Reactive cycles are set in motion by control-oriented communication — attempts to be right or stay comfortable instead of expressing core feelings and needs. In this book, we emphasize the important distinction between communicating to relate and communicating to control.
When you communicate to relate, you place a high value on sharing authentic feelings in the interest of transparency. You let go of the need to control the outcome. This type of communication fosters knowing and being known.
Communicating to control places a high value on getting a predictable outcome that does not challenge your ego’s defense structure.
Your aim is to look good, act more in control than you feel, and generally avoid emotional discomfort. Controlling communication is pretty automatic. It’s what we do most of the time.
If you want your partner to love you for who you are, you need to reveal who you truly are. This takes intention and practice.
We all have a lot of automatic communication habits that we need to unlearn. Learning to relate more and control less is vital to keeping your love life fresh and alive.
Here is a summary of the differences between relating and controlling:
Relating. . .
- Seeks to know the other person and to be known
- Values being real, unique, and open to surprise
- Uses I-messages and self-disclosure
- Listens openly, with curiosity and empathy, showing an ability to hold and wait
- Is responsive to the other person’s pain or fear — with empathy and reassurance
- Collaborates to find an outcome that takes both partners’ needs into account
Controlling. . .
- Seeks comfort, looking good, and appearing to be in control
- Values being right, knowing what will happen, having things all figured out
- Uses you-messages, sales pitches, power tactics, and manipulation
- Makes assumptions and generalizations about the other, and believes these are right
- Ignores the other person’s feelings and focuses on one’s own needs
- Assumes that being open to a partner’s needs means giving up one’s own
Most people are uncomfortable facing their own attachment needs.
We try to avoid feeling dependent on our partners, as this exposes us to being disappointed or frustrated. In a relationship, we impact one another in ways that can stir up attachment insecurities, so a partner’s actions can affect us in ways that are not predictable or controllable. By suppressing or denying our vulnerable feelings and core fears, we try to stay in control and act big, when in reality we feel vulnerable and small.
As a result, we all fall into various control patterns and reactive behaviors — pretending to feel fine when we’re really upset, pulling out a mighty sword when we’re actually feeling weak or scared. It’s no wonder we have trouble getting our true needs met. We have been trained not to reveal them!
When we communicate with the intent to relate, we reveal what we are experiencing in our bodies, hearts, and minds.
We report our body sensations, feelings, thoughts, and wants as these arise. The goal is to know and be known by our partner at the deepest level — not to win, be right, or stay out of trouble.
We communicate our real feelings and needs with an open heart and spacious mind. We are open to hearing the other person’s response, whatever it may be — pleasing or displeasing. We ask for what we want without any guarantee that we’ll get it. We accept that we will not always get the desired response. But we trust that we can survive the normal emotional discomforts of an intimate relationship. If we do feel hurt or upset, we know we can express this and ask for reassurance or coregulation.
Relating involves two-way communication.
There are two of us in this relationship, and our needs may be different sometimes. Yet there is an overall sense that we understand and care about each other — and that we can collaborate and find win-win solutions.
It takes considerable self-awareness to relate and collaborate.
A good way to develop this capacity is to track our in-the moment sensations and feelings. When we are controlling — in a control pattern or reactive behavior — we’re not even aware of what we sense or feel. We’re basically on automatic, doing what we learned to do as children to cope with not getting our needs met.
When you notice that you are getting triggered — even a little — that is the time to slow down, pause, and stop engaging in your automatic behavior. Feel your body sensations and your feelings.
Relating keeps your attention where it needs to be, where you can actually be effective — in the here and now, dealing with your present situation as it really is.
For instance, let’s say you’re upset with your partner for arriving late for dinner. This feeling is front and center in your awareness. Until it is expressed and cleared, your attention will be drawn to it, and you will not be present in the here and now. Even if you try to suppress it, it will remain stirring inside of you, so you will feel distracted by it until you clear the air.
On a subconscious level, a reactive cycle is already starting. Even if you try to avoid revealing your distress, it will eventually spill out, usually causing more problems than if you had communicated it earlier. The sooner you clear the air by revealing your upset, the sooner you and your partner can get back to feeling present, connected, and safe with one another.
If you were communicating to relate, you would say something like this:
“I’m feeling anger at you for getting here an hour later than we agreed.” Then you would pause to notice the stories in your head, such as, “I’m not important to my partner. I always come last.” As you pause to notice your mind chatter, you allow yourself to experience your feelings more deeply and sensitively.
Observing your mind chatter helps you see it for what it is — stories or beliefs based on old fears and past experience.
When you can notice and detach from these stories, your attention naturally comes back to the present moment. You notice your body sensations and your breathing. You realize that the story “I’m not important” belies an underlying fear that you’re not important.
You see that under your anger are more vulnerable core feelings — hurt and fear.
Softening to feel this, you express it simply (remembering to stick with the data of what really happened and not your interpretation): “I felt hurt when you showed up at eight instead of seven. An old insecurity was triggered in me that I’m not as important to you as you are to me. I need reassurance that I matter to you.” This is what relating looks like — brief, direct, and specific.
As you wait for your partner to respond, you breathe consciously to help yourself slow down and stay connected to your sensations and feelings. Moving slowly and observing what comes up in your awareness helps you be more present to your deeper feelings — which is the best way to avoid triggering a reactive cycle.
After expressing your core need for reassurance, your body sensations and emotions will change.
You no longer feel angry but are calmer and more available for whatever your partner has to say. When you express the core distress you are carrying, you feel lighter, freer, and more open; you are carrying less baggage. This is how relating works. It helps you clear the air and keep it clear.
However, your mate might get defensive and tell you, “You shouldn’t get upset over such a small thing!” Then, you might notice your body contracting and your jaw tightening as your anger returns.
You might also get defensive, or you could choose to keep relating: “When I hear you say that I shouldn’t be upset, I feel angry.” Again, you would pause and find your core feeling: “Really, I feel hurt and lonely. I need to know that my feelings matter to you. I want to feel connected with you.”
As before, you would wait for your partner’s response. Ideally, your partner would feel the impact of what you have said and slow down, too: “Okay. That didn’t go well. Let me try this again. I was triggered hearing you say you were angry at me. I guess I started getting defensive.”
If your partner then pauses and reflects, he or she might continue, “It brought up an old fear that I’m inadequate as a mate — that I’m a disappointment to you. And I want to tell you, you are so important to me. You are the most important person in my life. I’m sorry for being late. Let’s spend some time connecting now.”
You pause and take in this reassurance. Then, realizing that your partner has revealed a core fear, you would look into your partner’s eyes and offer a simple, reassuring statement: “Thanks for telling me about your fear of disappointing me. You are a fantastic partner. I love you just the way you are.”
As this example shows, you can stay in the relating posture even if your partner becomes controlling, defensive, or accusatory.
If you can discipline yourself to keep relating, your partner will eventually feel safer. And as we have learned, when people feel safe, they are more likely to be open and vulnerable and to communicate the more subtle aspects of what’s really going on inside. Relating helps us become increasingly more real with each other. It helps us be more fully known, seen, valued, and trusted.
And it enables us to quickly course-correct those out-of-synch moments all couples experience — without going to the Hole or suffering a reactive cycle.
Excerpted from the book Five-Minute Relationship Repair: Quickly Heal Upsets, Deepen Intimacy, and Use Differences to Strengthen Love © 2015 by Susan Campbell and John Grey. Printed with permission of New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com.
About the authors
Susan Campbell, PhD, trains coaches and therapists throughout the United States and Europe to integrate the tools in Five-Minute Relationship Repair into their professional practices. In her own practice, she works with singles, couples, and work teams to help them communicate respectfully and responsibly. The author of Getting Real, Saying What’s Real, and other books, she lives in Sonoma County, California. To know more about Susan, visit her website www.susancampbell.com.
John Grey, PhD, is a relationship coach specializing in intensive couples retreats. He also trains couples therapists in a state-of-the-art approach that integrates the latest neuro-science and attachment research. He has taught communication workshops at Esalen Institute, University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University, and Scripps Institute. He lives in Sonoma County, California. To know more about John, visit his website www.healingcouplesretreats.com.