time-out is relevant here. When a basketball or football team takes a time-out, it is not a surprise because they have agreed in advance to allow this. Its also not a punitive act against the other team, it’s meant to be a constructive action to play more effectively. You will also notice that when a team calls a time-out, that they return when they have agreed. The team doesn’t hop on the bus, never to return. They return and re-engage in the game. Here are some suggested (and I believe, necessary) ingredients of effectively using a time-out.
Taking a Needed Break—How to Use Time-Outs
Take a few minutes to take a break or a time out so you can cultivate mindfulness, regulate emotions, and prepare to effectively engage your partner.
1. Recognize the escalating tension or arousal of negative emotion. Propose to take a time-out from the interaction to reduce the intensity of agitation to a more workable level. Propose when you want to return and discuss the issue further. Negotiate as needed.
2. Take the time apart for however long as been requested. What you do with this time makes a big difference. Continued blame or arguing in your mind leads to a predictable result. On the other hand, you can… Use the time to de-escalate, calm and regulate your emotions; cultivate mindfulness; take responsibility for your ineffective behavior and prepare to effectively engage your loved one. Breathe 3x. Clarify what your primary emotion is; consider how you can express this directly and effectively. Listening to Wise Mind (your inner knowing, intuition and compassion) and ask yourself what it is that you so deeply long for. Remind yourself of how you value having a caring, supportive relationship
3. Return at the agreed time. Negotiate another time-out again if you, your family member or friend needs additional time. Begin by stating what you are willing to change to be more effective in your behavior and in this discussion. Actively listen with efforts to validate your loved one’s experience.
Here you have three sets of tools to use when your partner and you are in a painful interaction. As you may have already noticed, these skills are just as relevant with other family or friends. First, you can employ your mindfulness skills to monitor the level of emotional intensity. The Red Zone Worksheet might help with that. Second, you can use the Five Steps to more effectively manage how you respond to your loved one. And third, you can use a Time-Out when needed to self-regulate so that you can validate yourself, your partner, and then complete the Five Steps. Warning--you may not experience immediate success. DBT reminds us that behavior change is a process: we learn about a skill, then we “practice, practice, practice” that skill until… eventually, we are able to apply that important skill in those situations when we most need to.
Good practicing! I welcome hearing about your experiences with these skills.