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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6 years ago

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.

Love that never ends.
6 years ago

Some of us are headed into a new realm of deep understanding and are vastly expanding our capacity to love.

Ephraim Frankel, MFT, Milwaukee, WI, USA

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.

6 years ago

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.

Maggie Matheson
6 years ago

Wonderful advice “in a nutshell”! Both personally and professionally. Thanks Pete. And like Michael I always gain some useful information from your emails.

6 years ago

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?

Peter Pearson
Peter Pearson
6 years ago

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

6 years ago

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.

Peter Pearson
Peter Pearson
6 years ago

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

6 years ago

The main thing to remember is communication and making time for each other. If you can do that then you will solve a lot of issues. Does your marriage seem to be breaking apart? We can help! Come to MarriageCounselingAlt in Naples Fl. to save your marriage.

6 years ago

Single communication tip to save the marriage.we need more tips of this kind

A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.