Sometimes we here at the Hope office get a call... we need couple therapy, and we need it now. When can get in for an appointment?
Or we might hear from a couple who is in therapy leave us a message "We just had a huge blow out. I'm not sure what to do. Can you call me back?"
What should you do when your relationship takes a nose dive... a blow out happens... terrible words were said. Couple therapy is not a Quick fix- so what can you do to turn the relationship away from disaster and towards growth?
STOP: Safety First
The first thing to do when everything has gone wrong is to stop, look around, and see what needs to be bandaged. Triage the relationship.
Is there violence or aggression? Step apart, and move away from each other for a time until you both feel that you can be together without the aggression.
Is one or both of you intoxicated, under the influence, physically ill, or otherwise not in full control of your faculties? Step apart, and move away from each other for a time until you are in control of your faculties.
Were terrible things said or done? Step apart... you get the picture.
Since safety is first, and no other good thing can happen until both partners feel safe enough to talk and interact with each other again. Even if you disagree, and YOU don't feel like you need to step apart. Respect that you have different experiences, and it's OKay and healthy to take a time out.
LISTEN: Approaching and Listening
Many people struggle with anxiety and fears in their relationship. It may come from past relationships, or family of origin, or some rough experiences in the current relationship in the past. The anxieties should be respected, and also improved with listening and approaching.
Once basic safety is established, it's important to approach your partner, and ask "Can I listen to your perspective on what happened yesterday?" This shows care, concern, and an other-orientation to the relationship. Ideally both partners approach each other, sit down, and have a distraction-free (no cell phones, no kids, and no screens) listening session.
Your partner may say "No. I don't want to talk about it" Then the best thing to say back is "I would like to listen, and talk about my fears too, when you feel ready."
Don't try and solve the problem. Don't try and fix it. Don't tell your partner what they should have done or push to get THEM to listen to YOU. That doesn't fix the short-term problem anyway most of the time, and it makes the long term trajectory of the relationship worse. If you have a long-term perspective- for the good of your relationship across the years ahead of you- listen.
See if you can get U.N.S.T.U.C.K.
There is something that trauma therapists know, that we could all benefit from. How to get UNSTUCK. Even if you haven't experienced the high anxiety involved in trauma, most people have anxieties in their relationship. See if these UNSTUCK principles might help you (From Monson & Fredmon, 2012 book "Cognitive Behavioral Conjoint Therapy for PTSD").
U- United and Curious. As a team, be curious about your anxieties, and experiences in the relationship. Where did they come from? What are they like for you?
N- Notice your thoughts. Slow down, clarify what you are thinking, try and make sure you understand it and are clearly communicating your thoughts. Are they jumbled and fast and overwhelming? Or are your thoughts slowing down, and making sense, and telling a story of what you are experiencing?
S- (Brain)Storm alternatives. Can you think of alternative ways to address the needs and issues in the relationship? You can come up with things you can do differently, and things your partner could realistically do differently. Come up with small, simple, everyday things that might help with the problem you are facing.
T- Test them out. Come up with a plan for how you are going to try out a new way of interacting and addressing your problem.
U- Use the most balanced and realistic option/s. Of the alternative ideas and approaches to your problems, which seem most balanced and realistic. Test those ones out.
C- Changed feelings and behaviors. Does the process of discussing this, and of trying out the alternative plan, seem to change your feelings about the problems and the way you behave towards each other? Even if it is a "baby step" or small improvement? If it doesn't feel like enough change, what additional changes are you willing to test out and try?
K- Keep practicing. It's easy for a couple relationship that is struggling to end up on the back burner of life. Maybe you just want to give up hope. Maybe there are things that really can't change realistically and need to be accepted about each other. Perhaps a couple therapist would help in walking you through the process.
Hope is really important
As you face really bad awful no-good terrible days in your relationship, remember that relationships are not exempt from difficult things any more than any part of life. Life involves hard things- but also provides opportunity to build resources, habits, and new approaches to living that mature us. I hope that you see the growth in yourself and your relationship, as you wait for your therapist to give you a call back!