Tools for Couples: Practical help for getting unstuck

I want to offer some simple, helpful tools to support you as you rebuild your relationships.

Happy New Year!


As the first post in 2018, I want to make sure that this is especially practical, helpful and relevant.  Sometimes after all of the talking and processing is done, we ask ourselves, “Now what?”  Well, that’s what I want to answer today.


In the last few blog posts, we looked at how couples can get stuck in the same patterns of arguing and disconnection and stuck-ness.  If you can relate to that and want to learn a way out, the first step is understanding your own pattern.


Here is a diagram that I use with the couples I meet with, and we’ll go through this step-by-step using a fictional couple (Tim and Jane) that represents a lot of what I hear in my office every week:


1.  Start with the “trigger:”  what happens that tells you something is wrong between you and your partner?  It might be a word, a look, a tone of voice, a sigh.

Tim and Jane:  their trigger is when Jane says she “wants to talk”


2.  Partner 2’s (it doesn’t matter which partner we go to first) emotional reaction:  start with this partner’s reactive emotions, the feelings first come up after the trigger.

Tim:  when he hears Jane say she “wants to talk,” he feels anxious about why she’s upset and frustrated that they always seem to have to have difficult conversations.


3.  Partner 2’s inner dialogue:  what does this partner start telling him/herself when the trigger happens and when this emotional reaction occurs?

Tim:  he starts thinking to himself, “I must have done something wrong again.  Why can’t she just be happy with me?  Why can’t I just get it right?  She’s so demanding.”


4.  Partner 2’s behavioral reaction:  what does this partner do in response to these feelings and inner dialogue?

Tim:  he starts to withdraw and shut down because he doesn’t want to talk.  He starts getting quiet or trying to distract himself.


5.  Move over to Partner 1’s emotional reaction:  what does this partner feel when s/he sees Partner 2’s behavior?

Jane:  when Jane sees Tim start to withdraw, she feels hurt and frustrated because what she wants to share with Tim is important to her.


6.  Partner 1’s inner dialogue:  what does this partner start telling him/herself when this emotional reaction occurs?

Jane:  she starts thinking to herself, “He never wants to talk to me.  Why can’t I just get through to him?  He must not care about what I have to say?”


7.  Partner 1’s behavioral reaction:  what does this partner do in response to these feelings and inner dialogue?

Jane:  she tries even harder to talk with Tim.  Her voice gets louder, her gestures become more exaggerated and she tries to close the distance between them.


8.  Move back to Partner 2’s emotional reaction.

Tim:  as Jane gets louder and closer, Tim feels more anxious and frustrated, and thus the cycle continues over and over again.


And this is the pattern that we know so well.  It goes around and around until something happens to stop it.  Until it happens again.


So how do we really stop this pattern?  Or keep it from happening?


Look down at the heart at the bottom of the picture.  As we discussed in the last post, this is at the core of our pattern and unless we share with each other from this place, we will continually get stuck.


Let’s use our example couple to see what this looks like:


Primary, core emotions:  fear, sadness, hurt, loneliness, etc.

Tim:  When Tim hears Jane say that she “wants to talk,” he feels scared about the ways he may have let her down and what this might mean for their relationship.


Jane:  When Jane sees Tim withdraw from her, she feels sad and alone about having something important to share with her husband and not experiencing him there for her.


Needs for connection:  our relationship needs (to feel safe, secure, important, valuable, affirmed, cared for, etc.)

Tim:  Tim is scared that if he has let his wife down, she will not want to be close to him, she won’t find him to be important, and she may (eventually) not want to be with him in the relationship.


Jane:  Jane is sad and alone because she wants to feel close to her husband, she wants to know that she matters to him, and she feels safer when her husband is there for her.


 And this is the beginning of a different kind of conversation.  Things change when we express ourselves from a core, authentic place, and things change once we hear our partners sharing from this place as well.


It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.


Good things ahead,



Write a comment

Comments: 0

Rooted & Grounded



New on the blog:

Authenticity | A Guide for Reflecting on 2019


 How can we look back

to helps us as we look ahead.

In the neighborhood...


Raising Emotionally Healthy Children | January 13th, 2020

Point Loma Presbyterian Church Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) Group


I'm grateful for the opportunity to spend time with moms of young kids and explore different ways that we can help cultivate emotional health in our children.

Around town...

"Screen-based media associated with structural differences in brains of young children"

Science Daily 


"A new study documents structural differences in the brains of preschool-age children related to screen-based media use. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, shows that children who have more screen time have lower structural integrity of white matter tracts in parts of the brain that support language and other emergent literacy skills. These skills include imagery and executive function — the process involving mental control and self-regulation. These children also have lower scores on language and literacy measures."


Alair Olson, M.A.

 Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist



South Mission Valley | San Diego, CA  92108

858.634.0302 |