Couples research has found that pulling away or treating each other harshly when you're under pressure are some of the greatest predictors of divorce. Here's a peek at what I call the S.O.U.L strategy for handling challenges and disagreements with soul-to-soul respect and closeness, rather than reactivity. Years as a couple therapist has confirmed for me that how you behave under pressure is make or break for a lasting relationship.
S = Self-awareness
Know your raw spots -- what tends to raise your heart rate and test your patience? Self-awareness helps you stay present and mindful under pressure rather than reacting automatically if your buttons are pushed. Self-awareness gives you choices.
1. When you feel a raw spot being irritated during an interaction, breathe, slow down before you react. It can be best to suggest coming back to the conversation when you've both had time to think it through.
2. Check yourself if you're feeling self-righteous. Sometimes it's better to be kind than right.
3. Ask yourself: Is what I am about to say or do likely to be helpful to this situation, or is it more likely to create damage we'll just have to fix later?
4. Ask yourself: What am I hoping to get from this conversation and what is my partner wanting to achieve? Stay focused on resolving those desires, not on winning or blaming.
O = Open up to your partner's perspective
Just as you have your raw spots, your partner probably has them too and can be reactive. Rather than get angry in return, take it as an opportunity to learn about their vulnerabilities, so you can take better care of them.
1. Stay feeling connected to your partner by remembering how similar you are. No doubt you both want to be loved, both want to be accepted; neither wants to be criticized, distanced or rejected.
2. Always remember that behind every complaint there is a desire, maybe even a longing, for something to be different. When arguments recur on the same topic, it's a good indicator that a longing in one or both of you is not getting heard. Sometimes just acknowledging that desire has been heard and is valid can take the pain out of not having it fulfilled right now.
U = Understand what's helpful
We are all more sensitive than we care to admit. We are all utterly vulnerable at our core. We all dislike criticism. So let's cut straight to the chase -- criticism is unhelpful in love and research has shown that it's a highly inefficient form of communication, particularly for couples. It's inefficient, because it takes, on average, five positive, supportive comments to counteract the negative effects a person feels from one critical statement from their partner.
In our deepest, most intimate relationships we are at our most vulnerable so it's the place we most easily feel shame if we're disapproved of or criticized. We have revealed our softness, believing that we are safe to do so, and it's humiliating to be found lacking by a person we trusted to protect our heart. If criticism and judging others is a habit you've developed, pay attention to whether you tend to be cruel to yourself too, in the way you speak to yourself in your mind. There will be less need for repair and more room for trust and happiness, without criticism.
L = Let go
Being able to let go of anger and self-righteousness and start soothing hurts sooner when they happen is so important. Knowing how to comfort yourself rather than brood when you're upset is a life skill. It's also an important partnering skill. It's worth reflecting on and discussing with your partner what each of you finds most comforting when you need help from the other. For example, is it usually hugs and touching that helps repair things or do you need to talk it out first? Maybe different situations call for different kinds of soothing, or maybe you're the kind who's always up for cuddles.
None of us does this stuff perfectly. Sometimes you will feel intensely hurt, lose your temper, be unloving, or not be at your best in your relationship, but it's how you are most of the time that matters. To sum up:
1. Practice mindful self-awareness and know your raw spots. You'll find clues about them by thinking about what most angers you or frightens you.
2. Slow down interactions if they're confusing or angry.
3. Take responsibility for soothing your raw spots, old hurts and defenses.
4. Learn to listen to your partner's hurts and needs without defensiveness. Their raw spots are not always about you.
5. Choose to rise above reactivity, particularly in challenging moments. When your buttons are being pushed, breathe.
6. Recognize what's unhelpful before you react. If what you are about to say or do will get in the way of love, don't do it.
7. Learn ways to express yourself that take ownership of your feelings and are non-critical.
8. Know what soothes your partner best.
9. Know you can let go of having to be right; you can let go of having the last word; you can let go of fear; you can let go of pettiness; you can let go of criticism, and be happier.