How to Save a Relationship.
As a therapist I’m often asked how to save a relationship. And it makes sense because relationships are hard! It’s a good thing that neuroscience is giving us some great answers.
As humans we have a basic need to find that special person. Our plus one. There’s a primal need inside all of us to connect with someone who makes us feel special and loved. We all want to have someone who’s there no matter what.
The kicker comes in when you realize that you’re ALSO hardwired to protect yourself. Like the rest of us, you probably desperately want to avoid embarrassing situations, painful emotions and situations that feel too vulnerable.
And physiologically, you can’t do these at the same time–it’s one or the other.
This works just fine some of the time, but can create a whole lot of problems in relationships. Especially if it’s not kept in balance. And especially in relationships with people important to you. What I’m talking about here is often displayed as nonverbal communication. And understanding this nonverbal stuff can be a big part of how to save a relationship.
Nonverbal communication is a big part of Emotionally Focused Therapy — an evidence based couples therapy. Arguably, it’s the most extant, effective, empirically validated intervention for couples out there. And non verbal communication can often feel like connection verses protection.
Open face (genuine smile)
Open body (arms not crossed)
Connection feels like:
Relaxed and Calm
Excited or Happy
While Protection is More Like:
Protection feels like:
Tense or worried
Rigid or chaotic
Numb or withdrawn
Blame and shame
Why Does this Matter?
You protect and connect in lots of ways. But for survival reasons, we are all more likely to go into protection mode, rather than connection mode. And if there are real danger or safety issues, being and staying in protection mode makes total sense. In fact, if there are safety issues, I urge you to consider professional help to address this issue directly (and soon). But for most of us, even without safety issues, we are more likely to go into protection mode than connection mode.
In a millisecond your brain decides if you should protect or connect. This is just as true for other people. When you’re in either mode, mutual regulation of the nervous system happens. Emotions are contagious! Your limbic brain regulates their limbic brain. So when you’re in connection mode, the people around you are more likely to connect with you. When this happens, you both calm down. You both feel better and are more open to each other. And when you’re in protection mode… well, the people in your life tend to go there too.
How to Save a Relationship?
If you’re struggling in a love relationship, you’re probably in protection mode, A LOT! And, you probably don’t even realize it. And this triggers them to be in protection mode, too. But if what you want is to connect, to really deeply connect with them and make your relationship stronger, getting out of protection mode can be a very good first step.
Do you smile and try to connect with him/her when you see them? Or do you ignore them and find that they are not receptive either. Are your face and body open or closed? Is your voice soft or stern? Are your eyes soft, bright and engaged? If you’ve been identified or labeled as having a “Resting Bitch Face,” (aka RBF)? Sometimes this is just your relaxed face, but other times it can be about being in protection mode. Maybe your closed off? Maybe you’re judging them? Because if you are, your face and body probably show it. Or are you accepting them, really trying to see it from their perspective. Loving them — warts and all?
“But it’s the Way You Say it…”
Anybody ever said that to you? That it’s the way you say it, that bothers them? Yay, me too! The way you (and I) say something is more important than what we actually said. And when people come to me asking how to save a relationship, helping them understand this can be a first step.
The way you say something is determined in a large part by whether you are in either protection or connection mode. And asking yourself if you’re connecting or protecting can be a REALLY important place to start.
A good way to answer the question how to save your relationship can start right here. You could save this post. Or you could even share this post. Sharing info with someone else tends to make it clearer for us. It tends to help you remember it more. And, if you share this with someone you’re struggling with — well, that might be an opening to change the relationship. And that, well that can change everything.
Here’s a video from a colleague and she explains it well — with a great Swedish accent!
If you’ve been in protection mode for a while, it takes some time (and courage) to want to risk a deeper connection. And then it takes some time to get into the practice of connecting… but it’s often a really effective way to start to open up a relationship.
Are You Willing?
Are you willing to connect in a new way? Are you willing to try? We all need someone else’s eyes to light up when we enter a room. Are your eyes going to light up for your special someone today?
I hope this has been eye opening and helpful for you. I love the work I get to do. Helping people create the relationships they really want. The kind of relationships that we all need. If you’re interested in getting regular doses of relationship humor, news and insights, follow me on Facebook. If you’d like info on counseling, feel free to contact me directly. When I’m accepting new clients I offer free 15 minute phone consultations.