Relationships can be incredibly challenging…especially these days! The current pandemic has forced many couples to live and work together in small spaces, which can make it a challenge to find the space needed to process individual and shared experiences and to navigate the home-work divide. Additionally, many couples are facing financial struggles, deaths in their family or friend groups, and various other emotional and physical issues, which will put a strain on a relationship in the best of times and can make a bad situation worse during a crisis like the current COVID pandemic. Needless to say, a lot of people have been going through a lot, and it can be really hard to know what to do and how to relate to your significant other or partner during these turbulent times!
In this podcast (episode #255) and blog, I talk about how you can use mind management and the Neurocycle method to deal with a relationship crisis in the moment, and how to use self-regulation to heal your relationship over the long-term.
The most important thing to remember as you work through any relationship issue is that you are in a relationship, which means that you cannot hide what you are going through. Doing so will only make your issues worse, as a couple and on an individual basis, because what you try to suppress will explode in other areas of your life (physically, emotionally, relationally, mentally—you name it!). You cannot just keep what you are going through to yourself, whether you are doing so because you don’t want to add to your significant other’s struggles, or whether you are doing so because you are not sure how to even tell the other person what you are dealing with and going through.
In a relationship, you literally imprint that person onto your brain. This means that you are connected in ways that are both emotional and physical. You really do affect each other, which can be both a good and bad thing!
When you are going through something challenging in your life and try keep it to yourself, all this roiling, boiling, chaotic, swirling mental energy must go somewhere. The good news is you can choose that “where”! This energy doesn’t have to control you, and it doesn’t have to destroy your relationship. But this starts with being aware of what you are going through and acknowledging that things need to change.
To this end, I recommend doing a Neurocycle when you are in the midst of a relationship crisis or when you and your partner are at a “fork in the road” moment. This is the scientific mind-management process I have developed and researched over the past three decades, and is based on the way the mind and brain function, build thoughts and memory, and process life experiences, which I discuss in my upcoming book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.
The 5 steps of this process are designed to help you and your partner process your feelings and experiences, either individually or as a couple or both (which is what I recommend, because saving a relationship takes both individual effort and work as a couple) before they permanently affect your relationship.
Before you begin this process, it is important that you both are in the right mental state, because dealing with relationship issues can be emotionally and physically draining. To this end, I recommend that you both take steps to calm your mind and body, especially if you just had a major argument. Some ways to do this are:
- Talk about good memories you have, right from the beginning of your relationship to the present.Then talk about what you love and admire about each other. Lastly, talk about what you don’t understand about each other. Writing these down before you begin the conversation can really help you organize your thinking and what you want to say to each other. A relationship journal can really help with this!
- When you start talking, have specific “rules” in place, like:
- No shouting.
- No swearing.
- No name-calling.
- No accusations, so that the other person doesn’t feel defensive. So, for instance, instead of saying “You did this…”, rather say something like: “This is what I feel you did and this is how it made me feel, but maybe I misunderstood you? Is this what you meant?”.
- Avoid “you” statements and sticking to “I” statements. “You” statements can come off as judgmental, and may make the situation worse. “I” statements, on the other hand, highlight your emotions and are less likely to cause defensiveness. For example, instead of “you never listen to me”, rather say something like “I feel unheard; can we talk?”.
- Acknowledge how you are feeling and how the words or actions made you feel, while specifying that you may be making assumptions about your partner’s intentions. Say things like “I feel you meant this, am I correct?” or “It seems that you are saying this…, is this what you mean?”.
- Before you respond to someone and get upset, make sure you understand what the other person means. Ask for clarification before reacting, especially if you feel triggered by what they are saying or doing.
- Avoid phrases like “you never…” and “you always…”.
- Stay on the current topic and avoid constantly bringing up past hurts.
- Don’t go to bed angry. This doesn’t mean you must sort through all your issues at once, but try to find a compromise and plan to work on the issue at hand later.
- Discuss solutions, not just problems. Be “solution-minded”; think of tangible, constructive ways you can improve the situation and your relationship to show that you are willing to change.
- State how you feel, not just what you think.
- Take a break when things get heated.
- Allow your partner to finish speaking before you interject.
- Watch your body language. Remember that body language is 50% of communication! Stress and anger have physical repercussions, such as the tensing of your muscles, which can make a situation tenser and more combative. So, when you are in the middle of an argument, take note of your posture, facial expressions and body movements. Minimize fast and aggressive movements, and focus on loosening the tension in your face.
- You will not always stick to these rules because emotions run high, as we all well know! So, in these moments, do a 10-second pause breathing exercise, for around 6-9 times (or as many times as you need). Breathe in for 3 seconds, and out for 7 seconds. The increased exhalation improves decision-making and reduces impulsivity.
- Sometimes, you may find that it is easier to go to different rooms to calm down and then text each other before talking in person again. This can make the situation feel less emotionally combustive, and texting forces you to be more comprehensive and get to the point of what you are trying to say.
- If the one person doesn’t feel like talking right at that moment, then you need to respect that, but you also have the right to say something like “I understand you can’t talk now, but can we try to talk about this maybe later today or tomorrow?” Schedule in a time to sort this out—never just leave a major issue hanging! This actually may be a great time for you to do the 5 steps of the Neurocycle individually or with the guidance of a therapist or trusted confidant to work on some of the underlying issues in your life that may be contributing to your relationship issues.
- I also recommend doing something physical during this time, such as an exercise class, yoga, jumping jacks, cleaning or a nature walk, to help calm down your brain and body and gain clarity.
Then, when you are ready, go through the 5 mind management steps of the Neurocycle together:
1. Gather awareness of your warning signals:
In this gather step, you are gathering awareness of your emotional and physical warning signals, behaviors and perspective/attitude. It’s a bit like gathering apples into a basket versus letting them all fall on your head and knock you out—the apples being all these signals.
Here is what you do: both close your eyes and gather awareness of the following physical warning signals:
Are you feeling any pain or discomfort in your body? Your stomach? Your head? Your heart? How does it feel? Explore these sensations, don’t try to ignore them. Is it a sharp stabbing pain? Do you feel “woozy” or nauseous? Do you feel your heart rate dropping?
Do you have a headache or migraine?
Now gather awareness of the following emotional warning signals:
How are you feeling emotionally and mentally - are you feeling anxious? Angry? Sad? Reactive? Depressed? Annoyed? Fearful?
How intense are these emotions? You can use the emotional warning signal guide to help you rank the intensity of your emotions.
Now gather awareness of your behaviors. What are you doing and saying? How are you saying things? What’s your tone of voice and body language? Are you using too many “you’s” instead of “I’s”? Are you using strong adjectives like “always” and “never”? Are you interjecting and not letting the other person talk? Are you really listening?
Now gather awareness of your perspective/attitude. What do you feel about the situation? How do you see what is happening or what happened? How do you view your partner?
In this step, allow yourself time to feel. Validate your feelings, don’t run away from them!
It takes about 60-90 seconds for emotions to pass through you, so it’s critical you not do anything besides just breathe and gather awareness during this period. This is the time when most people react and then regret what they said or did! This is the time when your brain and nonconscious mind are dynamically self-regulating by adjusting to and organizing the information.
2. Reflect on what happened and put your thoughts, feelings, words and actions “on trial”:
Why do you think you feel the way you do?
What has happened recently? What has happened in the past?
Have you been suppressing or ignoring anything? Are you trying to avoid anything?
What triggered you? Be as specific as possible.
Where is all of this coming from?
What prior experiences am I bringing to this situation that could be making it worse?
How would I advise someone else to respond in this situation?
How did we overcome past challenges in our relationship?
What would I like to see in the future? How do I imagine our relationship?
You can do this in about a minute or so, or even shorter, because you don't need too much information—you don’t need to find all the answers right now! Allow yourself to be curious with your emotions and feelings. What you are feeling is valid, but may not be true, so question everything.
3. Write down your thoughts:
Pour you mind and brain on paper. This doesn’t have to be organized or even make sense—just get it out! You can organize in step 4: recheck.
This type of “pouring your mind out” writing will pull what’s in the depths of your being up and will help you both organize and clarify your thoughts and feelings. It also increases brain health, so that you can think more clearly, be less impulsive and have more wisdom and cognitive flexibility!
Write this into a journal and date everything to track your progress.
If you must defuse a tense situation and manage it in the moment, you can do this step mentally by visualizing and having an ask/answer/discuss conversation with yourself based on what you reflected in step 2 in your head. Visualizing “writes’ genetically in the brain. Just write yourself a note to come back to this part when you have more time.
4. Recheck your thoughts and feelings:
In this recheck step, you are making more sense of what you have gathered, written and reflected on. So, I want you to go back over what you discussed, wrote down and thought about more deeply, reflecting and analyzing your thoughts and feelings. Do a mental autopsy; become a detective and look for patterns, triggers and activators. Write whatever you discover into your journal in another color so you can track what you are reconceptualizing.
What truths are hidden in your writing? What patterns? What are you noticing about your thoughts and reactions?
Has anything changed?
How do you feel physically right now?
What assumptions have you been making?
How are you planning to proceed?
What can you learn from your reactions?
What can you learn from the argument?
How can you reconceptualize this situation? How can you turn the destructive into something constructive?
What silver-lining do you see? Can you see a silver-lining?
How would you like your relationship to change?
How would you like to change?
5. Do an Active Reach:
When it comes to any relationship, don’t just say sorry, take action! Acknowledge your own role/responsibility in the argument, and be prepared to give an authentic apology, not just a quick or irritated “I’m sorry!”
Really think of ways to change your behavior, so that the other person can see that you are genuinely apologetic. Be what I call “solution-minded”; think of tangible, constructive ways you can improve the situation and your relationship to show that you are willing to change.
Here are some suggestions:
- Talk to someone you trust about the experience and how you feel. This may provide more perspective and help you learn from the experience. You can do this as a couple, individually or both!
- Focus on what you can both do better next time, and actually write out a plan along the lines of “If this happens…then I will…”.
- When you’re experiencing intense, “ugly” emotions, it can be hard to feel in control and work through these feelings. One thing I always recommend (it’s not easy but so effective!) is to ask yourself: “what can I learn from this?”. This simple question will make the biggest difference for your mental health!
- Be graceful. We all need a little grace and compassion at times, because we are all human! It is so important to give people a second and a third and a fourth chance, and try to understand why they may be reacting in a certain way, and try to figure out why someone is upset. Maybe they are just having a bad day, or are going through something difficult. Always consider this before you just assume they are acting this way to antagonize you. Try to see the best first—this is what I call a “grace attitude”. This means seeing this person in a compassionate and understanding way, which changes the kind of mental energy you generate towards that person. This can help defuse a potentially explosive situation.
- Make self-reflection and self-regulation a habit. Take the time to think about your own thoughts and behavior as you are at the start or in the middle of an argument. Did you hurt that person? Are your words and actions “triggering” them? Be honest with yourself. Are you looking at the person through the past – how they used to be? Even I do this with my husband—I occasionally think my husband is not listening to me like he did in the past, even though my husband has dramatically improved the way he engages with me. Remember, the past doesn’t have to define the future! People can and do change, and we all fail at times. Do not hold someone’s present actions against past behaviors.
- Discuss your values, beliefs and differences, and what you both like to do together. Remember, you don’t have to agree on everything or like all the same things. Find ways to give each other space to enjoy what you each like doing individually, while being intentional about creating shared experiences that allow you both to connect meaningfully.
- Make argument autopsies a habit! You can do a full Neurocycle to perform an argument autopsy. After an argument, it is always important to analyze why things ended up the way they did. We cannot fix something if we do not know why it “broke” in the first place! Once you are calm, think about how you can learn from the situation and how you can improve your communication and relationship—don’t just “move on” or the same thing can happen again. Use this “autopsy” process as a preventative measure; it is a way to understand how to prevent this kind of argument in the future. It may be helpful to discuss with the other person what can be done in the future to prevent or manage a re-occurrence of the same argument, or to discuss the situation with someone you trust. Set boundaries and take note of toxic thought patterns.
- Practice using the techniques mentioned above to better improve your communication, argue better and build trust!
For more on mind management and dealing with a relationship crisis, listen to my podcast (episode #255). For more help on managing your thinking using the Neurocycle, preorder my new book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess (and receive exclusive bonuses!) and check out my SWITCH app and our most recent clinical trials.
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4:08 How to deal with a relationship crisis
4:40 How the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted relationships
7:20 Why you can’t hide what you are going through from your partner
11:45 How your significant other changes your brain
16:00, 25:10 Rules for communicating & arguing better
23:50 How assumptions can lead to a relationship crisis
38:58 Why you need to discuss solutions & not just problems with your partner
45:50 How to use the Neurocycle to deal with a relationship crisis in the moment & to heal a relationship over the long-term
This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as professional or medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of an appropriate professional.