After knowing someone for many years, it can be hard to see them clearly for who they are now. Chronic and intense interactions are wired into the brain and our nervous systems are primed to anticipate familiar triggers and threats - even if those threats are no longer present. A history of blow-ups, judgment, criticism, and rejection in a relationship can understandably heighten our sensitivity and self-protectiveness. We quickly pick up on both verbal and nonverbal cues that trigger our defense system. While this happens in couple dynamics, it is also common in familial relationships and long-term friendships.
Consider having a conversation about what is happening repeatedly in your relationship. If the other person is on board to process and grow the dynamic in a different direction, the following steps may be helpful to you both!
1. Name What is Happening
Sit down together and look at the cycle of your relating. Be curious. Take a particular instance where your dynamic showed up and list the verbal and nonverbal cues (perceived or actual) that triggered each of you. Remember to name your internal experience (feelings) and also what you remember perceiving about the other.
Identify the FEELINGS and NEEDS --> that precede --> your BEHAVIORS and REACTIONS.
Explore how each of you have historically relied on certain ways of reacting/behaving in order to protect yourself. Connecting behaviors and patterns to our histories cultivates compassion.
2. Depersonalize the Conflict
When both people are on board to grow the relationship, you can call each other out in loving, even humorous ways. You can depersonalize the conflict by saying, "There's that side of you that gets stressed again and here's that part of me that gets nervous because I am getting scared your stress will lead to a blow-up." In this way, there is no shaming around the particular dynamic. No one is to blame. You work together to name what is happening between you both. No one is wrong. The person getting stressed isn't wrong. The person getting nervous isn't wrong. The person getting nervous may not know what the stressed person needs and the stressed person may not know what they need!
3. Identify Needs
Behavior often stems from unspoken or unidentified needs and feelings. The behaviors that set you off may actually be the result of a person's desire to connect. When we can identify and understand what is needed and wanted, we will be better equipped to provide it - rather than feel threatened or overwhelmed by behaviors we do not understand. Co-create replacement behaviors and responses that are organized around each person's needs.
4. Repair Quickly
Triggers are going to happen. You will get irritated. You may get tense or uptight. You might blow up without meaning to. The triggers will take time to diffuse. Sometimes it may feel like you have little control over the micro-responses that happen so quickly. What you can do is repair quickly with the person - showing increased self-awareness, responsibility, and an ability to recover and create safety again in the environment. Hopefully, both people can have compassion for one another while you are both learning to mindfully catch your habitual responses and regulate your own feelings.
5. Wipe Your Lens Clean
Commit to one another that you will work to wipe clean the lens from which you view each other. Challenge yourself to see the person differently. To see them and experience them for who they are now rather than through a lens that is based on who they have been historically. This puts some of the responsibility on you to notice when your anxiety may be rising in anticipation of an old behavior or response even before it has happened. One aspect of a person's behavior may remain the same at first (e.g., a person becomes irritable when they are stressed) but how they deal with it may be different (e.g., they leave the room to calm down rather than snapping at you). Give each other a chance to be different.
6. Acknowledge Each Other
Change can be slow. So can the rebuilding of trust. Look for the little shifts in someone's behavior and explicitly acknowledge them for the effort they are making. This includes acknowledging yourself for the effort you know you are making! Acknowledgment will go a long way in building an environment of non-judgment and safety - the kind of environment that always supports growth.
7. Consider Therapy
Approaching this conversation can be anxiety-producing. Consider having a therapist present to help regulate the anxiety between you both and to create a non-blaming, non-shaming atmosphere for the conversation. By lowering the self-protective mechanisms that are present, both of you can be available to see the pattern for what it is. Depending on the type of relationship, it may take only a few sessions to help pinpoint the patterns that trip you up.