Many clients come to see me because they report communication problems and are continually fighting without resolving anything. After each argument there is a time of feeling in a blue mood and later this turns to purple with depression and feelings of hopelessness.
In time each partner eventually returns to a green zone of some harmony as reactive emotions dissolve. But soon another discussion will trigger the partners where they first go to the warning amber zone and then to the red zone, with feelings of anger, resentment, frustration and disorder. This negative cycle is continually repeated moving from green to amber, red to blue then depressing purple.
What is happening is they are not listening to each other. The basic tenant of effective communication is listening well and validating the others point of view before stating your view. But communicating well is more than just words. In fact not saying things is positive communication that you want to listen.
Positive communication is more than just words. It can be shown by closing the computer or turning off the TV when they get home to have a chat about the day, making a cup of tea for someone that needs it, thanking them for the cup of tea, arranging a date night, changing the bathroom towel, a hug, kiss, cuddle, gift etc. There are so many ways to communicate positive regard to your partner.
Let’s go back to the arguments that continually occur. When I see couples for the first time I take a shotgun question approach to find out the big picture about all the aspects of the relationship, both good and bad. When people argue a lot about small things it usually means there are underlying structural problems in the relationship. Maybe there is a power imbalance, money issues, sexual issues, continual resentment feelings from a past event, etc. By looking at the many aspects of the relationship we should be able to find the structural problem. The problem is the problem and the problem is the message. (That is a lot to digest I know.)
In the meantime how do you prevent every discussion going into the red zone? What is happening is in the amber zone you are getting information that you are about to be triggered. You will feel this in your body first, maybe a tightness in your chest, a tight jaw, a headache, etc. You are about to enter the red zone. When you get this warning call it is time for TIME OUT. Say you will discuss this later but separate and take the dog for a walk, make bread, read or play some music, just do something else to get back to the green zone.
One of the reasons you are being triggered is a part of your brain, the Amygdala, is awake and about to make you either fiee, fight or maybe freeze. Mostly a fight response as you feel under threat. Now you are in the red zone either yelling (which you later hate yourself for as well as abusing your partner) or running away. After the red zone you will hit the blue and purple zones.
The trick is to not get into the red zone. You should be able to find your own way of not getting there. Time out is one way. Maybe not saying what you want to say is another way to stay in the green zone. Maybe telling your partner you want to listen carefully to them so they get it all out and then have your say. One golden way to always keep in the green zone is to repeat back everything you heard, “What I heard you say was …….”. You do not have to accept what was said but you show you have listened and validated what they said. After this you have your say and they repeat that back. Applying this Responsive Listening technique will always keep you both in the green zone, in fact you will feel so much closer afterwards.
To recap communicating positively that your partner is highly regarded by you is more than using words, in fact it can also be the absence of words. The reasons people argue a lot about small things is there is an underlying structural issue in the relationship. Finally when you argue, stop yourself getting into the red zone as at that point you brain is sending powerful survival messages that you are under threat and need to fight, flee or freeze. De-esculating the argument will stop that happening with Time Out or something more creative.
Gerry North is a couple counsellor and treats anxiety, depression, panic attacks, grief and loss and addictions.