Peter Pearson

Couple in serious discussionWant to save your marriage? You should know that under stress, couples do three things that are relationship killers.

All three are self-protective reactions to pain or fear.

But self-protection to one partner is poison to the other.

Here is the list of three killers.

  1. Disengage, go silent, withdraw, retreat.  This is an attempt to feel safe but it is emotional violence to your partner. They have no idea what you are thinking or feeling so they make up all kinds of scenarios in their heads. And you don’t do anything to disprove their hallucinations.
  2. Blame, shame, and guilt them. This, too, is a self-protective reaction to lessen your pain or fear. The hidden hope is that by overpowering your partner you will make them stop doing what they are doing and then you will get relief from the pain or fear you experience.
  3. Resentful compliance. You go along to get along. You will pay any price for peace. And you do. Your partner does, too. They don’t really know who you are, what you value, desire or care about. You just keep quiet to avoid trouble. Over time, even you don’t know what you want or what is important to you. You become a zombie – part of the living dead.

All three reactions are signs you are in your self-protective bubble. And when you go to your bubble there are painful consequences for your partner. Another sign you are in your self-protective bubble is that you deny or minimize the anguish you trigger in your partner.

Now, what is the one antidote to this poison?

Speak up.

If you tend to retreat, speak up. Many couples cite the moment they stopped expressing what was important to them as the point their marriage started to deteriorate.

If you tend to blame, shame or guilt, speak up without assaulting.  Don't rationalize that you have to verbally attack your partner in order to really express your feelings and tell the whole story.

If you have a pattern of resentfully complying, speak up.  Stop and think about what you truly desire and then speak up. Give a voice to your desires.

That’s it. The single communication tip that will save your marriage: speak up.

Please apply this tip as if your relationship depends on it. Because it does.



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, 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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  1. sally – thanks for starting to get it. i am a far way from the old japanese man on the subway.
    If i had all the answers i would pass them on.

    But here is one tip i find helpful in my evolution.

    Find a reason to take the higher road and detach from the outcome of how somebody should behave toward us.
    it’s a lesson that is not easy but those moments when i get it, there are places of calm.
    Most of the time i don’t like it when somebody reminds me about lessons to learn, but when the mud settles then I appreciate there are lessons important for me to learn.

    Most of the time we don’t get to choose the teachers; they are thrust upon us. Bosses, parents, in-laws, spouses or even sometimes our own children tend to show up for us to learn something valuable.

    Sally, Good luck on whatever path you take

  2. I get it, Pete. Thank you. When I’ve tried this approach, he’s accused me of being deceitful (f***ing with his head) or being fake, but I will keep trying. and of course it hurts more to be attacked after a kind gesture. This has to be the way, though, you’re right. Maybe its an art i’ve yet to master.

  3. Sally – I am sorry for your situation. it seems you both have a lot of pain and fear that has not yet been processed to a higher level.

    Although I cannot give you any specific intelligent advice, I think you might find this story valuable. I read it periodically to remind me that too often I get righteous about somebody’s pain.
    check it out. it’s not too long
    sending a virtual hug

  4. What if you’re partner is a narcissist and has limited empathy causing him to badger and verbally bully you when you speak up. When there is no compromise and no care about what you’re saying, isn’t retreat and self protection better than taking the repetitive verbal barrage?

  5. This is a really helpful way to reflect on our ‘safety plans’…
    The catch I’d love to hear more about is: on many issues the reason for the safety plan is at least in part due to the partner’s reaction – the partner is not going to say on a conflicted issue, “Thanks for sharing – that’s great!”.
    Once speaking up has happened what comes after a partner’s own safety response takes place (as above – plan 1,2, or 3).
    That’s a prompt for part 2, Pete!
    Thanks, I always appreciate the Ellyn & Pete content.

  6. Thanks, Pete, for flagging to attention these self-protective, yet poisonous partner dynamics, and what they’re about.
    For the therapist, I see they offer immediate, focused, powerful, un-burdening interventions
    that can give partners the skills, and support to change, and hopefully the smiling satisfaction, “We can do it”, and, in the process, have a better experience.

  7. Not new… but so well-put !!!
    Thank you!
    Love the phrase about hallucinations and the zombie comparison.
    True that when we don’t speak up, we step out of Life itself, and create this for our partners too.

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