When Stress Leads to Disconnection: Responding to Relationship Triggers

Article provided by Elizabeth Gillette, LCSW, creator of Heirloom Counseling.

Relationship stress is exhausting. When you have a giant to-do list and you’re trying to juggle everything life is throwing at you and you and your partner are texting furiously back and forth about the argument you had right before you left for work (or maybe worse, you aren’t talking about it at all), it can feel like too much to manage.

I totally get it.

In my work as a relationship therapist, I support couples in navigating the trickiest relationship dynamics. Relationships are hard work and we come by relationship challenges honestly. How we show up in our adult relationships is shaped by our earliest interactions with our caregivers, family members, and even our first romantic partners. When we experience stress in the present moment, all of those early interactions are playing a significant role in how we perceive our partner, stressful emotions, and whether or not we feel we are capable of resolving issues together.

That’s a lot to manage in the moment, right?

In my own experience with my partner, I’ve learned that I have to practice strategies to use to manage relationship stress because if I don’t, the stress just gets worse. Our brains are wired to connect with other people, and your partner tends to be your person—the one you turn to when you need support, love, and connection. But what about when your relationship is the source of your stress? When that happens, you need to be ready to use your skills so you can get grounded, calm, and reconnected.

When one partner is calm and the other is triggered, the calm person can serve as the safe, secure base and gently remind the other about the strategies they need to use and support them in getting their needs met. When both people are triggered, I encourage folks to use self-soothing strategies to reduce the potential emotional fall-out and avoid digging deeper into the negative emotional cycle. Practicing these skills when you're feeling calm or during moments of minor irritation are good practice for when you're feeling more stressed and out of control of your emotions and behaviors.

When we experience disconnection in our most important relationships, our nervous systems become activated--we move into the part of our brain whose job it is to keep us safe and alive. This part of our brain is really important because if we are being chased by a bear in the woods, we want to be able to move quickly to safety instead of doddling around and considering all of our options. This part of our brain doesn't operate from a place of logic--it's all about survival. So when it becomes activated during arguments with a partner, the goal of self-soothing is to do everything possible to remind yourself that you're safe and this is not an emergency. That's how important connection is to our brains: we can feel like disconnection is a true emergency.

Self-soothing techniques can support us in managing the stress we experience in moments of disconnection and move us to a place where we can more calmly come back together to resolve the issues.

If you tend to be anxious, upset, or critical when you and your partner are disconnected, these strategies can help:

  • Noticing and naming the colors you see in your vicinity
  • Running water over your hands
  • Pressing your feet into the floor and noticing the sensation on your toes; wiggling your toes in your shoes
  • Running your hands up and down your arms or the tops of your legs in a slow, repetitive way
  • Breathing and imagining your in-breath rooting you down into your chair or the ground
  • Picking up a small object and noticing how it feels in your hands, identifying the texture and temperature, etc.
  • Loving on your pet if you have one

If you tend to withdraw, shut down, or feel overwhelmed when you and your partner aren’t getting along, these strategies can help:

  • Taking a walk around the block and noticing how it feels when your feet hit the ground and air enters your lungs
  • Visualizing a time when you felt calm, grounded, and safe and allowing yourself to be there for a few moments
  • Engaging in a physical activity like running up and down the stairs, doing jumping jacks, or lifting weights and notice how it feels to be in your body
  • Stretching your body

Utilizing these strategies when you're triggered can help you show up more effectively in your relationship with your partner. The times when you are both feeling really upset is not going to be the time you resolve the issue. If you can remind each other of your need to calm down, regulate your emotions (not make them go away), and set a time to return to continue to process together, you will have much more success!

Are you ready to work on your relationship?

I created a free guide to help you understand 5 ways you're likely stressing your relationship and how to heal it. I write about healthy relationships each week and would love to keep you in the loop.

I am also launching a Virtual Attachment Group on April 30th to support folks in learning about their attachment and relationship patterns in a way that will foster both immediate and long-term change. It's going to be AMAZING. I would love for you to join us.

We are all doing our best in relationships, and you’re not alone in struggling sometimes. Let’s figure it out together.

Thanks so much for reading, and I’m looking forward to connecting with you

Article provided by Elizabeth Gillette

Elizabeth Gillette, LCSW is the creator of Heirloom Counseling. She specializes in providing attachment-focused support for individuals and couples who envision healthier relationships and communities. She is trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy, a highly effective couples therapy modality that helps to support connection and communication between partners. She also utilizes a somatic attachment modality to increase the connection between mind and body, heal past trauma, and allow space for healthy connection with self and others. She believes in the importance of self-care, overall wellness, and a lifelong commitment to growth and learning. Elizabeth sees clients in her office in Asheville, NC and also utilizes online platforms to facilitate virtual groups and online courses. You can learn more about her work at www.heirloomcounseling.com.

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