No doubt, you’ve wondered why communicating with a loved one isn’t always easy.

What we may overlook is how our emotional tone can poison the atmosphere for productive conversation. Practicing pausing before we speak can be a powerful way to create a friendlier climate for heart-to-heart communication.

We’re wired with a longing for love and intimacy. Attachment Theory tells us that we don’t thrive when we’re not feeling a safe and deep connection. There is a lot at stake in our partnerships. We want to be seen, heard, and understood. We want kindness, caring, and affection.

When these core needs aren’t met, we might sense danger. We might become irritable and reactive as our fight, flight, freeze response is triggered.

As a couples therapist, I often see people getting triggered. Deep down, there is a sweet and tender longing for connection. But what often gets communicated is not sweet at all. The emotional tone that comes across is caustic, attacking, blaming, and shaming, which is kryptonite to the connection.

It is sad to see how couples push each other away without much recognition of how they’re sabotaging themselves.

It is more satisfying to blame and shame another than to take responsibility for how we’re contributing to the mess. One way we contribute to discord and disconnection is by reacting rather than responding. Reacting is what our amygdala is good at. It is the product of millions of years of evolution. Without it, we would not have survived as a species.

Our sympathetic nervous system reacts immediately to real or imagined dangers in our environment. A tiger glares at us while hunting and we run for cover. Over-thinking it might guarantee that we’ll become lunch rather than find lunch.

Unfortunately, this is often our reaction when our sense of safety with our partner seems threatened. Perhaps an old trauma of disconnection is getting activated. We might shut down and not want to talk. We flee to the safety of the TV or a computer game. Or our preferred style might be to go on the offensive, perhaps with some version of “How can you be so self-centered? You’re clueless! It’s always about you!”

These words are not infused with the sweet nectar that might draw our loved one toward us. And our tone is not congruent with the vulnerable longing for connection that is being painfully frustrated.

What to do?

One of the hardest things to do when we’re activated is to slow down. When every fiber of our being is sensing a serious threat, we may feel compelled to unleash a nasty torrent of toxicity toward our partner, without realizing the effect we’re having.

Sadly, we often don’t realize the power we actually have over our partner, who probably wants the same thing that we do — a loving, safe connection.

The good news is that we have the power to contribute to creating an atmosphere of safety in our relationships. The first step is to pause before we react. I know it’s not easy, but if we can practice pausing when our blood is boiling, we turn down the heat and allow a chance for things to cool a bit before we open our mouths.

Pausing gives us a chance to collect ourselves, remember who we are, and get more of a handle on what’s going on inside us. Are we feeling angry, frustrated, sad, or hurt? Pausing gives us a change to notice these feelings—and become mindful about the tender needs and longings from which these feelings spring.

Pausing allows us time to be gentle with these feelings, which allows them to settle. It allows for self-soothing, which positions us to first notice and then convey what we’re feeling in a more responsible, authentic, congruent way.

If we can take a breath, notice the fiery sensations in our body and dance with this fire rather than unleash it toward our partner, we’re then positioned to contact and express our vulnerable feelings. By increasing safety in the relationship, we vastly improve our chance of being heard.

It’s much easier to hear, “I’m feeling sad and have really been missing you and would love to have some time together soon,” rather than, “You’re work is more important than me, why don’t you spend the night in your office!”

We can’t control how others respond to us, but we have some control over our tone of voice and choice of words.

If we can pause before speaking, we give ourselves the gift of contacting what’s really going on inside us — a tender and vulnerable longing beneath the layer of violent reactivity. If we can then find the courage to express our actual felt experience, our tender sharing might turn things around so that we get heard in a new way, which may then offer the deeper connection we’re longing for.

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