How Securely Functioning Couples Handle Distress
All couples go in and out of synch and will occasionally trigger one another.
Distress occurs even in the best relationships—even among partners who are securely attached. How much distress is handled makes all the difference?
If your partnership feels less-than-secure, or if you have not had good role models for resolving issues, it helps to have a vision of what is possible. The following steps summarize what a secure couple will do if someone is distressed or gets triggered. This sequence is described from the point of view of you being the partner who is triggered. (Of course, it could be the other way around.)
Three Steps to Creating Ongoing Security
- You notice that you are upset, distressed, or triggered. You have learned to recognize your “early warning signals,” such as shallow breathing or judgmental thoughts.
- You approach your partner and express your distress in a simple, vulnerable way. You could reveal your distress saying something like, “I’m feeling insecure. I could use a hug.”
- Your partner responds by coming forward to co-regulate and reassure you. This calms you and helps you feel safe again. It also helps you trust that it is safe to be vulnerable with your partner and that your relationship can handle occasional upsets.
When you are Upset, Reveal you are Need to be reassured
In a secure partnership, if you get distressed or triggered (either by your partner or by some life event), it is your job to approach your partner for reassurance. You should not expect your partner to read your mind. You should not avoid your feelings or keep them hidden. You should not try to provoke a response through baiting or indirect requests. You do not blame or guilt-trip your partner. If you catch yourself in a reactive pattern, you notice it and revise your approach as soon as possible.
When triggered, secure partners will give a simple, direct distress signal (such as, “Ouch,” or, “I just got triggered”). Just like a secure child, they will readily show their need for reassurance. Secure partners will reveal their soft, vulnerable feelings, core fears, and core needs of each other.
Secure Couples Quickly Calm Each Other’s Distress
We would all prefer to feel and act more like a securely attached couple. We learn to function more securely as we develop the capacity to express our needs simply and vulnerable, to reach out for hugs and reassurance, and to respond to our partner’s distress.
Be an Early Responder
An easy way to foster secure functioning in your partnership is to become proactive in offering reassurance. As soon as you notice your partner is triggered or in distress, don’t wait to be told. Offer co-regulation and reassurances of safety right away. Be an early responder. Remember, the longer you wait, the louder survival alarms will ring. And if your partner’s alarm is ringing, yours will soon be ringing, too. It is best to calm distressed states as soon as possible. The longer a couple stays in distress, the more co-triggering occurs.
Reassure Frequently—Whether You Need It or Not
Occasionally saying, “I love you so much” or “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me” can help tremendously. A firm but gentle touch on the arm can quiet inner demons. If you are both triggered — invite your partner to pause with you. Then reassure each other as quickly as possible, saying something like, “I love you. I trust that we can get through this.”
Doing these, practices will help turn your relationship into the safe harbor you may not have experienced as a child.