Creating Relational Safety Under Survival Conditions, Part I

By Debra Campbell, MS, LMFT

PACT Level 3 Candidate, PACT Ambassador

Everything is the same, yet nothing is the same. The question of what constitutes acceptable exposure risk to COVID-19 is being debated around the globe. With new medical findings and recommendations emerging daily, how are couples to discern and agree on what constitutes acceptable risk for their families? 

Much like our current circumstances, couples often grapple with reconciling differing opinions, which can feel very unsafe. Enter PACT couples counseling – a style of couples therapy designed to create relational safety, even under the most stressful conditions. Safety issues often originate from a lack of shared principles and people’s inability to successfully put those principles into operation.

In PACT, we believe relationships must be just, fair, kind, mutual, and sensitive for partners to feel safe. While we all want to feel safe in our relationships, we often struggle to provide the very safety we crave under stressful circumstances. This is where the rubber meets the road in moving our shared principles into thoughtful and collaborative behavior. 

Pay Attention to the Signs

Like many couples, Maya and Joel have been struggling about what constitutes acceptable exposure risk to COVID-19. Joel is terrified. He doesn’t know if he could forgive himself should one of their kids catch the virus. He has stockpiled groceries to avoid going to any stores for the next 30 days. 

Maya, on the other hand, isn’t as worried. She believes that if they engage in appropriate social distancing and hand washing, they should be OK. She needs to engage in some form of normal behavior for her mental health.

Moreover, Joel wants Maya to follow the CDC and WHO guidelines. He does not understand why she needs to go out. Their disparate stances and desires to get their own way seem to be threatening their marriage. 

Understand What Threat Means

In PACT, we believe couples are in each other’s care. While the content of the argument may be threatening, how they manage the conversation also matters. Maya and Joel’s inability to tend to each other’s emotions are the first layer of relational threat.

Here, in Part I of this two-part article, we will focus on establishing emotional safety as a couple. In Part II we will look at Maya and Joel’s specific content issues and share key principles to help navigate the seemingly disparate stances that couples face, particularly during COVID.

Under stressful conditions, a couple’s ability to rely upon each other for emotional safety can make the greatest impact upon the course of a conversation. First and foremost, the brain is designed for survival.

If either party senses threat, the survival center of the brain turns on. In turn, the most adult, logical, and collaborative center of the brain turns off. What this means is that under stressful conditions, the ability to have a constructive conversation is lost, so content is irrelevant until safety is resumed.

When a couple commits to relieving each other’s distress, using nonverbal and verbal means, they can rely upon each other to be emotionally resourceful. This is called co-regulation, which means you can shift your partner’s emotional state quickly. It ensures that no conversation gets out of hand.

Tending to each other’s feelings before dealing with the content of the discussion is a commitment that demonstrates you care about your partner’s feelings more than you care about being right. By doing this, the opportunity to build feelings of closeness and confidence in the relationship expands.  

Fix the Stress First

Maya and Joel’s conversations become threatening because they don’t pay attention to what they do, what they say or how they say it. First, they need to look at each other when they’re speaking to each other. This way, they can see how their partner receives what they’re saying. Once they notice that something they’ve said or done has stressed their partner, they must drop their agenda and fix it before advancing with the content of the discussion.

Observed stress might look like changes in facial expression, body language, and speech.  Under stress, Maya becomes tearful, looks away, purses her lips, flushes, and breathes faster. Joel often talks louder and faster, with a harsh tone of voice, crosses his arms, eye glairing, sweating, and antsy behavior. When Maya and Joel commit to tending to each other at the first signs of stress, they slow down the conversation, feel more connected, and interact more safely. 

Shift Toward Safety

The next step is for them to be emotionally resourceful to each other. Partners can use a variety of skills to help shift each other’s emotional state quickly so they don’t lose their audience.

Attempts at co-regulation, or “fixing it,” could look like:

  • Moving into close physical proximity. Ideally, face each other at a distance of one to three feet from each other.
  • Having close eye contact. Place yourselves about one foot from each other’s face. This is where we fall in love with our partner — in close face-to-face and eye-to-eye connection. It is very tough to be anything besides tender in this stance.
  • Softening your tone of voice. Speak in a calm, loving, and low tone of voice.
  • Using loving gestures. This includes hugs, kisses, shoulder rubs, touching each other’s face, playing with hair, putting hand on shoulder, knee, or arm.
  • Demonstrating interest. Approaching your partner with curiosity. For example, “Hey, did I upset you,” or “I noticed you had a reaction to what I just said. Help me.”
  • Expressing comforting words. These words could be reminders about how much you love and care for your partner, pet names, quick apologizes, They can even be humorous.
  • Demonstrating expertise in your partner. Show you’ve taken the time to understand your partner in great detail, including their history, so you can demonstrate that you understand what bothers them and why. Your expertise also includes knowing what types of behaviors are effective at calming your partner. 

Work Together as Experts

Maya becomes quickly overwhelmed. When Joel stops talking and gives her a hug until her body relaxes, he is most effective in calming her. Using humor is the most effective tool Maya can use to shift Joel out of a distressed state.

What works best for each person is unique, and I encourage couples to work together toward figuring out what works best for them. Most couples worry that by doing this, conversations will take forever to complete. However, this is simply not true.

Behaving in ways that undermine the feelings of safety in the relationship is what truly causes long-term problems; it undermines the partnership. Emotional safety is what allows us to both avoid an argument and reach a conclusion with our partner. A safe and healthy partnership is extremely rewarding — especially under survival conditions.



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