“It’s natural to regress to old behavior. If you catch yourself regressing, give yourself a hug, appreciate your pain, shower yourself with enough love to calm down and relax, and then take your hand and lead yourself back to higher ground.” Beth Green in God’s Little Aphorisms: One-Liners from the Source

Couple viewing sunset in the countryside.

Ever heard the aphorism, “Under stress, we regress”? I love this observation since it explains what often happens when couples work to do things more healthily—for example, being more gentle with one another by avoiding using the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in your interactions. It can be challenging, but you are making progress. Then, wham! Some stress hits, and the old ways of interacting are suddenly back.

So now what? Keeping the aphorism in mind, make sure to give one another the benefit of the doubt. Talk about what happened and work to understand any stress that contributed. It is not a disaster when we regress; it just means we need to make repairs as needed. Dr. Gottman found that one of the differences between successful couples and those who were not was that successful couples made sure to repair when things got hairy. Here are a few good examples of ways to repair:

  • Say, “I’m sorry.” Yup, this is an oldy, but a goodie. You may need a bit of footwork ahead of time, like talking about feelings and listening to one another to make sure each person feels understood, but it is well worth it.
  • Take a break when one or both of you feel overwhelmed. When we are under stress, the likelihood of getting flooded (going into fight, flight or freeze) goes up. Having an understanding ahead of time about how to take a break as a couple, even in the middle of a discussion, can make a huge difference. Taking a break is a repair because, if you don’t take a break when you need one, it is very likely the interaction will not go well.
  • One of my favorites is to have couples practice phrases like, “I feel criticized, can you rephrase that.” When one of the Four Horsemen comes through in the conversation, asking your partner to rephrase what was said can turn a conversation away from disaster. You can also stop yourself with, “That sounded critical, let me rephrase that,” if you realize it at the moment.

There are many other ways to make repairs in relationships, including using non-sarcastic humor. The important thing is to be gentle with one another when stress rolls around. Because, all together now, “Under stress, we regress.”

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LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT
LeMel Firestone-Palerm, LMFT, LPCC, CGT About LeMel...
Helping Create Healthy Relationships Since 1997
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist MFC 42162
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor LPC 1534
Certified Gottman Therapist