Are you in a relationship and struggling with the same fight, the same frustration or the same hurt feelings over and over again? Or, do you know someone who is in a high-conflict partnership?

Couples can easily become stuck in cycles of unhealthy communication. Often if we continue in a relationship where there are unresolved issues, we find ways to numb out the problems and hurts. Oftentimes, we turn to television, food, alcohol or the Internet.  These avoidance tools may reduce the fighting but do not encourage intimacy.

Past physical and emotional trauma can set us up to react, sometimes automatically, to any emotional situation that has a touch of a threat.  In this “danger-sensing” mode, we are primed to defend ourselvesOften we react to an implied danger based on implicit memory or conditioned responses.

Real or perceived threats produce stress and activate a “fight or flight” response in our bodies. If you have a history of trauma or high conflict in your past relationships, most likely your sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) is calibrated for a “defend and protect” mode.

The good news is that there are simple tools that you can begin to apply that can shift the perceived threat response into something more positive, collaborative and current.

Below are four suggestions that can support more neutral and collaborative couples’ communication:

1)    Calm yourself before introducing your tough topic. This means getting clear on your own goals. It could mean taking time for some deep breaths, self-talk, journaling, etc.

2)    Stay in the present versus the past. Eliminate words like always and never.

3)    Use “headlines.” Headlines are neutral, collaborative, present tense and solution focused conversation starters. Headlines offer an opportunity to calm down those automatic internal reactions when we sense something negative is being directed at us. This helps to neutralize the environment both internally and externally. When the use of positive signals increases, defenses decrease! Headlines create communication “road maps” that can help a couple feel more open and collaborative.

Here are two simple examples:

Example #1

Common Conversation Starter:

“The house is constantly a mess and I need to get more help.”

Constructive Headline:

“Do you have time to brainstorm a cleaning schedule for the house?”

(Present focused, collaborative)

Example #2

Common Conversation Starter:

“I feel like we never go out anymore…”

Constructive Headline:

“I have a new goal of getting out once a month and would like to talk about some ideas for how to do that.”

(Present focused, collaborative)

4)    Discuss a problem NOT person as problem. Name the issue not the partner as the issue.

Communication can develop, over time, into patterns that create emotional distress. With the use of simple tools, new opportunities can emerge that can help to create positive shifts in a relationship.