Your relationship under quarantine: Five tips to stay connected

By Elizabeth DeVaughn on 22nd Apr 2020


A heart and two hands

Well, here we are. Navigating something we’ve never navigated before. Dealing with stressors we’ve never had to face. Handling an ever-changing rollercoaster of emotions. And perhaps, trying not to maim our partners in the meantime.

It’s excruciatingly hard work at times. And, it’s worth it.

I’m going to share with you five skills that my husband and I practice consistently. These skills help us to:

1) Stay connected with our most authentic, highest selves,
2) Regulate our emotional states so that we can be more present and open with each other without becoming defensive,
3) Honor both ourselves and the other, and
4) QUICKLY get to the source of the problem.

Tip 1: Ask permission to have a hard conversation

Right off the bat, this skill communicates that you honor both yourself (“I need to have a conversation so I can feel more connected with you.”) and your partner (“I respect your time, your energy, and your boundaries.”). Because of energy depletion, time constraints, etc., we’re not always in a space to be fully present with our partner, and asking permission honors this fact. This skill also helps reduce defensiveness on both sides.

You might try saying, “I really want to talk to you about ________. Talking through this would help me to feel closer to you. Are you open to talking right now?”

And if they’re not open at the moment, ask them when a good time would be. It’s critically important to stick to the scheduled time in order to build and maintain trust.

Also, if your partner needs to talk at a later time, it’s important for you to respect the boundary. A lot of women I work with feel very anxious when their partner needs space (not the same as avoidance). This is a great time to pull out some self-soothing/emotional regulation tools, which will be described in Step 4.

Tip 2: State your intention before entering a difficult conversation

This skill is also fantastic for reducing defensiveness on both sides. In using this skill, we are briefly explaining the “why” behind a potentially difficult conversation. It invites openness and receptivity, and it helps us avoid dropping into a lower brain state (fight/flight, ego defenses).

If we walk into a room and hear our partner say, “We need to talk right now about how you never ____________,” we enter fertile ground for becoming automatically defensive; and in truth, we are being attacked with this type of language and energy. Not only have we not asked permission (Tip 1), our partner also has no idea what’s happening.

You might try saying (after asking permission, and assuming your partner is open to talking): “The reason I want to bring this up is because I’ve felt really disconnected from you since __________ happened. I’ve been feeling angry and hurt, and I don’t want that to turn into resentment toward you. I don’t like this distance between us, and my intention in telling you these hard things is to help us work through them and get closer.”

Tip 3: Using “I” language

I cannot stress this enough. The examples in Tips 1 and 2 include effective use of “I” language. “You” language is more like, “You need to listen to me! You messed this up again! You always do this!” “You” language is ineffective, ignores the core issues, causes cycling in reactivity, and brings harm to your partner.

Also, using “you” language disempowers you. The reason you feel the need to bring something up to your partner is because you have a need, and you need to express that need. Fully owning this reconnects you to your beautiful, healthy power! And please remember that having needs, plus having the need to express those needs, are extremely normal and healthy human experiences. You may have been conditioned in childhood to believe that this is needy, dramatic, or “too much.” Short answer, it’s not. At all.

You might try saying things like, “I felt _______ when you said ________” (this works because the “you” is the object; you’re still speaking from your perspective), or “I’ve been holding some anger/hurt/resentment/loneliness, etc.; are you open to talking about this?”

Tip 4: Take breaks when getting overheated

This is critical. One reason couples spiral out of control is because they get into a lower brain tennis match of fight/flight, ego defenses, and other reactive/survivor skills.

(Very) brief brain tutorial: The “lower brain,” according to the Triune Brain model, encompasses the lower two thirds of the brain, the reptilian and mammalian brain. When a person encounters a higher level of stress (such as conflict with their partner), the reptilian brain senses danger and signals the mammalian brain – which contains our emotions and attachment system – to activate attachment-oriented survival mechanisms (yelling, blaming, defensiveness, obsessing, chasing, not honoring boundaries, anxiety, avoidance, nagging, etc.).

Having a fully “online” brain means that the top brain is fully connected to the lower two thirds. The neocortex – particularly the prefrontal cortex, which integrates our experiences with wisdom – has the ability to “parent” the lower two thirds, telling them, “No sweeties, we aren’t in life-or-death danger. We’re just having conflict, and we’ll be okay.” Having an “online” brain means that we’re fully conscious and can see ourselves, our partner, and our current situation with wisdom and clarity.

When you feel yourself “flipping your lid,” – your top brain literally going offline – this is your signal to take a brief break so you can come back online. First, as much as you can, explain to your partner that you need a brief break, which will allow you to hear them more clearly on the other side.

Tip 4.1 – Self-soothe

We can’t talk our way to a fully restored brain (i.e. we can’t “tell” ourselves to calm down). Language resides in the neocortex – which has just gone offline (isn’t this stuff fascinating??)! The way to restore our upper brain is to SELF-SOOTHE THROUGH THE FIVE SENSES. Try some deep belly breathing, do a brief meditation, cuddle a pet or a soft blankie, smell some essential oils, take a short walk outside (barefoot is best), listen to music under 60 beats per minute (bpm), stretch/move your body, etc.

Tip 4.2 – Feel the Emotion

When you take a break from a heated conflict and start self-soothing, chances are you’ll feel strong emotion as soon as you’re alone. LET THE EMOTION FLOW. Trying to stifle emotion sends us sailing into lower brain, as pushing down emotion is in itself a mammalian survival tactic. Let yourself cry and/or scream (ask for privacy). Dance the emotion; paint it; journal it; draw it. Raw emotion only lasts for 120 seconds at the most. Let, it, out. When you’re done – and you’ll know when you are – you should notice yourself feeling restored, clear, and back to yourself, the most authentic you.

Both self-soothing and feeling the entirety of our emotion restores our upper brain in a snap. Feeling the emotion can be difficult, yes, but it’s nothing you can’t get through. Emotion brings clarity and is our FRIEND.

Tip 5: Reflect what you hear your partner say

This skill is huge during heavy conversations, as it helps you and your partner stay attuned to one another. You really can’t do this one enough. When we feel heard, we naturally calm. Feeling heard, seen, and understood are some of our most basic human needs. The problems I’ve seen in couples are never REALLY about the money, the kids, the dishes, the sock on the floor that he forgot to pick up. It’s about the lack of feeling seen and heard. When we know deeply that our partner sees us, we can easily work out the other issues.

Also important – after you reflect, take a pause, and ask your partner if you heard them accurately. Hang out in the pause; don’t respond immediately. Relish in the connection.

You might say, “What I heard you say is __________. Did I hear that correctly?”

I hope these skills will be helpful for you! And of course, these work just as well with friendships, family, co-workers, etc. Remember that these skills take practice. If it feels clunky at first, that’s okay. And, both parties have to be willing. My husband and I have navigated our share of conflict and moments of disconnection during the quarantine. These skills (we consistently use ALL of them) bring us back to each other. Every time.

Elizabeth DeVaughn, LPC-MHSP is a Relationship Expert, Licensed Professional Counselor, & Founder of Woman Emerging, LLC

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