Practical Steps in becoming a Source of Safety to Your Partner© Al Turtle 2005
I was asked recently what are the steps to follow, practically, when you see your partner backing away from you – even in everyday situations. I think the person was simultaneously looking for specific things to do and trying to head off trouble.
Here’s what I have.
Step One: Notice your partner’s lizard. Everything starts with your awareness that your partner’s survival system has been activated. A clue to this can be your partner saying, “That worries, scares, frightens me.” A clue can be an act of Fleeing, Freezing, Fighting, or Submitting. (See my Safety Paper). A good clue is that you start feeling nervous or agitated. Survival systems, Lizards, seem to talk directly to each other without words. If you are getting nervous, possibly it is a response to your partner’s nervousness. Notice. Get good at it. When in doubt, have a chat with your partner. “Share with me what do you do when you get nervous that I might be able to notice. I am working on being a Source of Safety to you.”
Step Two: Obtain input from your partner. Stop whatever you are doing immediately and address this problem. Do not ask why they are nervous. That isn’t important at this time. Besides they may not know why their Lizard has kicked off into “Not Safe” mode. Invite them to share, “What could I or you do now that might make you feel more safe or relaxed?” “What would help you or us be more peaceful right now?” You are looking for specific things to do. But you may have to accept vague responses at first. Their Lizard probably knows what it needs, but your partner may have to learn to put its needs in words for you.
Step Three: Do it! Right now. After getting your partner’s idea, start the behavior. If they ask for quiet, ask how long and then do it. If they ask for you to rub their neck, do it. If they say, “Back off!” Invite them to say how far. Then do it!
Most usual requests involve quieting down, stopping talking, moving slower, etc.
Not only do it now, but do it several times over the next days and weeks. Observe your partner’s response. Ask them, “How does it feel when I …?”
Step Four: Learn it and Make it Automatic. If it works, if it makes your partner feel safer, learn to make that behavior a part of your “normal skills.” Ask your partner to help. Make signs to remind you if you forget. Take pride in your success.
I am speaking to my partner and I notice (1) she looks figgity and distressed. I stop (2) and say, “I just noticed your hands twitching. What could I do now that would make you feel more peaceful?” She says, “I need to take a break and use the bathroom.” I say, “Fine. Let me know when you want to continue.” (3) I walk off a little and busy myself with something else. Over the next week, several times when I note her acting figgity, I take a break and go do something else, telling her, “Perhaps we both can take a little time off. Let me know when you want to talk some more.” If she appears to relax more, then I practice “dropping a subject” whenever she appears figgity.
Discussion: The principle here is that communicating and relating when you are calm is more important than what you are communicating or relating about. Get the calmness first and then start working on the difficulties you have in that calmness. Never continue what you are doing when tension is too high. Eventually you will both be able to continue working on tough subjects as you learn to trust the other’s willingness to stop when tension gets to high.
Warning: These steps are really for use after you have mades significant progress solving some of the big problems: like dialogue, arguing, pursuing and avoiding, and have studied and started implementing Safety.