Pausing in the Heat of the Moment
Pausing sounds wonderful … in a perfect world, when I am my best self, and when the issue at hand is not a big deal.
How about all those other times in romantic relationships when things are messy, when I am upset, and when the issue really matters to me? Not so simple and easy, right?!?
In my experience, those heated moments are the ones when partners in a romantic relationship hurt each other. Good judgment goes out the window temporarily and pain grabs the steering wheel. We revert to old automatic habits of protection, getting even, and being right. (At their heart, romantic relationships are about the opposite of these things – intimacy, mutuality, and acceptance.)
And romantic relationships can be the most triggering circumstances of all. How many times have you wondered something like “How do I keep my cool with colleagues at work?” or “Why do I have more reserves when dealing with the kids?” It’s because the stakes are very very high in romantic relationships so they can be a crucible for the heat of upset.
So what do we do in those moments?
The first preparation to be able to pause even in the heat of the moment begins before those moments happen:
- Eyes on the Prize – Positive change: First step is to reflect and remind yourself that positive changes in your relationship happen when you do somethings differently. Doing the same things you have always done happens when you are upset and revert to your go-to reactions. Now, when you are not upset, reflect on how those typical reactions have been serving you. Think of recent heated encounters with your partner. Next, think of how you want to show up differently in the future. Not 100% perfect, but most of the time. That’s the objective.
- Mindfulness Practice: Invest in a daily mindfulness practice. A meditation practice is a good one. Why? Going to the gym and working out gives you more strength and endurance, right? Meditating exercises your ‘mental muscles’ of attention, tolerance, and choice. Noticing that upset is arising as soon as possible helps you identify early, before you become overwhelmed, that taking a break is a good idea. Another benefit of a consistent mindfulness practice is that you will experience that ‘things slow down.’ You will notice more spaces in your experience of an interaction that provide more time for you to choose.
- What’s Most Important?: Now, while you’re calm, remember past interactions with your partner. When you felt compelled to act, why? What was so compelling? My guess is it feels compelling because there is a brief reward of feeling pleasure afterwards. It feels good to ‘be right’, to ‘feel protected’, to ‘get even.’ When in conflict, there is natural tendency to protect and defend. Acting from the upset and lashing out feel good because they are strategies that temporarily make you feel less vulnerable because you are in the one-up position of ‘acting on your partner.’ Now in this calm moment, consider what is most important? Being right? Getting even? Or something else? Being connected to each other from a place of care, understanding, and support is what is most important. It is easy to remember now when you are calm. These times of calm are the times to remind yourself what is most important.
So you’ve invested in the prep and your partner says or does something that is a stimulus for upset. You feel the sensations growing in their intensity. Now what? A goal is to pause. Taking a break will give you and your partner the space to experience upset without reacting from those feelings. But what do you do with the compulsion to act? It feels incredibly compelling.
- Notice. When you notice an overwhelming urge to act, that is the best cue that it is the time not to do that thing that feels so compelling. For a few moments, do nothing. That helps break the connection from stimulus to reaction.
- Breathe. After you have noticed the urge to react and have taken it as the cue to do nothing for a moment, bring your focus on your breathing. Remember to breathe. Focus your attention on the rising & falling of your belly. Doing that has a grounding & calming effect. Upset can take charge of your thoughts, so reconnecting to your body helps rebalance and redirect your energies away from what to do, what to say, what does this mean, and why is my partner such a [fill in the blank]?
- Self-Compassion. Feeling a little bit more grounded in the moment, now is a time to soothe yourself. By soothing yourself, you will be more resourced either to connect to more capacity for judgment or to realize that you need to take a break. Self-compassion is being a warm, loving presence to yourself. If that sounds impossible or nonsensical, a trick is to imagine what you would say and do if your best friend was in your current situation & feels the way you do now. What would you say to them? Maybe somethings like “Tell me all about it”, “This is really hard”, “Sounds so frustrating”, “I am here for you. What would feel supportive to you?” Self-compassion is offering these same things to yourself. For many years I was skeptical about self-compassion and here is one thing that helped me: When you are feeling upset, not all of you is upset. Some parts of you are are. There are other parts of you that may be available to you that are compassionate.
A quick reality check – these steps will not ‘work’ reliably every time. You’ve had a lifetime of practice at your current ways of being. It won’t change overnight. Instead, over time what you and your partner will experience is less reaction and less hurtful behaviors when you’re upset. It’s important to share the changes you are experiencing with each other. Celebrate them. As important, offer understanding and support for those times that ‘did not go so well’ despite best efforts.
Sound helpful? If so, please share with others via the social media buttons on the page. If you feel comfortable sharing in the comments section below, it would help others to know how is it going for you in applying these steps. If you have found other strategies to be helpful, please share them too.