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How Are Relationships Like Traffic Lights?

Maybe you’re like me and recognize that there are times when you and your partner get caught in conflict. And maybe like me, you wonder how to handle it better.


You might wonder whether there are signs that could help you communicate in a way that de-escalates conflict instead of heightening it.


Protection & Unmet Needs


It’s a general understanding when driving that traffic lights provide structure to the rules of the road. If followed, they provide a greater sense of safety for all those driving. When there is a red light, we stop. When there is a green light, we go. And when there is a yellow light, we proceed with caution or get ready to stop. It strikes me that these are also good rules for communicating with our partner.


When we are caught in disagreements with our partner, there are usually two things present during these times of conflict. The first is our protection. We use our defenses to protect feelings of vulnerability, like anxiety and shame, that could get us hurt if we showed them. These feelings remind us of past traumas, and we protect them fiercely, so as not to be traumatized again.


The second thing present in times of conflict is unmet needs. In these particular moments we feel unheard, misunderstood, unseen, and unvalidated. We long for our partner to respond to us with empathy, kindness, and attunement so that we stay connected during large and small ruptures in the relationship.


Red Lights


If we tune into our own bodies, what we find is that we can use traffic lights as signals for how to proceed with our partner. If we find that we shut down, go numb, and withdraw, or conversely, that we start aggressively pushing our partner to stay engaged, then we are in a place of protection.


This is a red light. When a red light is observed, we need to stop, slow down, or take a time out. Nothing good will come out of the conversation when we find ourselves at a red light.


We are locked in part of our brain that is unable to think clearly and logically and to problem solve in these moments. Red lights serve as a signal that we need to take the time necessary to regain our equilibrium, return to our physiological baseline, and then later re-engage in the conversation when we are able to listen non-defensively.


Yellow Lights


The other signal our body sends us during conflicts or disagreements with our partner is caution. These are yellow lights, warning signals of danger ahead. These signals send feelings of anxiety, shame, pain, or guilt to let us know that we may be heading into a part of the conversation that causes us to re-experience past traumas or hurts.


These warning signs come quickly and don’t last long. They can show up as tightness in our chest and stomach (anxiety), heat in our shoulders and head (anger), or a shrinking-down of our body to make ourselves smaller (shame).


We often struggle to notice the yellow lights that are warning us of danger - which is why we move quickly to our defenses and move away from the uncomfortable and sometimes excruciating feelings we are experiencing at these times.


When we tune into yellow lights and recognize their signals, we become aware that we need to self-soothe. We need to take a deep breath, center ourselves, and tell ourselves that it’s going to be ok, that we can do hard things, and that we are strong and courageous.


We can also communicate to our partner what we are feeling in those moments and ask our partner to provide some soothing or comforting words as well. If our partner is willing, we can reach out and try physical touch, like holding hands. We can also always ask for a time out to calm down.


Green Lights


When we feel heard and understood, and we feel our partner is attuned and empathizing with us, then this is a green light to proceed with open communication. Often green lights show up as the six C’s: calm, connected, curious, clearheaded, competent, and capable.


Same goes for our partner. When we recognize that they are not defensive, and they are open and accepting of our thoughts and feelings, then these are signs of a green light to “go” and embrace vulnerability to deepen the connection. In these moments all signs point toward an openness to learn and grow together.


Ruptures are opportunities for growth to learn more about each other and the needs of the relationship, and conceptualizing traffic light signals can serve as a navigational tool for how to proceed with sensitive conversations.


Attuning to each other’s emotional life is the glue that holds couples together. Learning each other’s traffic light signals can help couples communicate, so as to have fewer red and yellow lights and more green lights, and ultimately to feel more loved and accepted.


- Tom Philp, LPC & CEO Stonebridge Couples

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