Safety First – How To Restore Connection In Relationships

Restore Connection? Safety First!

To restore connection in relationships when one is in distress, or even worse, when both are, can be a cumbersome challenge as many have experienced. Especially since autonomous physiological responses can get in the way!

Safety First

What happens when we feel stressed, meaning we don’t feel safe? Our system is perfectly equipped for scanning danger and to respond to perceived threats in a way that secure survival. Now, as “evolved” humans in modern society we rarely find ourselves in really life threatening circumstances. However, this doesn’t prevent that some conditions might be interpreted by our nervous system as unsafe, evoking similar responses as in situations where our life is at stake.

How does that play out in our relationships? Well, an argument, or a fight, or fear of losing connection are all conditions that alarm our survival system. Here is how that works, according to research by scientist Stephen Porges

Social behavior influenced by physiology

During the evolution of mankind three systems developed, one on top of the other, to cope with danger and to make us feel safe again. When triggered by a threatening event, we utilize them in a top down order, first trying to respond from the most modern (and advanced) system. Then, if that doesn’t restore the balance and a sense of safety, an older system gets activated and when even with that the feeling of unsafety sustains, we start responding from the oldest, most primitive system.
(for more details about this life saving program as described in what Dr. Stephen Porges has named “Polyvagal Theory”, check out this article or this Wikipedia item)

This means that we:

  1. First try to respond from the “social engagement system”, which supports us to listen better, to make eye contact and connect with others. However, we need some base line of safety for this system to be active. If that minimum safety is not in place, we have little or no access to it and we will fall back on the next system in the hierarchy.
  2. Secondly try to respond from the “adrenal sympathetic system”, which mobilizes the more instinctive fight or flight behaviors. When this also doesn’t bring us relief and a basic feeling of safety, we’ll fall back even one level deeper in the hierarchy.
  3. Finally we react from the “vagal system”, which is a freeze or shutdown response.

Primal responses expressed in relationship dynamics

Isn’t that how things go when we feel stressed, pressured, disrespected, ignored or hurt in a relationship? That we first try to engage, to talk, to get in touch, to come to understanding and agreement (connect), and when that fails we tend to – often while not wanting to – start arguing, manipulating, forcing or maybe avoiding contact, keeping distance, or leaving (fight or flight). And when that all doesn’t restore safety, we might with time be subject to depression or burnout (freeze or shutdown). Where systems are being shut down, their functioning reduced to a minimum, to keep energy available for survival.

Can you see how this relates to three common destructive patterns in relationships, with the first two (‘attack-attack’ and ‘attack-withdraw’) as examples of the fight or flight response, and the third one (‘withdraw-withdraw’) as an example of the freeze or shutdown response. Of course the second pattern (‘attack-withdraw’) might as well be a mix, if one partner predominantly is in attack mode and the other predominantly in withdraw mode.

Now, what is the relevance of all this stuff for us in our relationships, and or longing for connection and intimacy? Well, lack of (experienced) safety obviously gets in the way of our ability to relate. And this partly happens on a subconscious level, by a hyper vigilant nervous system, that constantly is on guard, always scanning for danger and possible threats. We only have access to our (younger) social engagement system when our nervous system evaluates our conditions as safe.

To restore connection take a deep breath first

So, what can we do to restore connection, given all of this? How can we use this knowledge to improve our relationships?

Here are some suggestions to disarm our defensive strategies and relax our nervous system:

  • When you notice you feel anxious, on guard, or even are aware that part of you doesn’t feel safe, take care of yourself and adjust what you need to feel (more) safe. Ask for what you need, or make time and space for you to recover and restore safety.
    It is interesting that breathing exercises, meditation, singing and facial gymnastics might be helpful, since the part of our nervous system that is related to our facial expression, to listening and to our heart and our lungs is the same.
  • Be gentle with yourself when in distress. Moving to a quiet(er) space, and reduce activity is also helpful to have better access to our social engagement system.
  • Be gentle with another who is in distress. If you’re with another who is upset, you can guide that person to a space that is (more) quiet and offers less stimuli. Talk with a soft voice and friendly tone to calm them down and to support them to feel more safe. Just inviting them to breath consciously can be very helpful too.
  • Be aware that you, or another, possibly will misread social cues when in a state of arousal. What will appear as a neutral face to a relaxed person, might be perceived as angry, or disapproving, or judging when that defensive physiology is activated (out of precaution this system evaluates everything on a conservative level related to survival).
  • Create agreements about how you want to relate to and engage with each other to create a safe container for your relationship. And preferably include agreements on how to deal with circumstances where one of you is, or even both are, upset.

Responsiveness beats defensiveness

All of this could be summarized in one short statement: SAFETY FIRST! Don’t try to solve any argument without first calming down yourself and the other, re-establishing a base of feeling safe again. Wasn’t a bad advice after all, to first count to ten …

When you feel calm and safe (enough), check with the other if they also are in a good enough space to make an attempt to reconnect successfully. Take it slow (anything too fast or sudden will be interpreted as danger and might cause a fall back to defensiveness) and honor your (and their) body’s responses. Don’t push, be gentle. And, if available, be responsive, engage! Responsiveness (e.g. by  eye contact, facial expression, sound or breath, body posture, or confirmative and reassuring words) adds tremendously to feelings of safety with another.

Have fun playing with this and if you feel inspired, leave a comment below. I love to read it … and to be “responsive”! 😉

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