Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones…

The old saying that “sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me” was said before we knew about the latest brain research.

It turns out that the region of the brain that processes emotional pain is the same region that registers physical pain when you hit your thumb with a hammer.

The implications are enormous. Think about what happens in a nasty fight. As far as your brain is concerned, you may as well be dueling with buggy whips. After a while, the welts add up and sting like heck.

Each nasty fight, insult, sarcastic remark, or cold shoulder that doesn't find a reasonable resolution has the potential effect of making your emotional skin a little more tender for the next brouhaha.

Now I'm not saying fights and disagreements should be avoided at all costs. (See my column, “27 Years Without a Fight, Can This Marriage Be Saved?”) Actually a good disagreement can clear the air and re-energize a stalled relationship.

But when the fight leaves a few scars (ever wonder where the term “tongue lashing” came from?) you might want a way to repair the damage – as soon as possible.

You can, if you follow a few simple guidelines. Both of you will need to agree to do this rapid repair and do it with goodwill.

When you feel stung by what your partner says or does, say “Ouch.”  Then tell your partner why it hurt.

Example: Pat scowls at Terry and says, “You never care about what I feel!”

Terry takes a deep breath, and replies, “Ouch, that really smarts. You just vaporized all my efforts to be more responsive. When you say ‘never' I just think, screw it, why even try to do better?”

Terry's reply was good. It was brief and to the point. There was no litany of cross complaining and dredging up multiple injuries from the past.

Now Pat takes a deep breath and remembers to apologize instead of continuing the finger pointing. The apology takes the form of being sorry for the zap because zaps create a psychologically unsafe environment. Relationships don't flourish when one or both people feel unsafe.

Pat can legitimately apologize because the zap did not reflect the desire to be more humane in the expression of pain. The term “never” is a massive discount of any efforts or success and discourages future attempts.

Pat now has a chance at a rapid repair. One enlightened response is,  “I'm sorry, that's not how I wish to characterize you. I regret using the word ‘never.' To get beyond our current struggles, I need to be more careful how I express myself and avoid these negative generalizations.”

When couples do this rapid repair in my office, the relief for the injured partner is almost immediate. The mutual finger pointing stops and couples get back on track with a more constructive discussion.

Here's the summary of the “Ouch” model:

Partner A feels a zap, discount, or dig. They tell their partner, “What you just said/did hurt and here's why.” It is kept brief and to the point.

Partner B expresses regret or apologizes for triggering the pain in their partner because the zap does not reflect their higher intention to create a safe and more harmonious relationship.

Of all the skills Ellyn and I teach couples, the “Ouch” model is one that creates more immediate change than any other single intervention. It creates psychological and emotional safety which allows for more constructive disagreement and better communication.

Imagine the creativity and spontaneity you free up when you both can stop worrying about setting off a “roadside bomb” in your relationship. This is the fast track to reenergizing your relationship and yourself because you now have a method of recovering from inevitable clashes when one or both of you feels a sharp emotional pain. Your negotiation and problem solving is smoother and more lasting.

Is this easy to do? Not really. There are a lot of complications. As in, what if the zinging partner was feeling so hurt that they meant the zing? What if the apology is only semi sincere? What if the receiving partner is not able to receive the apology? What if the offending partner feels justified in pointing the finger? What if you get into another argument about whether an apology should even be offered? Who gets the first apology if you both feel a sting at same time?

These are common obstacles in the apology model. They can be effectively addressed. However, it's more than I can describe in a single newsletter article…

For those who are interested in learning more and polishing this valuable skill, Ellyn and I did a live, one hour teleseminar teaching a more comprehensive approach to creating safe communication by rapidly repairing those inevitable ruptures in a sensitive discussion.  We included live demonstrations about expressing an “Ouch” while the partner learns to apologize with integrity, without feeling shamed or demeaned. Click Soothing Moments: Rapid Relationship Repair to read more about the session or to purchase a downloadable audio and transcript of it.

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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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