This COVID time of uncertainty heightens… well everything! How can we stay “safe,” not just physically (by staying home), but emotionally as well?
To help people create safety through couples therapy and mediation, I’ve honed the following principles which I call the A-B-C’s. They integrate a Psychobiologic Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT)1 with an interest-based Divorce Mediation approach.2
This integrated process begins existentially, by helping each person to articulate what is most important, and how each wishes to live his/her life. Couples therapy and divorce mediation guide both people to reach agreements, whether living under one roof or two. Especially when separated couples co-parent, these A-B-C’s can be instrumental in reaching agreements that enable their children to feel safe. Thus, whether you are partnered up or not, living together or apart, you can still create safety within your relationship.
A is for AWARENESS
To sustain successful therapy or mediation, it is important to gain a better understanding how you feel and what makes you feel that way. To feel safe, two important and related pieces of theory are relevant: your attachment style and your (brain’s) threat response.
For evolutionary survival, our brain is wired to pick up the negative — any threat! — in the environment. The giraffe at the watering hole survives when s/he interprets bushes moving from a lion, but not the wind. As human animals, we sometimes interpret the wind as a lion, and (over)react to words or actions as threats. This can lead to an “amygdala hijack”3, causing a defensive reaction, i.e. one of the 3 F’s: Fight, Flight, or Fade (play dead). Dan Siegal urges that you keep feelings and behaviors within your acceptable “Window of Tolerance.”4
Attachment styles frame our brain responses. These styles develop in infancy when we experience love and safety as we bond/connect to our primary care-taker. Thus, our brains encode safety or threat according to these attachment styles. Stan Tatkin describes easy-to-understand ‘island’, ‘wave’, and ‘anchor’ attachment styles.1
B is for BEHAVIOR
The ways two people treat one another — in words and actions — is their relationship. The focus here is learning ways to improve your interactions, not just your feelings.
If another’s words or behavior trigger you into defensive mode (like the giraffe), learn to say, “I can’t talk to you right now,” then walk out of the room. Try to remember to add, “I’ll be back in… an hour (or whenever) when I calm down.” Knowing when you’ll return helps the other person not feel left, or abandoned. And you need reliably to return when you say you will.
C is for CONSIDERATION
Our words and actions contribute to how others feel and behave in return. We can learn to understand our impact on another, and anticipate it — in a word, to be considerate. We feel more safe when our words and behaviors are consistent and predictable, and we rely on others’ to be as well.
Known as Theory of Mind, this is the ability to walk around to the other side of the mountain and see from the other person’s perspective.5 Such a two-person paradigm is foundational for parents (together or separated) trying to be considerate of schedules and needs of both adults and kids (e.g. scheduling homework, shutting off screens, keeping a consistent bedtime).
Further, this two-person paradigm allows you to repair the inevitable ruptures that occur in any relationship. Repair happens best when you understand the other’s brain and attachment styles, thereby enhancing mutual regulation of another’s emotions. This enables you to learn to soothe him/her and head off an amygdala hijack for either of you.
While these A-B-C’s are not automatic, they are all learnable skills. Even in times of crisis, it is possible to create safety in your relationship.
- Tatkin, S. (2011) Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship. Oakland, Ca., New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
- Knickle, K, McNaughton, N, Downar, J (2012); Beyond winning: mediation, conflict resolution, & non-rational sources of conflict in the ICU, J. Crit Care; 16(3): 308.
- “Amygdala hijack”: term coined by Daniel Goleman in (1995) Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, N.Y., Bantam Books.
- Siegel, D. J., (2010) Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, N.Y., Bantam Book.
- Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E.L., & Target, M. (2004) Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self, N.Y., Other Press.