My Experiment with Pain – And How it Applies to Your Relationship

I had an amazing discovery as I tried anxiously to relax – while my dental hygienist cleaned my teeth. We were discussing the use of nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”) as an alternative to the topical anesthetic gel she usually puts on my oversensitive gums. Interestingly, she explained that unlike the topical anesthetic, nitrous oxide does nothing to affect the nerve endings in the gums. It simply relaxes you and you don't feel any discomfort.

Incredulous, I asked other medical people if this was accurate. The consensus was that indeed, there was nothing about nitrous oxide that would anesthetize the gums, and the benefit came entirely through being relaxed.

So I had to try it even though I doubted that simple relaxation would be sufficient to get relief. The pain was real!

Yet the proof was there as she was poking, prodding and scraping. No discomfort at all. It was even much better than the anesthetic gel I normally requested. My experiment with pain was a success.

When the hygienist finished, I asked her if I would I get the same result if I could relax myself sufficiently without the nitrous. She replied affirmatively and commented that I normally look anxious when I get in the chair.

I was astonished. For years, I've used hypnosis to help clients manage severe pain and to accelerate physical healing from serious injuries. The results have often been so remarkable that even my client's physicians have been surprised.

Yet I never thought of using this same approach for my dental appointment. It's like the shoemaker whose kids have no shoes!

Here's how the lesson applies to relationships. Fear of anticipated pain, for example from a difficult discussion, puts people on alert and creates tension in their body. This tension will amplify the emotional pain that they expect. The dialogue becomes strained and as the emotional pain increases, the discussion spins out of control as each person feels more tension and distress.

But what if you went into the situation as relaxed as I was with nitrous oxide? Could you talk more constructively? Could you remember your good communication guidelines? If you weren't painfully defensive could you be more understanding or empathic of your partner's distress that underlies their tangled and ineffective communication?

If you were really relaxed could you express your vulnerability? Your partner wouldn't be on the defensive. Could you discuss your own dilemmas and frustrations more easily to a receptive partner? Could they discuss their struggles more easily with you when they were relaxed, making you less aggressive?

Could you imagine doing your own experiment? Both of you try these 5 steps before your next difficult discussion:
1) Take 3-4 relaxing breaths.
2) Shake your arms and legs to release physical tension.
3) Picture of a peaceful scene that brings to mind harmony.
4) Think of how you want to be during the discussion, for example, confident, relaxed, calm, peaceful.
5) Then during the discussion, repeat silently to yourselves, “I am open, centered and relaxed.”

Success will be improving how you feel during the discussion, not getting a resolution.

If you can have some discussions while being more relaxed it will make it easier to make progress on resolutions. Practice the above steps during your next few discussions so you can see what to improve. And no fair pointing out how your partner needs to improve what they are doing.

I had this fantasy that a daring couple would volunteer to try a difficult discussion using nitrous oxide while I took them through our innovative communication guidelines. Maybe then they would they make unbelievable breakthroughs in their most difficult, stuck patterns.

Of course, my other fantasy is that I would deeply relax myself to that point beyond discomfort the next time I have my teeth cleaned.

Until next time,
Pete Pearson

P.S. If you try this relaxed communication experiment, I would really appreciate your feedback.

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Peter Pearson, Ph.D.

Dr. Peter Pearson, Ph.D., Relationship & Teamwork Expert for Entrepreneur Couples Pete has been training and coaching couples to become a strong team since 1984 when he co-founded The Couples Institute with his psychologist wife, Dr. Ellyn Bader. Their popular book, “Tell Me No Lies,” is about being honest with compassion and growing stronger as a couple. Pete has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including “The Today Show,” "Good Morning America,” and "CBS Early Morning News,” and quoted in major publications including “The New York Times,” “Oprah Magazine,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Business Insider.”

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