Spring has long been a literal and metaphoric season for love.  The natural rhythms of our planet are designed to emerge from winter hibernations into new growth and life across the plant and animal worlds.  It’s certainly a great time for couples, whatever stage of your relationship, to reflect and refresh, cleaning up any unhealthy habits.  This spring season, why not prioritise these two essential relationship tidy-ups. 

Two Essential Tidy-ups

Tip 1 Couples Contracts: Where are we Now and Next?  

Rather than making considered, conscious, and regarded decisions about their relationship, couples can sometimes slide into their relationship milestones; like moving into together, having kids or purchasing a house.  This can be based on old narratives or out-of-awareness cultural scripts; it can feel like the logical next step, so it just happens.  Unfortunately, this can drive important shared narratives for the relationship ‘underground’ and couples may have unmet needs that they feel can’t be discussed with their partner.  Behaviours can become leaky and messy within the relationship over time and amp up resentment and conflict cycles.   More intentional processes where couples are discussing and declaring openly their hopes, fears, needs and desires understandably support perspective-taking and activates a stronger turning towards each other.  

A great tool for couples is developing a couple’s contract. This is a set of guidelines and intentions that create a container and direction for your shared relationship narrative.  Basically, it’s a platform for honest and caring communication that can then be written up and signed by both partners.  Although of course, it’s not legally binding, it can be good check-up and tune-up steering the relationship direction and health.   Some suggested areas to speak to include :

  • What does being in a relationship mean to us individually – now and in the future?  
  • What are our desires in our relationship sexually, emotionally, physically, financially?
  • What makes our relationship feel safe and loving, where are we seen and cared for?
  • What areas do we feel unsafe and shutdown?  What could be different?
  • How do we deal with conflict and anger?  
  • How do we build intimacy from our differences?

Writing a Couple’s Contract:

A couple’s contract can be an invaluable tool for couples, and the more investment in the process the better the outcomes.  I’d suggest the following few steps in developing your unique contract.

Step One: Generally, I suggest that couples first think about their own ideas and thoughts for a couple’s contract individually.  It may not need to be written down or overly detailed, but at least considered and pondered so that both of you are entering into the collaborative stage of building a contract with a conscious and mutual understanding.  That way minimising the whole show becoming an argument or one partner feeling like they are more invested than the other.

Step Two: When discussing the couple’s contract together I recommend you have some dedicated time to spend for communicating your ideas.  Even if over several smaller time frames rather than one big chunk, it’s important to dedicate and schedule the time as a priority.  Sharing each others initial and individual thoughts, seeing where there is synergy and similarities, and holding differences with care and kindness.

Step Three:  The Second last step in your couple’s contract is agreeing on what in and what’s out.  Writing up the contract together builds ownership and using ‘we agree..’ language helps define the collaboration you have around each statement.  The easy part is in areas where there are synergy and similarities, and where there is room for compromise.  The harder parts might be if there are big differences.  Although not as common, big differences can still be written into the contract as “we agree to talk/connect about (this difference) regularly and with kindness and understanding”.  Lastly, it can be a sign of goodwill and intent when couple’s sign the contract and place it somewhere easy to review and reflect upon.

Below are some other contract statement examples:

We agree to never threaten the relationship (in passing, during arguments, or to other people)

We agree to take responsibility for our own individual emotional responses, our fears and anxieties, and for ourselves in general.  

We agree to consciously take time for ourselves as individuals (whether alone, with friends, or with separate vacation)

We agree to maintain a weekly, distraction-free time to prioritise our relationship

We agree to do our absolute best at holding space for each other, while acknowledging that we are not responsible for fixing the other partner’s problems

Step Four:  Reviewing the contract regularly is an essential process.  As you can imagine, doing so sharpens the effectiveness of what your are co-creating, allows flexibility and change to occur as your relationships grows, and critically keeps you both focused on your relationship and individual needs at regular intervals.  Sticking with the seasonal theme, my suggestions is a contract check-in around each season with a yearly review on your anniversary or similar important relationship date. 

Tip 2 Communication:  Criticism & Defensive cycles

Most couples will come to therapy needing some support with their communication.  Although fundamentally understanding emotional undercurrents and attachment styles within the relationship is essential for good relating, it’s without a doubt that certain communication cycles are a symptom of these themes.

Perhaps top of them all is the criticism – defensive cycle.  Im going to assume you probably don’t need me to explain this one too much.  Most couples are unconsciously skilled at it.  In this dynamic one partner in the relationship is feeling criticised or attacked around a particular issue.   Their opinion around the issue is different or the degree of feeling attacked is highly activated and they can’t let the perceived threat go undefended.  Perhaps feeling like they are never good enough, they strike back or stonewall.  For the other partner, they might be feeling like they aren’t important or their needs aren’t prioritised, and so will inadvertently (or sadly consciously) criticise, then demand, then maybe even attack their partner in escalating anxiety to feel seen.  Sound familiar?  It is.  Many couples have this dance and it can get most of them into serious trouble over time. It can be important to understand the basic neurobiological process happening at these times.

Softening the Conflict Cycle

More than how we are wired to respond to love, our brains are wired to respond to a threat.  It’s primitive, instinctual and about survival.  Between us, as a social mammal, we begin to perceive threats in each other through tone of voice and facial expressions and the fight, flight, freeze running the show is diligent and fast.  It also doesn’t know whether its a toaster on fire or a nuclear bomb going off, so we can often be well-prepped for war (or retreat) even in the very beginning places of our interactions.   This can be heightened by our past relationship experiences as we try and predict what might go wrong, rather than what might go right!  

Simply speaking, our perceptions about threats have deep roots in old family of origin and unconscious patterning.  (Hint: Even though that may not be the whole story it can be a good starting place for anyone wanting to figure out and change their behaviours).  As a couple, there are some simple but effective tools you can use to soften the criticism and defensive cycles.

Step One: Name It too Tame It –  Couples need a circuit breaker, a nickname (“oh we are on the roundabout again”) and a moment to catch a breath.  As I assume you know, the criticism-defence cycle is super fast and this first step can be really hard to practice.  And slowing everything down is critical.  You are wanting to collaborate your nervous systems and stay ‘online’ long enough to try something different than the usual conflict dance steps.  

Step Two: Touch, Breath, Eye Gaze –  The part of our brain first activated around threat is the brain stem which is responsible for basic survival reflexes, amongst other things.  For instance our heart rate might increase, or we are getting our body ready for fight or flight.  When couples can pause their criticism-defensive cycle long enough to try something else, I would recommend (when it’s agreed upon by both partners) a combination of touch, breathing, eye-gazing and movement.  For example, having a hug, soft eye-gazing and taking some conscious breaths together supports us to feel safe, protection and generates goodwill for step three.  

Step Three:  Affirm the Intent and action –  Once everything has slowed up enough that couples can name the cycle, catch a breath and hopefully incorporate some touch or eye gazing, it’s good to reengage the thinking brain by affirming what you have done differently.  For Example, something like, “I really appreciate we are trying something else now” or “Thanks for how you helped us pause” or  “i’m really loving this cuddle”.  Again, this drives couples goodwill, acknowledges the commitment of both partners to act differently and sets the brain up to feel more safe and secure.

Step Four:  Have another go – From here, it hopefully will feel easier and safer for both partners to try again.  Together, following these steps, you have collaborated your nervous systems, slowed the cycle down and set up the right brain ingredients for a more positive, caring and kind interaction. If you find yourself back at the beginning and starting to escalate into criticism and defensive patterns, head back to step one or take some time out.

Taking Time Out:  At any time, from steps one to four, it can be important for partners to acknowledge and call a need for some time out.  Somewhere from 20 minutes to 1 hour is useful, however this can depend on the level of distress and dysregulation either person is experiencing. In other words, sometimes longer or less will be appropriate and each couple will need to find their groove with a timeout.  There are two important elements of this strategy.  Firstly, you should always commit to coming back, reconnecting and working through issues.  Utilising the steps above to support you as often as needed. Secondly it’s important for the partner – and there’s always one partner –  who is likely to want the timeout early and often.  Recognising this supports this partner to manage and change where they are avoiding and withdrawing from any discussions unhealthily, and for the other partner to manage and change their anxiety around the time out processes.

Well, there you have it!  Spring has sprung and my top two tips for couples are now yours to fertilise, grow, nurture and blossom in your relationship garden – an old but apt seasonal metaphor!  Please remember to be kind and protective whenever you’re discovering and exploring new ways in your coupling.  It can be delicate work.  And critically, these themes and ideas are never valid when there is domestic violence in relationships.  See you in summer for more relationship tips.

Sean Tonnet is a highly sort after relationship therapist, international educator and Clinical Director for Thrive Clinic Mullumbimby.  You can contact Sean through this website contact page or directly at connect@seantonnet.com.au or sean@thriveclinic.com.au