Getting stuck is all too common for many couples. We want things to move forward smoothly and consistently. The truth is, having problems isn’t the problem. Getting stuck and not being able to solve problems … that’s the problem.
If you’ve ever played a musical instrument you know the experience of practicing a piece, making a mistake, stopping and starting over again only to make the same mistake again. The spot where things go bad can acquire an energy that’s difficult to overcome. Each time you approach that spot there’s a tendency to anticipate a mistake and therefore an increased likelihood that the mistake will actually occur. Because relationships operate in patterns or cycles, couples experience this phenomenon often. The persistence of the stuck places can be incredibly frustrating.
Here are five tips for what to do when you’re feeling that familiar and frustrating stuck spot in your relationship.
1. Take a “revolutionary pause.” The revolutionary pause is more than just stepping back and counting to ten. It’s all about what you do when you’ve stepped back. It isn’t a passive waiting. It’s very active. Taking a revolutionary pause means giving yourself an opportunity to take in the big picture of what is happening. Feeling stuck inspires a natural inclination to focus intently on the specific circumstances of your “stuckness.” In that moment it can be very helpful to locate yourself in the larger pattern of your relationship. Once you’ve located yourself in the pattern, you can more easily say, “Oh, this is just a particular spot in our relationship. It isn’t the whole of the relationship. By noticing that it’s only a spot, you give yourself a chance to gain a different, more productive, perspective.
2. Shake it off. Much of how we are in relationships is physical. Most of us are inclined to forget that. We tend to think thoughts are the primary source of information. Actually, our bodies inform us all the time. Tension, for example, clearly shows up in the body. And, getting stuck usually brings on tension. If you’ve ever watched a nature program where the cheetah is chasing the gazelle you will know that on those occasions when the gazelle escapes the cheetah, the gazelle does an interesting thing. As soon as she knows she’s safe, she does a massive body shrug. She literally shakes off the trauma that her body is holding.
So, the next time you find yourself in a standoff with your partner, consider taking a moment to retreat to a private space and shake it off. From head to toe, move your body as if you were shrugging off something unwanted.
3. Cultivate curiosity. Problems are not solved by repeatedly applying a familiar “solution.” The hallmark of a good scientist/researcher/inventor is curiosity. When we allow “stuckness” to take hold, it typically has a paralyzing effect. Introducing curiosity can loosen things up remarkably. Ask yourself things like, “What am I really trying to accomplish?” Or, “I wonder what I’m doing that makes my partner so defensive.” Or, “Who does my partner remind me of when we get to this stuck place?”
Questioning yourself in an open and curious way can lead to a different stance that can, in turn, lead to a different outcome.
4. Pay attention to the choreography of the moment. People aren’t just stuck emotionally or intellectually. They are also stuck in space and time. Instead of standing your ground, walking away, or closing in for the “kill,” consider moving toward your partner with openness and acceptance. Sometimes the notion of taking a “time out” and leaving the scene becomes just another predictable feature in the pattern of “stuckness.” So, think about not leaving. Instead take on an open posture. Make eye contact in a softer way. Pay attention to how facial expression might be contributing to the impasse you’re experiencing.
5. Consider the relationship you have with your own emotions. In any interaction, you have two relationships occurring simultaneously. There’s the relationship you have with the person opposite you and the relationship you have with your own emotions. If your relationship with your emotions is a bad one, in all likelihood it will negatively affect your relationship with the person opposite you.
When you have a good relationship with your emotions, they are neither in charge nor ignored. Emotions are an alarm system that appropriately warns you that something needs your attention. They are like a smoke alarm. When the alarm sounds it’s important to determine if it’s just the toast that’s burning or if your drapes are on fire. It’s not OK to take the battery out of the alarm any more than it’s OK to call 911 ever time it goes off.
Feeling stuck is most often the result of having a bad relationship with heightened emotions. We wind up calling 911 when, in fact, it’s just a case of burnt toast.
When it comes to getting unstuck, the most important thing to remember is that more of the same is never a good idea. In fact, the definition of being stuck is doing the same thing over and over without experiencing progress.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.