It starts with monitoring and managing your emotions.
By Cheryl Gerson — Last updated on Jun 13, 2023
Photo: PeopleImages.com – Yuri A / Shutterstock
Remember when your teachers and parents told you, “Stop, look, and listen before you cross the street.” It was a simple tactic that kept you safe from potential disaster. Nowadays, you easily cross the street without harm because you stop, look, and listen automatically.
Well, it turns out that a piece of wise childhood advice can save your relationship from disaster, as well. When you and your partner argue, often the tension and danger to your love feel as threatening as an oncoming Mack truck.
Conflict involves a lot of interpersonal “traffic.” When you’re calm, you and your partner maintain a personal space boundary that helps you navigate your life together smoothly. But when communication breaks down and your emotions start crashing into each other, rely on the old adage for guidance: Stop, look and listen.
Here are three preschool rule steps to help you stay calm and control your response to emotional stimuli:
You’re chatting with your husband, enjoying an interesting conversation. Suddenly, he says something that feels wrong to you. Your shoulders rise, your throat gets tight, and you’re face feels hot. There’s a Mack truck barreling toward you. You can hear the roar coming closer. You can feel the vibration under your feet.
When you notice this reaction, stop.
That’s challenging to do because you won’t feel in control. Just know that the Mack truck feeling is actually part of you. It’s your emotional truck barreling down the road inside you. It’s the primitive part of your brain hyped up to fight. (You’ve been here before — you know you’ll feel bruised and beaten up, and you don’t want to do this again.)
Notice how tense your body feels, how you’re flooded with adrenaline. You’re really going to have to breathe into this one and slam on the brakes. Do it! Say, “Give me a minute,” and stop the conversation for a moment.
Once you pause for a bit and can breathe calmly again, now it’s time to look. First, look around you and notice your surroundings to help ground you back into the present moment. Most really hot fights are rooted deeply in something in our history. So, your brain leaps back to other times in your life when you wanted to fight or flee, and you’re instinctively linking this moment to all of those. These triggered memories fuel your rage or panic.
Once you feel present at the moment again, look at your partner. Who is this person you’re so angry with? Is he reminding you of someone else? Does she suddenly look remarkably like your mother? Look again. What do you see? Do you see someone determined to wipe you out? Do you see someone you know? A stranger? Can you even still see your beloved and that he or she is another struggling human being?
If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve already achieved something remarkable. You’ve managed to rescue yourself from the “fight/flight” drive and return to your thinking mind.
You may still have a bone to pick with your partner; this is not a time to give up your position. In fact, you’re now more organized and better able to express what you truly have to say about the actual issue before you (versus pulling out your entire past).
But, before you start talking again …
What is your partner really saying? Is he telling you what’s wrong with you? Is she telling you about something that bothers her? Is your partner asking you for something?
Listening doesn’t mean you must agree. Listening simply gives you information about what’s actually happening in this conflict. You’ll be surprised what you hear when you actually listen. And because you’re now much saner than when you started, you’re ready to dialogue, rather than fight.
Of course, all of this sounds simple. But, like a good magic trick, it’s hard to master.
“Stop, look, and listen” is certainly far more complex in relationships than simply checking for cars on the street.
When a conflict starts, your whole body shifts without your conscious intention. You don’t sit there and say to yourself, “Hmmm … I think I want to argue about that.” Instead, you find yourself triggered. You go from 0 to 60 faster than a Porsche, the primitive part of your brain immediately reacting to a perceived threat. (This is the part of the brain that saved your ancestors from being mauled by a tiger).
But this “stop, look, and listen” technique activates another part of your brain, allowing you to judge more dispassionately so that you don’t confuse the family kitty with that tiger. This is the part of the brain you want to engage during conflict in your relationship. This ability to refocus, discern, and then respond (instead of reacting) is what makes us uniquely human. It’s what makes complicated relationships, like marriage, even possible.
Your parents drilled the three words into you. Now you can teach yourself: Stop that speeding mental Mack truck. Look around, and at your partner, to reground yourself. And … listen for clearer information. You’ll be glad you did.
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Cheryl Gerson is a couples counselor, an individual psychotherapist, and a group therapy leader. In private practice in New York City for over 25 years, she’s licensed in Clinical Social Work, has a Board Certified Diplomate, and has an Institute certificate in psychoanalytic psychotherapy.