Do you remember your first driving lessons? One of the required tasks was to know what to do if you started to spin on ice or snow. Do you turn into the spin, turn away from the spin, or simply close your eyes and grip the steering wheel for dear life?
Emotional spins are much the same. You can be lazily moving along in your relationship and all of a sudden be hit by the loss of traction and the feeling that things (you) are spinning out of control.
“We were doing fine, one minute,” Steve told me. “Before I knew it she was pointing her finger at me and threatening to walk out the door.”
“Wait a second, Steve,” I said. “Your girlfriend was really fine one moment and ready to walk out the door the next? Are you sure you’re not leaving out a few steps?”
“It seemed that fast to me,” he said, defending his position. “Then before I knew it, I was talking to her the way she talked to me. I don’t go looking for a fight, but I’m not going to just sit there and take it,, either.”
“Slow things down a little for me, Steve,” I said. “So you understand what is going on, take a closer, slower look at how you and Suzy experienced this freefall.”
“Okay,” he said reluctantly. “But, I think a lot of it has to do with her moods. She seems unstable to me.”
“Indeed, it may have to do with her moods,” I said. “But, I’ll bet you’re doing some things to provoke her as well.”
I grabbed my chalk and moved toward the chalkboard. “Walk me through it, step by step.”
“Well,” he said slowly. “Suzy started talking about how I was afraid of getting close because of being adopted… that I had unresolved issues from my adoption. I don’t have unresolved issues from adoption and told her so. She wouldn’t stop telling me how I’ve been hurt by it, and pretty soon I lost it and told her to just shut up. She got mad at me and pretty soon we were yelling at each other.”
This encounter was, unfortunately, all too familiar for Steve and Suzy, and thousands of other couples who find themselves in a freefall, unaware of how they got there and how to get themselves out of it. Instead of being baffled by the "spin," I teach couples to slow things down and look closely at what they do that sends their relationship into a downward spiral.
Here are a few ideas to consider:
First, be mindful of how you interact with your mate. We are often reactive in nature rather than taking the time to truly consider what is being said. We are reflexive, often saying the first thing that comes to our mind. This, of course, is rarely helpful.
Second, slowing things down, we can respond rather than react. We can practice remaining calm and listening attentively to what our mate is saying to us. We can "sit with" their comments, deciding how to best respond. Scripture tells us, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15: 1)
Third, stop when we begin to sense a downward spin. We can call a Time Out or request that our mate slow down so we can process what they are saying from a calm spirit within us. Taking a break from the action almost always gives us a fresh perspective.
Fourth, use "do overs." If you have said something hurtful, and are on a downward spiral, consider apologizing quickly and asking your mate if you can start again. Using a soft voice, a gentle tone and a sincere heart, ask your mate if they are willing to start the conversation over.
Fifth, be clear with your mate. Ask for what you need. Be specific about what hurt in the previous conversation and what you want different. Don’t be demanding or critical, but rather clear, calm and consistent.
Finally, use healthy boundaries. There are some topics that cannot be talked about safely without a trained counselor present. Some topics need significant calm and attentiveness and must be prepared for. Some topics need to never be talked about. Be wise in considering whether you and your mate have the skills to talk about the topic at hand in a healthy manner. Know when you’re in over your head.
Please read more about these issues in my book, “When Pleasing Others is Hurting You” and explore more about my Marriage Intensives and Wildfire Marriage Interventions at www.MarriageRecoveryCenter.com. Send comments to me at TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities
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