Are you tired of having those long-winded, intense fights late at night that get you nowhere? Or are you ready for your partner to stop walking out on you in mid-fight? We get it. Those moments are brutal and need to be prevented. If you think of a baby mobile, if you pull on one end, the entire thing moves. This is the same for conflict. If you react differently in conversations, the more likely it is for your partner to respond differently.
The New Year is a time to start fresh and contemplate your intentions for the year ahead. Why not do the same for your relationship? Consider us your relationship experts using emotionally focused therapy strategies to help you and your partner set up a harmonious year ahead! Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) is important to turn to when needing relationship advice because 90 percent of the couples who try it have success with it (Seiter, 2021). As couples therapists, we like those odds!
It’s common to want to resolve conflict when it happens, but why not try and prevent it from coming up in the first place? Here are our top three tips that can lead to less conflict and more balance in your relationship in 2024.
- Know your negative cycle, and catch it before it takes over!
In EFT, we call your cycle your back-and-forth set of behavioral and emotional reactions you have with your partner. You know that feeling you get when your partner makes one move at the beginning of a disagreement, and you go, “Here we go again…” That’s the signal of the start of your negative cycle! Maybe you make a comment, your partner makes a defensive comment back, and then you feel hurt and lash out more, so they feel hurt and try to walk away. Ugh. It’s painful! Most of the couples that we work with can predict the exact behaviors of what each of them will do in an argument, move by move. Knowing your cycle is one of the most important steps of stage one of EFT couples therapy.
Try writing down your cycle in the format of, “The more you ___, the more I ___.” Watch what happens! Try coming up with a name for your cycle: “the tornado,” “the spiral,” etc. Be creative! Now, the next time you begin to notice that first move of your negative cycle and can feel it starting up again, practice stopping your cycle. You can say to your partner, “The tornado is here!” and both you and your partner agree to not let it tear your connection apart. Press pause and have the conversation in a new way.
- Keep your side of the street clean: Starting and maintaining calm waters.
As mentioned above, the negative cycle is what starts and ends conflict. The initial, first interaction is what can either ignite or prevent a fight. Consider two cars moving along a road, each with its designated lane. Just as cars avoid straying into each other’s lanes for a smooth journey, couples are the same. Couples need to maintain their side of the street, uphold their responsibilities, and ensure they contribute to the relationship healthily and positively.
Now that you know the negative pattern of your cycle from step one above, try and pause before you even reach out to your partner. How you handle the moment of initiation is the most influential part of preventing fights. Your major goal is to make conversations safe. Start the conversation with calmness, respect, and ownership. Breathe deeply, and don’t get caught in the reactions you typically would in your cycle. Fight the urge to react in the blame/defend/explain/question stance, and instead do something different.
There are many ways to incorporate trying something different to keep and maintain calm waters before your cycle even begins. For example, be sensitive to when you start a conversation: “Is okay for us to talk, or would another time work better?” Or you can let your partner know when you need something different: “How you feel is important to me, but yelling isn’t working for me. Let me know when you are calm so we can continue.” Or do a check-in with your partner, “Does this feel okay? Is this overwhelming? I want to go as slow as we need to go and pause if it is getting to be too much.”
- Make sure you A.R.E. there for your partner!
When conversations happen, you and your partner are taking a courageous leap of vulnerability, and it is critical to show up for one another in a noncombative way.
Sue Johnson is the creator of EFT, and she has identified a key ingredient to long-lasting love and connection in relationships: Accessibility, Responsiveness, and Engagement (A.R.E.). She has couples ask each other this pivotal question: A.R.E. you there for me?
There are two sides to a coin, and both relationship experiences matter. Being A.R.E. with your partner shows them you are accessible when they need you, and you’ve always got their back. Press the pause button to allow space for your partner to talk, track what they are saying, and show that what they say matters. Respond when they share, through the good and the bad. Be engaged with them—responding, connecting, and expressing when they are communicating verbally and nonverbally with you (sending a message of what you experienced matters to me).
If you’re exhausted from the constant conflicts, implementing proactive strategies to create a sense of security is key. As we step into 2024, focus on your reactions, and find new ways to show up with one another that prevent your partner from having to be reactive to you (think of that baby mobile from earlier)! Here’s to a year of growth, connection, and a renewed commitment to building lasting and resilient relationships.
Seiter, T. 2021. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-relationships/202101/the-most-effective-couples-therapy-by-far
Jennine Estes Powell, LMFT, is founder of Estes Therapy, a group practice in San Diego, CA, that concentrates on relationship counseling. As a licensed marriage and family therapist who is certified in emotionally focused therapy (EFT), she has been helping countless couples repair their rifts and reinvigorate their connection for more than twenty years. She also trains other therapists and serves as a mentor for colleagues. Her aim is to strategically apply empirically based techniques to create positive, long-term change. Learn more at www.estestherapy.com.
Jacqueline Wielick, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of her own private practice, Therapy by Jackie. She has a master of science in marriage and family therapy, and degrees in both psychology and sociology. With a focus on couples, relationships, attachment, trauma, and emotions, Jackie’s passion is helping people find deep joy in themselves and in their relationships using her advanced training in research-based theories such as EFT and Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Jackie previously worked at The Gottman Institute for five years, one of the world’s leading research institutes for couples and relationships, where she was exposed to their revolutionary research on love and relationships. Learn more at www.jackiewielick.com.