The One Skill You Need to Start Practicing if You Want a Healthy Relationship

Your mental health can make or break the way you handle conflict and relate to others.
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Your mental health can make or break the way you handle conflict and relate to others.

A note from the author: This is part of my column for Verily called Tools for an Intentional Marriage. It’s a collection of best practices for moving through your marriage on purpose. I’ll share the best tips, tricks, and ideas that I’ve discovered over my years as a marriage therapist and also as a husband. I hope you’ll collect, use, and even enjoy these tools as you seek to build your own Intentional Marriage.

The more I work with couples, the more I’ve become aware of a not-so-subtle bias I have about the link between personal care and relationship health. Whether it’s self-care as a New Year’s resolutionlearning to ask for what you want, or even prioritizing emotional intelligence, I simply believe that if you’re going to have a healthy relationship, you have to commit to actually being healthy. As an individual. This means tending to both physical health and mental health.

One of the best indicators of our personal health is our ability to self-soothe. The term itself may be most familiar to you as it relates to babies. Essentially, self-soothing is the discipline of saying, “I’m OK.” We may have learned this in our tiny infancy, but self-soothing carries over to our life as adults. The stressors may be different, but we all still must find ways to help ourselves through the negative or emotionally charged situations that we confront.

When you’re in the midst of conflict, and your fight or flight mechanism kicks in, it usually means that your pulse rate has spiked and you are “flooded” with adrenaline and other stress hormones. When this happens, it’s important that you (a) recognize it and (b) do the work of literally slowing your body down. Especially when it comes to a stressful relationship situation, you simply cannot relate in a meaningful way when you are “flooded.” It’s impossible.

When you don’t or won’t or can’t do this—because you lack confidence, self-awareness, or self-respect—it’s extremely difficult to participate in meaningful relationships.

Are You OK?

Way back in the seventies when I was a wee child, my parents introduced me to the concept of I’m OK, You’re OK. It was part of a larger psychological theory called transactional analysis, and it basically provided a structure for how to think about relationships and relationship issues.

If you imagine I’m OK, You’re OK as if it were plotted on a mathematical quadrant, you basically have four options for how to think about your relationships.

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When you think about your relationship, both in general and also with your partner, which quadrant might you land in? Obviously, the healthiest place is where you can look at both yourself and the people in your life and assign a fundamental OK-ness to each of you (Quadrant I). When we operate out of a position of self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-respect and can assign those same tenets to our friends and family, life is a lot smoother.

Each of the other three quadrants, however, presents a significant challenge to health. Let’s set aside a full analysis of each quadrant for the time being. For today, let’s look at just Quadrants III and IV. These are the ones with the voice that says, “I’m not OK.” In order to address conflict constructively, you need to ask yourself, where does that voice come from? What does it mean? Why is it so loud? Most importantly, what can I do to silence it? This is self-soothing in action.

It’s really wonderful to watch couples do this, perhaps most especially in the area of romance and sex. When both partners are OK with themselves and the other, sex becomes an opportunity for expression and enjoyment rather than expectation and entitlement. Also, rejecting sex becomes a matter of preference, not a personal slight that leads to insecurity and shame. Imagine being able to empathize, consider, and validate one another’s point of view and compromise even in the most vulnerable places.

Putting It to Practice

Please note that I’m not suggesting that you walk around saying, “I’m awesome”—just that you acknowledge your fundamental OK-ness. When it comes to relationships, one of the chief skills in conflict management is also the ability to address that voice that says “I’m not OK” and to take the steps to self-soothe. Once you are able to focus on the positive on a personal level, you can also apply that OK-ness to the people in your life—in this case, your spouse.

The idea of self-soothing is relevant to both our physiological and psychological health, and we can see its impact in conflict situations.

On the physiological side, it’s quite specific. Try taking a break, or even just a handful of deep deliberate breaths can be a surprisingly effective way of diffusing what feels like an overwhelming moment. Being able to dial down your physical stress responses is an advanced self-soothing skill. Even more advanced is when couples can do it together. Imagine the sound of your partner’s voice as soothing rather than aggravating. One way to accomplish this is to have your partner narrate a relaxation breathing exercise for you. Maybe even take turns. In any case, practicing physiological self-soothing is a worthy effort.

But what about the psychological agitation? The voice that says, “I’m not OK”? What’s to be done about that? This is harder work. Each of us is carrying around a variety of voices telling us every imaginable thing. Self-soothing is the act of silencing the voices that diminish your self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-respect. I’m not a huge advocate of “positive self-talk,” but you should at least tell the negative voices in your head to shut up. Those voices are lying to you. And those lies are usually based on some story of your past. Managing conflict well is about being in the present and dealing directly with the problem and the person in front of you. This is where self-soothing comes in.

Take a few deep breaths, remind yourself that you are not the worst version of yourself, and give yourself permission to weather a negative experience with a positive frame of mind. Turn your attention toward the things in your life that are going well. Concentrate on the things you’re getting right. Celebrate the relationships that give you energy. If that doesn’t help, ask for more help. You don’t necessarily need therapy, but it could be a good way to gain perspective on the voices in your head.

Whatever you do, I hope you will submit to my bias. (Isn’t that always true?) I hope you will choose to believe that a key component in relationship health is personal health. And I hope you will choose to investigate how you can best prioritize self-soothing as you chase personal health. Whether physiologically or psychologically, it’s a surprisingly effective way to get close to I’m OK, You’re OK.

As always, I’d love to connect with you about whatever is on your mind. Shoot me an email at zach@zachbrittle.com, or find me on Twitter (@kzbrittle) or Facebook. You might also be interested in my new venture ForBetter.us, an online course for couples who want a relationship that is “for better.”

Photo Credit: Brittni Willie Photography