I frequently hear from couples that they want to improve communication in their relationship but, before we can do that, I always like to start with an understanding of how safe each individual feels in the relationship. As humans, if we don’t feel safe then our nervous system is going to influence our mind, body, and soul to operate accordingly.
Which means, if we feel triggered or threatened, then our sympathetic nervous system is going to kick-in and do what it does best – Fight, Flight, or Freeze! On the other hand, if we feel safe, then our para-sympathetic nervous system is going to enable us to be in a relaxed state which allows us to feel comfortable, be open to our environment, and turn towards others.
You might be asking right now…What does our nervous system have to do with communication?
Often partners become frustrated, escalated, and angry with one another and don’t know why? WHY won’t they talk? WHY do they walk out? Many of these conversations eventually turn into on-going perpetual issues which eventually drive the partners away from each other. Each person feels helpless because they don’t know what to do to get their partner to open up and talk.
When the body is triggered or feels threatened then our sympathetic nervous system kicks-in. While we often think of the very noticeable fight, flight, or freeze situations such as being chased by a stranger or crossing the street and realizing a car is approaching faster than expected, we don’t necessarily think of the more frequent instances where we are triggered or feel threatened in our day-to-day relationships.
Knowing that our nervous system is always operating and influencing our behavior is critical.
Identifying what we need to self-regulate and maintain a balance between the two competing systems will enable you to manage yourself as well as communicate with others what you need.
The first step starts with you. Call it a bit of self-exploration and information gathering around what allows you to feel safe communicating in a relationship.
A helpful way to approach this is to review a significant relationship that you may have with a friend, co-worker, family member, etc. where you feel comfortable and the environment they offer invites you to be open and share how you are feeling, as well as, openly express your needs. Along with that try to recall the situations where you do not regularly feel triggered, rejected, judged, or in-validated.
If you have a safe relationship in your life then take a moment and review how it makes you feel safe? What makes that relationship comfortable? Can you freely express what you need? Does the person meet you where you’re at? Do they “listen” vs. try to “fix?”
On the other hand, recall an-going conflict that you may have with your partner, friend, family member, etc. Continue your self-exploration and identify the triggers and perceived threats that you may feel when you are holding a conversation with that person.
While in a conversation with this person or situation do you feel triggered? Is it their escalated voice? Do they swear? Point their finger? Does the person speak for you, rather more, do they tell you how you are feeling? Do you feel shut-down by the person which leads you to avoid the conversation, or worse, avoid them in general?
Now that you are armed with this valuable information about what enables you to feel safe you can empower your partner by sharing with them what you need to feel safe in a conversation.