Lead With Relief: It's Not Logical, It's Biological

for couples jess cleeves Jan 14, 2022

by Jess Cleeves, MAT, CSW

PACT Level 2 Therapist

I'm sure this hasn't happened to you (wink), so I'll speak from experience. Before my partner and I discovered PACT, we'd have conflict, just like we do now. Before PACT, one of us would raise an issue with the goodhearted goal of finding a solution. Unlike now, instead of having a calm, decisive conversation, we would find ourselves going around and around, getting more and more agitated. The more we went around, the more I would cry, the more they would shut down - and the farther from a solution we would get.

The more we argued this way, the farther from each other we got. 

We knew we loved each other, but we didn't know how to lead with relief. We were fighting from a logical perspective. The part of the brain that rules relationships, however, isn't logical — it’s biological.

By trying to logic our way through our biology, we accidentally sent threat messages to the mammalian parts of each other's brains. Obsessed with social safety, these parts got the message that we each cared more about our own correctness than we did each other's feelings. Which increased our sense of personal threat. Which increased our stress. Which made us even more sensitive to social threat. Which called up every similar transgression our threat-memory had catalogued. Which turned our partner into a liability at best, a monster at worst.

And all that time, all we had to do was make each other feel total relief from whatever sense of separation frustration or hurt we were experiencing — and do it ASAP. The longer we tried to rationalize, reason, and win, the more time our partner's brain had to steep in stress chemicals and confirm that, indeed, we were not a reliable partner.

Now, we meet each other's needs first and ask questions later. The fights are not only far, far fewer — but they're much, much faster.

A Better Way to Apologize

Whether or not we were raised in religious settings, our dominant Judeo-Christian culture taught us to apologize in a confessional way: acknowledge what I did wrong, acknowledge that I know it's wrong, explain why I did it, and explain why I won't do it again. However, this formula doesn’t work well for a partner who craves both validation and relationship.

When hurt, our partners care far more about feeling safe than they care about our rational accountability. When our partner is hurting, they want to know that:

  • their hurt matters to us
  • we don't wish to hurt them
  • relieving their pain is our number one priority

Apologizing using the confessional approach inadvertently makes apologizing all about us. (Notice how many times "I" shows up?) Unfortunately, this sends a message that our innocence matters more than their hurt. We wish to absolve ourselves more than we wish to care for them, and clearing our name becomes our number one priority.

Re-read the list above. It reveals how mismatched our default apologizing skills are for the actual task at hand.

No Ifs or Buts 

Leading with relief is the art of falling on the sword. Having never fallen on an actual sword (neither on purpose nor accidentally) myself, I had to pause and meditate on that metaphor in the context of fighting quickly and well with my partner. In real life, falling on a sword requires commitment and premeditation. It requires a higher functioning part of the brain to override the part of the brain that is concerned with our own personal survival.

Most importantly, falling on a sword in real-life would certainly be fatal. In this metaphor, we have to be willing to kill, publicly and without hesitation, the part of ourselves that is threatening our partner. More importantly, and harder, we have to kill the part of ourselves that would rather be right than cultivate a healthy, loving relationship.

If I greet my partner's expression of hurt with "I'm sorry if you are hurt, but..." rather than fall on the sword, the scariest part of me just picked up the sword and aimed it at their heart. Why would I do this? They just told me they're hurt!

Because I'm interested in this person feeling safe and secure with me for the long term, I win when I believe what they're telling me about their own experience. The "but" has a sly way of invalidating everything that comes before it, so best avoid that, too.

What does it sound like to lead with relieve? Easy! "I'm so sorry I hurt you." Seriously. It's that easy.

Does it matter that I didn't mean to be hurtful? Nope.

Does it matter that my partner misunderstood? Nope.

Does it matter that I have done 67 things that morning alone to demonstrate what a caring, amazing catch I am and how lucky they should feel that I'm in their life? Not one little bit.

If my partner is hurting, I can choose to believe that and address it immediately, or I can spend time and energy arguing that their feelings are wrong. If I choose this, I can anticipate that I will soon be hurting, as well.

Enough Is Enough

What if you apologize and your partner keeps coming at you? Pick yourself up, dust off (quickly), and throw yourself back on that dang sword.

How much apologizing is enough? Enough to ensure that your partner feels unequivocally better.

Are they still upset? Hold their face, look into their eyes, hug them, kneel — and try again. Until it works.

Loving someone means wishing them well. What an honor, what a privilege that we get to try to alleviate any hurt we cause, however accidental. What a gift that we have that power.


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