Today, I talk to couples' therapist Chloe Choi about relationships in this new world. We go behind the scenes into how stress impacts relationships, how to navigate isolation and a changing world of work, and how to thrive in your relationship for the long run. You can find her at chloechoi.ca.
Bryn: Romantic relationships can be tough at the best of times. But throw in a global pandemic and a few months of quarantine, and many couples are struggling to keep it together, let alone enjoy their relationships. Joining me today is couples therapist, Chloe Choi. She’s here to give you the tools to help your relationships survive and maybe even thrive in this new world. I’m Bryn Savage, and this is The Plum-Line, a podcast on mental wellness. Chloe, Welcome. Let’s start with stress. Can you tell me about how stress actually impacts relationships?
Chloe: This is such an important question for us right now, as we’re all experiencing a collective stress due to the fact that we’re currently living through this global pandemic. So very uncharted territory for all of us. Whenever I think about stress, my go-to framework is the idea of our window of tolerance. The window of tolerance is a term that Dr. Dan Siegel coined. Basically, we all have a window in which we’re able to tolerate what life throws at us. When we’re operating within this window of tolerance, we’re in what they call our 'optimal arousal zone,' which essentially just means that we’re able to experience empathy. We can regulate our own emotions or experiences. We can feel safe. We can handle life and be in relationship and feel comfortable.
But when we experience stress, this window becomes smaller. Our window of being able to be okay actually decreases. When our window is small, we will pop outside of that window. And when we do, we go into one of two arousal zones: we have what we call the hyperarousal zone -- which is when our sympathetic nervous system gets activated, so that’s like our fight or flight response. And then we have a hypoarousal zone. That’s the parasympathetic nervous system and that’s more of the freeze response that sometimes gets forgotten.
When we’re in the hyperarousal zone, what that could look like to make that a bit more tangible, ‘cause that’s quite jargony: that looks like defensiveness or emotional reactivity. It could be racing, thoughts, hypervigilance that’s where we’re going to see anger and rage. The hyperarousal zone that looks a little bit different. That’s where we kind of have really, really low energy where we might be feeling numb or numbed out where we feel like we don’t have the ability to defend ourselves or we’re feeling really shut down. So, when you ask Bryn, what would it look like to have stress impact our relationship? I guess we have to consider what it’s like to operate with our partners from either of these zones, right? So, trusting that, you know, knowing that when we’re in a situation of high stress, we’re much more likely to pop out of our window of tolerance and into either a hyper or hypo aroused state. So naturally what we see in relationships where stress is causing that window of tolerance to be smaller is, we’re seeing increased conflict levels. Which makes sense, right? Because it’s really hard to connect. It’s hard to empathize. It’s hard to be vulnerable when you’re operating out of a place of hypo or hyper arousal. So, what can be really helpful in this is just discussing this concept with our partners, right? We talking about your window of tolerance and even identifying which zone is your go-to zone. Whether yours is hyper or hypo so that our partner actually has an idea of what’s maybe happening for us in those moments when we are popping outside of that window.
Bryn: And how can we increase the window of tolerance?
Chloe: Yeah, that’s also a really good question. I guess one simple thing we can do would just be simply checking in with ourselves each morning as we start our day. So, just noticing, is there anything that is going on in addition to a global pandemic, in addition to work stresses that are maybe always there. But are there any other extenuating factors that could be making your window smaller? So, an example of that for me as, you know, Bryn, as my friend, sleep is super, super important to me. And as a mom, obviously that’s not always easy to come by. So, for me, if I haven’t slept well, I find that my window becomes like a crack. So, then it’s about identifying what you can do to care for that.
So, sharing it with your partner, giving them a heads up that something’s going on for us, that’s making our window feel kind of small so that they can be mindful of it and maybe even choose to show up in a way that could support us. So, for me, what that might look like would be telling Peter, hey, I had a really rough night last night, the baby woke up a bunch of times or whatever. And know where he could support me, would he be offering to watch the kids so I can take a nap. So little things like that. And then I think also, just identifying the stressors that are present, that we can control. So being really intentional, right about eating a fulfilling meal or doing a really simple, mindful breathing exercise being intentional about going to bed early, if sleep is important to you and moving our body, right. So, it can be -- I think it could be easy to point out the things that we’ve lost access to, right. That could help us with our window of tolerance. Because obviously we’ve lost a lot, we’ve lost access to a lot of things in our current context, but there are still little things that we can do.
And so, really being able to focus on trying to do those things. Even just cultivating fun or appreciation and laughing, it can also help to reduce our stress and can increase our window of tolerance. And I know that that can be difficult when it feels like the state of the world is not the happiest place right now. But, if we can be creative right, and finding ways to cultivate that fun, and I think humor can be such a powerful resource for us. And an example of this that kind of comes to mind is I heard about one couple who’s working from home together and they actually created this fake coworker to blame their annoying habits on and they named her Cheryl. But I think as silly as that is little things like that can really go a long way in increasing our window of tolerance and decreasing the impact that our stress is having on us. So being able to find ways to laugh and to joke and to find joy in the midst of stressful times.
Bryn: Another thing that I really love to do is have people write up their own kind of personal hierarchy of needs and then put that up on the fridge so that both partners are able to see it.
Chloe: Yeah. I love that idea. And having that image in such a frequently trafficked area, like the fridge, because let’s be real, we’re all having a lot of snacks right now. It’s really going to encourage us to be mindful of checking in on our needs, right. Because it’s not necessarily something that we you know, unless we’ve trained ourselves to check in on, right.
Bryn: And on the flip side, what can we do when our partners window of tolerance is small?
Chloe: Yeah. So, I mean, trying our best access compassion is really going to help us in that situation, really reminding ourselves of our emotional boundaries, right? So, I’m not responsible for my partner’s emotions and it’s not my job to fix it or to personalize it which can be extra hard. That’s hard just in general, right, to practice, but even harder in isolation, right. Because we are so impacted by the emotions of other people. And the reality is, is that we’re likely in close proximity to our partners. So now more than ever, it’s so important to be really doing our own work when we’re able. So being able to tend to our own reactions to them you know, that can be really helpful.
So just noticing how their current state is impacting us and then caring for ourselves and caring for that response. And then also holding that at the same time, while we’re not responsible for our partner’s feelings. It’s really important to acknowledge that in a relationship we can choose to show up and support our partner in their emotional experience. So, something like offering to check in might be really helpful if your partner is having a rough day. So, what that could look like is maybe, saying something like I noticed that you’re seeing a bit off today, what could I do to best support you right now? Is there anything I can do to make this feel better for you? And so just really being intentional about asking ourselves what might my partner’s needs be right now, or if you can’t identify them on your own checking in with them and asking them and of course in a non-combative way.
Bryn: Yeah. I think it’s really helpful to remember that conflict just happens because people’s needs are different. One person’s need might be for space and the other person’s need for connection just happens at the same time. And I think anytime there is a conflict, the bottom-line question should always be, what does the other person need right now? And what do I need right now? I think that helps to make the bad mood seem a little bit less personal.
Chloe: Yes. And this can really help in diffusing conflict as well. Right. So, I mean, I can think of a time during this pandemic, we’re actually putting that into practice is really helpful for me. I remember it was at the very beginning of this whole COVID-19 situation. And so, there was a lot of like ambiguity regarding the rules. So, what we were allowed to do, what we’re not allowed to do specifically around like being with people outside of your household and how to interact with them. And I remember I really, really wanted to go for a run with my friend and Peter had a reaction to that. And I noticed immediately myself going into a place of defensiveness and I could very quickly see it, spiraling into a conflict.
Thankfully by some miracle, I don’t know how I was able to identify in that conversation that running with my friends specifically was a need for me versus just kind of like a frivolous behavior that I wanted to do. So really being able to communicate, I’m struggling with feeling emotionally isolated and I’m so highly extroverted. So that’s super important for me and not running with this person, it’s not just about going for a run with someone, but it’s about filling my need for connection. So, I think when Peter was able to hear that my behavior was a need feeling behavior versus just a want behavior, he was really able to soften and then I felt like he was really able to identify his own need right. Which was rooted in a need to feel safe. Right. I need to know that we’re doing the right things, that we’re following the rules. So, from there, we were really able to brainstorm ways that we could both have our needs met. So, I think, it looked like me offering reassurance that, I’d be wearing a mask, quarantine, social distancing, have a shower as soon as you get home, those types of things. And then also him validating me, right. At least saying, yeah, it makes sense that you want to go do this thing. And it’s not like you want to go do this thing because you’re, just trying to hurt me or being insensitive it’s because you’re trying to meet your own need for social contact and connection. And that’s also super important. And so really being able to yeah, identify what our needs were in the midst of what was going on really helped us to diffuse that.
Bryn: It almost seems like a universal right now is relationship conflict. Huh?
Chloe: Absolutely. Yeah. When you add up stress and small windows of tolerance and then the nonstop time together, I think you’ve got a perfect storm for conflict. I remember one time, it was maybe a few weeks ago now or who knows, maybe it was like, there was no concept of time anymore. But I remember whining to Peter, like, why are we bickering so much? And him just replying because everyone is bickering so much. And just hearing him say that actually made me feel better just knowing that it wasn’t necessarily like a me problem or an us problem, but it was a pandemic problem. But with that said, obviously it’s one that we can work to lessen. And I think whenever we talk about or look at conflict, I think it can be so helpful for us to look at attachment.
So, we relate to our partners often as we related to our early caregivers and we refer to this as our attachment style. And without going into too much detail about that, essentially most people generally fall into one or two tendencies -- behavior tendencies when their attachment feels threatened. So, the first one being pursuing tendency and the second being a withdrawing tendency. And both of these behaviors are about safety, right? A pursuer is trying to regain safety by pursuing their partner’s attention and engagement. But often this is done in ways that aren’t actually helpful. So, like continuing to press into an argument or becoming critical or blaming and then a withdrawal or attempts to regain safety by retreating and being alone, right.
Like I can only self-soothe, I can only feel better if I’m by myself, I can just rely on me to do this. And so, if paired with a pursuer, then often a withdrawer feels really overwhelmed by the push to connect and they retreat more and then the pursuer feels more threatened and they pursue more. And then there’s this vicious cycle. And I think just being aware of what our stance is, once again, just like with the window of tolerance, like where do you go in the window of tolerance? And maybe there’s some overlap here. I’m not sure. I’ve never seen any research on that, but I’m sure there could be some relationship there. But just identifying, which stance you take and figuring out what stance your partner takes and then really addressing that can be helpful in terms of breaking that cycle.
Bryn: So, what might that actually look like in real life?
Chloe: Yeah. So, I guess if I’m to look at my own I am typically the pursuer and Peter is the withdrawer. And so, I guess an example would be like, let’s say one day, I feel like Peter hasn’t been super present with me. Because something at work is stressing him out and his mind is preoccupied. So, because in that context, I would maybe feel threatened by his lack of presence. I would maybe take a blaming stance and I would try pursuing him. And what that might look like is saying something like you haven’t paid any attention to me or the kids all day.
And like, even when you are with us, it feels like you’re somewhere else. And I’m exhausted. I’ve been watching the kids all day; I need that connection. Which something like that would very likely cause Peter to feel emotionally threatened, right. And then as a result, he might withdraw and become more distant and then I might continue playing the blame game, right. Trying to get him to connect and just kind of keep harping into him. Why aren’t you present? Why aren’t you paying attention as he continues to retreat. So, that’s kind of a, I guess a nitty gritty example of what that could...
Bryn: Yeah. And I think so often those threat responses are evoked when there’s really core needs that are being missed.
Bryn: Needs for connection or needs for alone time.
Chloe: Exactly. Yeah. And if we can get to the bottom of which feeling for us is being threatened. And if we can communicate that to our partner instead of going into either a pursuing or withdrawing place, then we’re way less likely to enter into a conflict. Right. So, one really helpful template for doing this is something that I once heard from Brené Brown. And I actually use this all the time and Peter started using it all the time too, and it’s really, really helped us. And so instead of telling your partner what they are or were they’re not doing, we use the language, the story I’m telling myself is. So, if we were to use the example that I gave with Peter so instead of going into the blame mode, I could have said, something like I’ve noticed today, I’ve been feeling like you haven’t been present with us.
And the story I’m telling myself is that it’s because you don’t want to spend time with me. And, if I had to say something like that, I’m sure Peter would respond maybe by saying, I’m really sorry you’re feeling that way. I actually really love spending time with you, but I’m feeling really stressed out about something that’s happening at work. And I’m just finding that I’m struggling to be present because this is just really on my mind. And then, together from there, we could go to a solution. Right. So, something like being able to use that template is just such a diffuser and so much more vulnerable too, right. Like you’re not accusing the person but you’re actually sharing what your fear is or what your need is in that.
Bryn: And that really allows you to be on the same team against a situation instead of being against each other, as people.
Chloe: Exactly. Yeah. Externalizing the issue. I know Esther Perel talks about this idea of externalizing a lot, like the us together versus the problem instead of us just against each other. Yeah. Peter and I, when we talk about this, we often use the imagery of being in the trenches together. Right. So, we’ll say, let’s not turn on each other, we’re in the trenches together and we’re fighting against this common enemy. So that can really be helpful in terms of just like reconnecting when it feels like you’re kind of turning on each other because it’s true. Yeah. We really need to be focusing on, caring for your relationship, caring for one another and fighting this external force that’s trying to separate you versus really turning on one another.
Bryn: Yeah. John Gottman, I think talks about the four major actions that contribute over time to a relationship breakdown. And I think those are stonewalling, defensiveness, contempt and criticism. And that requires that people don’t turn to those four pieces if you’re able to externalize the problem.
Chloe: Yes. Yeah. And each of those are actually part of the pursue withdrawal pattern that we’re talking about.
Bryn: Yeah. So, what does that part look like in a conflict?
Chloe: Well, I guess for the sake of kind of a clean illustration it could look like one partner. So likely this is going to be the pursuer engaging in criticism maybe as a way to get their partner’s attention or connection. So, they might say something like, you’re so lazy you haven’t done anything all day. I’ve been working my ass off. Like, what are you doing? Something like that. And then the other partner, maybe the withdrawer, right, is going to go into perhaps a defensive stance. Right. So, then we see that second horseman come up. You know, I was working all day, what are you expecting me to do? Like I’m paying for this house, how do you expect me to pay our bills?
And then the other partner could respond to that with contempt. Right. And so, contempt would be something like rolling your eyes. Contempt like sounds, I would never treat my partner with contempt, but when you figure out what contempt is, right. It’s like literally, rolling your eyes or face palming, just like any sort of display that communicates superiority in some way or disgust your partner. So, then yeah, then that third horseman could come in and then the other partner, especially again, if they’re a withdrawer they might respond by stonewalling. So, that point just completely cutting off emotionally and not engaging because it doesn’t feel safe. Right. So, that’s like a really like a kind of clean example of it in the sense that it’s just like, bam, bam, bam. But you can see right, how they flow into one another.
So, it would actually be quite easy. And I mean, I would say quite common based on the, you know, some of the couples that I’ve seen in practice and just even in my own life or friends. That it’s quite possible to have all four of those horsemen in one conflict at one time. I think one of the people that people -- that things rather that people don’t realize is, how damaging these behaviors actually are to relationships. And that’s the scary thing when you look at John Gottman, right, in his research, because he studied for 30 years in these love labs. And I think he claims to be able to predict with, like, I think... I forget the exact percentage, but it was like 90 percent accuracy, something like that, right, whether or not a couple will make it based on how many of these horsemen are present. And I guess the frequency in which you’re using them. So, John Gottman has a lot of really good resources that are available online for more information about this. So, if anyone who’s listening is interested in more, you can just Googled him. There’s a lot of videos and stuff that will explain more about what those four relationship no-no’s look like.
Bryn: A unique and probably heightened conflict that the pandemic has brought up for so many people is navigating the need for space and togetherness.
Chloe: Yes. Yeah. Well, this pandemic has definitely created a challenging dynamic. I think, you know, so many people are spending the most amount of time that they have ever spent in their entire relationship with their partners right now. Right. Like never before have people spent just a mass amount of quantity time together. So, what we’re seeing is we’re seeing a lot of close proximity to our partner, but not necessarily a lot of connectedness. Right. And we have very little time or space for ourselves. And this can also, in addition to the stress that we’ve been talking about it can also create a breeding ground for this conflict. Right?
Bryn: Yeah. And without distraction, I guess everything is heightened, both the good things. And then also the bad, which also brings up managing schedules and intimacy. For many people, intimacy or friendship and sharing not to mention sex, get lost in the TDM of being at home together all the time.
Chloe: Yeah. Definitely. And for some couples, the first step might just even be acknowledging that quality time alone time and quantity time are different things, right? Like even just having that conversation, because I wonder if there can be just this expectation that because we’re together all the time, things should be good. We should be happy. We should be feeling connected because we’re seeing each other all the time. And yeah, like you said, that heightened sense of both the good and the bad that for some people, the sense of disconnect can feel so heightened because they’re with their partner all the time. So, that can feel so much more challenging and heavy. And I guess while it might sound trite, I think it does come back to the reality of the importance of being intentional with our time. Right?
And this isn’t just obviously important during the pandemic, but maybe extra important during the pandemic in terms of being intentional about scheduling time for these things, right. Scheduling time for quality time together, remembering that just because you’re sitting in the same room as each other all day doesn’t mean you’re actually connecting. And so, while at the end of the day, the last thing you might want to do is spend more time with your partner. It’s recognizing that there is a difference between quality and quantity time. So really making time throughout the week, it doesn’t have to be maybe every day. But to really intentionally connect with one another trying as best as you can to schedule alone time. Right. So maybe that looks like taking walks or intentionally being out of the house at different times so that you can have that alone time and yet even scheduling sex. Right.
Which I think people have often a bit of a reaction to. You know, that sex is supposed to be spontaneous. But you know, I think it was Esther Perel I heard speaking about this once, who was saying like, you would never expect dinner to just spontaneously make itself, right? Like you go to the store and you have a plan and you get the ingredients that you need for that meal. And in the same way there does need to be some elements of planning, especially with busy-ness or even just not having a schedule or structure that can sometimes... you think if we have all the time in the world, we’ll have time for this. But no, again, even if without that structure, it can actually make it harder. Right. Because you’re out of your routine,
Bryn: Yeah. Prioritizing fun and good stuff is even more important as we navigate challenging circumstances.
Bryn: Chloe, it was such a pleasure talking to you today.
Chloe: Thank you for having me.
Bryn: Thank you so much. Chloe is accepting new clients for her virtual practice and you can reach out to her by visiting her website, chloechoi.ca.
Chloe: Yes. I am practicing. At this point, I’m not sure when this will air. But at this point in time, I am just practicing online. But yes, people can feel free to reach out if they’re interested and I’ll let them know what my status is. But I imagine, online practice will become a part of our realities moving forwards. Yeah. Whether it’s a 100 percent or 50 percent, it’s going to be there, I think.
Bryn: If you like our show and want to know more, check out plumtherapy.com or join us next week, when we’re talking about parenting during a time of major upheaval, I’m Bryn Savage, and this is The Plum-Line, a podcast on mental wellness.