Even if you are not a couples’ counselor or even a counselor at all, every so often, you may find yourself in the middle between a tense and hostile couple. They might be your friends, they might be your parents, or they might be family members. It might not even be a couple. It might be two people who are just in a state of gridlock in your presence.
This leaves most of us anxious and awkward. It also leaves most of us feeling helpless in deescalating the situation unfolding in front of us. Not only that It is worth noting that all of the above techniques would work in deescalating conflict between any two people, not just couples.
In this article, I wanted to share some couples’ counseling techniques for both counselors and non-counselors that can be helpful in soothing and calming an agitated and hostile couple. Off course the success of these techniques depends on the situation and how the techniques are applied, so tread carefully. The last thing you want is to be in a place where you are making things worse instead of making them better.
First step is to assess if the couple is physiologically aroused, and have engaged their bodies’ automatic defenses.
Gottman (1999) and luquet (2007) suggest that in a state of physiological arousal, the couple would suffer from lack of clarity, hyper vigilance, and the diminished ability to use logic. Accordingly, my preference would be to gently attempt to physically separate the couple for 10 minutes or so. This might be done by sending one of them to a different location, or asking both of them to go somewhere else for a few minutes. A simple visit to the restroom where they can wash their hands and face and collect their thoughts can go a long way in reducing their physiological arousal. This should allow them to recover from the heightened heart rate, and restore capacity to engage in logical non defensive interactions.
In other cases where physiological arousal doesn’t seem to be present, I recommend the use of one or a combination of the following techniques:
Explain the reptilian brain: This technique is particularly useful in engaging and calming the partner who is unconvinced that they need help. Those individuals are usually convinced that they can think their way through their problems with their spouse, and as such are defensive and unwelcoming to the idea of receiving help and the idea of therapy or intervention from outside parties in general. As such, engaging their intellect with a scientific exploration of the brain and the automatic body defenses, and giving a systematic explanation to the recurrent trouble they are facing with their partner serves to engage them in the process, and calm their fear about therapy/outside intervention being a mythical and unscientific endeavor.
Engaging in couple’s dialogue: A defining characteristic of couple’s dialogue is its request of the receiving partner to go to a safe and soothing place, to try and relax and stay focused on what their partner is communicating to them as opposed to trying to respond and defend themselves and their position. This deep attention required to mirror their partner’s words in addition to their conscious effort to soothe themselves and work through their anxieties until their partner is done talking can have a very calming effect, and their calmness can only be expected to reflect on their partner especially when they feel heard and understood.
Modeling a calm tone and a calm demeanor on the part of the counselor/mediator, they can be helpful in reducing the tension between the couple by modeling a calm and measured tone, a relaxed posture, and an overall composed presence. The more composed and relaxed the counselor/mediator can be in the presence of the couple, the more the couple can take ques from the counselor/mediator and getting progressively more relaxed and less combative.
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