Editor’s Note: Ian Kerner is a licensed marriage and family therapist, writer and contributor on the topic of relationships for CNN. His most recent book is a guide for couples, “So Tell Me About the Last Time You Had Sex.”
I often wish I could hang a sign outside my now virtual office that reads, “Leave your guns at the door.”
Not unlike a saloon owner in the Old West, I want the couples I see to take a breath and view the space as neutral territory. Of course, that was difficult for many of us even in “normal” times — and the pandemic has only made things worse.
Increasingly, couples in trouble are coming to me in an even more heightened state, lashing out at each other, bottling up their emotions or turning to sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness. It’s natural to fight sometimes in our intimate relationships, and it has been even more likely over the past year. As much as we love each other, we’re on top of each other and exposed to more stressors.
“After more than a year of constant togetherness and stress, people’s emotional reserves are tapped,” explained clinical psychologist Alexandra H. Solomon at The Family Institute and a clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University in Illinois. “This creates impatience that leads us to speak before we think. Many couples are also facing huge decisions with life-or-death consequences: whether to travel, to have their kids return to in-person school, to return to the office for work.”
All of these stressors can add up, and the next thing you know, you’re taking it out on your significant other, or vice versa. Your relationship has ruptured. But with rupture should come repair. It’s challenging to control your reaction to that rupture — those stress hormones flow, your pulse races, and you might as well have steam coming out of your ears. But you can control how you repair things, using these tried-and-true techniques.
Take time to cool down
When you’re under acute stress, your caveman (or cavewoman) physiology takes over, and your fight-or-flight response kicks in. With an increased heart rate, shallow breathing and impaired reasoning, keeping your emotions in check can be a struggle.
Make the decision to flee, not continue fighting. The body takes about 20 minutes to calm down after the fight-or-flight response is activated, so take advantage of that time to let your anger subside.
“Tell your partner that you’re not in a space to contribute to the discussion in a useful way, suggest taking a break, and then return to it when you’ve both cooled off,” said couples therapist Sara Nasserzadeh, who is based in Beverly Hills, California. Go for a run, walk your dog, practice some deep breathing — anything that doesn’t contribute to your argument.
If, like many people, you purchased a pulse oximeter to monitor blood oxygen levels in the event of Covid-19, now’s your chance to put it to work for another use. This device can alert you to your stress response. “When my clients use oximeters, they know when it’s time to take a break, and there is more goodwill and humor about it,” said New York City-based therapist Eva Dillon.
Know your communication style
Some people are coregulators — they want to talk things out as soon as possible. Communication is their way of soothing. Others are self-regulators, who need to soothe themselves and may need a little more time before they can return to the conversation.
Understanding your approach and that of your partner can help you navigate your cooling-off period and ensure you both have enough space to yourselves.
Give it time
When you try to repair too quickly, you run the risk of reopening the rupture.
“Disengaging from a power struggle is the first step in setting the emotional groundwork for repair,” said couples therapist Juliane Maxwald of New York City. “If you’re still trying to debate your point or prove that you’re right, chances are you’re not yet ready for repair.”
Sex therapist Jean Pappalardo of Culver City, California, recommends using a red, yellow or green light approach to gauging your readiness for repair. A “green light” means you’ve processed your feelings and are ready for a productive conversation, while a red means you’re still angry and need more time.
But don’t ignore it. If a quick repair isn’t possible because one or both of you is agitated, make a plan to talk about it as soon as you’re both ready and able, said Dallas-based couples therapist Barbara Gold. “Sweeping things under the rug is not the solution to stopping conflict.”
Own it and apologize
Once you’ve calmed down, acknowledge your role in the rupture. “Apologize for what you contributed to the argument, even if you feel you’re only responsible for two percent of what happened,” said couples therapist Deborah Fox of Washington, DC. “You may feel innocent in causing the argument, but be sorry for your part in the escalation. Hopefully, your partner will be motivated to apologize as well.”
Your apology should be just the beginning. Recognize your triggers and get beneath the defensive emotions — the anger, the frustration, the storming off. If you lashed out or withdrew, why? Were you feeling scared, or rejected or neglected? If you’re staring at another mess in the kitchen and it feels like your partner doesn’t care, start with how you feel: “I’m sorry I yelled, but when I see that pile of dishes in the sink, I don’t feel considered or cared for.”
Separate the problem from the person
Yes, maybe you think your partner is a slob, or needy, but try to get away from labels and decouple the issue from the person. Talk about the mess and why it bothers you, or talk about what your partner needs and why. Put it out there as a problem to solve — and walk around it together.
Let them speak
Create space for the other person to have his or her say. I know that as soon as your partner opens his mouth, you’re ready to defend yourself. But don’t do it. Again, you’re trying to repair, not repeat, a rupture. Just as you want your say, give him theirs. And don’t think about your rebuttal — be curious about what he’s saying. Actually listen. Once you’ve heard your partner out, validate him.
“Validation means that you have heard and understand your partner’s experience and feelings. It doesn’t mean that you agree with them,” noted psychotherapist Joanne Bagshaw, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at Montgomery College in Rockland, Maryland.
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Instead, offer simple statements that acknowledge what you’ve heard: “I understand why you get upset when I’m on social media while you’re getting dinner ready” or “Your feelings make sense” or “How can I support you?” “When you validate your partner, you are telling them that you value them, their feelings, and your relationship, which is essential for repairing a rupture,” she explained.
Be willing to compromise
You can’t change someone else. But you can be willing to change something about yourself for someone who matters to you — especially if you know he would do the same for you. Undoubtedly, the person you’re arguing with is far from your mirror image. You both have your idiosyncrasies. You’re putting up with a lot — especially these days — and so is he. Hold those quirks in mind, and he will do the same.
Pandemic or not, it’s normal to rupture and often can’t be helped. We’re only human. But be just a little bit of a superhuman and make it normal to repair those ruptures.