Pressing pause when things heat up

The challenges of keeping your cool when you're triggered

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I had a session with a couple today that have been working hard to address their issues amidst a slew of demands including an international move, changing jobs, graduate school, kids, and their own relationship issues.

At one point in the session, I stopped them and said something along the lines of how easy it is for me to sit where I am sitting and to see things clearly and that if I were in their shoes I’d be getting into fights with my wife too.

Pressing Pause when things heat up

One thing that we have worked on incorporating is a system for them to press pause when either or both feel that they are ramping up too quickly during a discussion.

We agreed that when this happens that they will try to use a code word or phrase that means that they need to take a break. We also agreed that they will reconvene within 24 hours no matter what, even if they need more time to process.

This is really hard to do when one or both members of the couple are feeling triggered. In a recent instance, she needed a break and he wanted to keep going, so he was frustrated when they took a pause, but they did reconvene within the hour and worked through it.

Communication styles

One of the things that they struggle with is that they have very different personalities and communication styles. He likes to problem-solve and focus on the issues at hand. She is much more meta and likes to think about how the issues at hand reflect larger issues. He gets frustrated with her for making it larger and she gets frustrated with him for not seeing the big picture.

It’s messy and that’s okay!

It’s a messy process. The fact that they were able to implement the plan given both were feeling triggered and that he was feeling cut off is a huge win. I’m really proud of them for digging in and facing things head on, especially given everything they are juggling right now.

We even had to pause a couple of times ourselves during the session because their son kept coming in. This is a video session we are conducting from opposite sides of the world and a 15-hour time difference.

I start earlier in the morning than I normally do and they stay up later at night than they normally do. We have never even met in person. It’s pretty incredible that all of this can happen, technology-wise, time-wise, and relationship-wise. Imagine if a busy couple like this had to spend the extra time commuting to and from an office to meet in person. It most likely wouldn’t be able to happen.

I love that I get to do this kind of work with people from different parts of the world with such different circumstances on the surface, but it’s really all the same stuff underneath.

David B. Younger, Ph.D. is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 13-year-old son, 4-year-old daughter and 5-year-old toy poodle.

Originally published at

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