It’s amazing how fast we react internally to people’s mood and tone. Someone can get an edge to their voice, have a frown on their face, or be extra quiet, and our brain signal us, “Alert! Something’s wrong!”

In many ways, this is a good thing. We are sensitive to the people we care about. If our child or loved one is acting sad or upset, we immediately pick up on this signal, and come close to them. We ask, “What’s wrong? Are you ok?” with the goal of wanting them to feel better.

A funny thing happens when it’s our partner, though. If we know they are upset about work, or some outside thing, usually we do pretty well with that. We want to come in and offer comfort in some way. But if we think they are upset with us, our brains quickly shift from “Alert!” to “Danger!” and we can start to read the interaction as a threat.

And what do we do with a threat? We fight, flight, or freeze. This is usually the time in the conflict where the cycle starts to whip up, and people are yelling, or shutting down, and everyone is feeling worse.

It can be helpful to send our partner safety signals as we start to enter into shaky territory. A safety signal might be:

  • Knowing you’re in a bad mood from work, and letting your partner know quickly, “It’s not you, just having a stressful day.”
  • If you do have to talk to them about a hard topic, something like, “Hey, I’d like to talk to you about the garage, is that something you feel ready for now or would tomorrow be better?”
  • If you’re getting overwhelmed in an argument saying, “I’m getting overwhelmed, I need a minute, but I still want to resolve this conversation.”

See what it does to try one of these, and if it lets some tension out of a difficult moment. What safety signals do you need? What would help tell you that your partner is looking out you, even with a charged topic?

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1. Johnson, S. (2004). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy. New York, New York: Brunner-Routledge