The Power of the Call for Help
One of the biggest mistakes partners make in communication is not asking for help when they’re stressed, overwhelmed or anxious. In this module (taken from Month 9, Week 4 of our program), we’re going to discuss how to build a culture of asking for help and shifting gears in your conversations so you can ease stress, anxiety and overwhelm before it derails you.
Welcome to Month 9, Week 4 of Ready, Set, Love! In order to put together most of what you have learned this month about yourself and your relationship when it comes to managing stress and anxiety, I’m going to distill our discussion on ‘co-regulation’ down to it’s two most basic principles: the call and the response. Sound familiar? That’s because we covered the call and response aspect of relationship in our month on attachment. When it comes to co-regulation, we’re particularly interested in the type of call and the skill of the response. This is all about how you manage stress and anxiety in your relationship
Perhaps the most important part of co-regulating well as a couple is being able to ask for help. We often get in trouble simply because our call for help is vague, weak, obscured or absent. The ‘ask’ part must be clear. In order to be a co-regulating power couple, you each have to practice asking for help, and doing so in a way that is attractive and invites care. I can’t emphasize those last two qualities enough. I have so many partners tell me that they are asking their partners for help, but when I ask them to demonstrate how they are doing it, they are neither attractive nor inviting care. By attractive, I mean that you create an environment where it feels good to someone else to help you. Someone helping you because you made them feel guilty or because you have them under pressure does not meet the criteria. By ‘inviting care,’ I mean that you are specifically and verbally asking for help, not being vague or coy about it.
What are some of the most common mistakes? The unproductive, ‘acting out’ types of ‘calls’ we use when we’re in distress?
- The non-verbal call
- The critical call
- The leave-me-alone call
- The start-an-argument call
The non-verbal call is when we try to get our partners to see and guess what we’re feeling by looking sad or pouting, or it could be a passive-aggressive display of anger, like being stern with the kids while our partner listens.
The critical call is when we start criticizing our partners because we feel bad and need/want something. We often want comfort or relief from them, but end up pushing them away.
The leave-me-alone call is when we either state or show that we seek to be left alone, but it’s often obvious we’re upset and we’re not giving our partner a chance to be helpful.
The last one is when we start a stupid argument, like seizing a small issue and turning it into a big one.
Are there positive strategies we use that are also not very effective?
Yes. We use many ‘positive’ strategies to call for help that in the long run, do not actually ease the underlying distress very well. Things like seeking sex, inviting our partner to an activity like a movie, and stating our feelings in ‘I’ form (but without being consolable). While these are an improvement over negative calls for help, they fall short of the goal of relieving distress effectively and quickly using the brain’s fastest channel: sharing the emotion of our pain and seeking care and support from our partner.
What is the best way to ask for support?
The best way to seek support from your partner is to specifically ask them for help (as in “please help!”) with an attractive and positive demeanor and tone of voice. If you’re sad or depressed, or even feeling abandoned or rejected by your partner, you don’t have to be chippy or upbeat, but asking for help is still effective, and then making to sure to actually invite the care–the important second step many people miss. Even when people ask for help in an effective and positive manner than makes their partner feel good for helping, they sometimes then don’t invite in the care they want. They keep talking too much, aggravating their partner, or offering up solutions, rather than guiding their partner into exactly what they need.
If we get a little more scientific about it, the most efficient call for help is typically one that shares the feeling of vulnerability or distress and specifically asks for help relieving the distress. Ideally, you make your partner feel great for tending to you and you make it fun as well. An example of this is when one of you comes home from work stressed, hungry and tired. In that states, you might be moody, and get short with your partner, taking the way you feel out on them. In many cases, you won’t even say that you’re stressed and tired, you’ll just be snappy and critical with your partner. Your partner might figure out what you’re feeling and what you need at some point, but he or she may have already gotten hurt by you. It’s more effective to come home and let your partner know how you feel right away, like, “OMG, I’m so stressed and tired right now, I could really use some help!” That last part is important. The call for help makes our partner feel needed and valuable, and it gives us a more efficient channel to de-stress ourselves in. It keeps us feeling like a team rather than taking our moods out on one another.
Another example? The guy who comes home to his family after a long day, stretches out on the floor, and asks his wife and three kids to massage him back to feeling better. Kids love that stuff! Much better than him coming home cranky and being super controlling because he’s stressed and not availing himself of any support at home!
How about the response to the call for help? How can partners respond when their beloveds ask for help? The response should ideally be skilled, meaning it should know your partner’s fastest channels of relief. Is it compliments, a back rub, a hug, cleaning the kitchen, acknowledgement?
For those of you who may be concerned that the awareness and practice of what we call ‘co-regulation’ might be another contrived communication theory or a co-dependence thing, there’s a big difference. Being good at co-regulation is not formulaic. It’s not about saying this and expecting that or doing something because you think it fits a general type. It’s about being in the moment, looking your partner in the eyes when you’re having a tough feeling, being vulnerable and asking for help in an inviting fashion. Then it’s about responding with skills and care specific to that particular moment. It’s not co-dependence because it uses positivity and invitations rather than pressure, stress or guilt. Co-regulation is a culture, not a formula.
I hope this month was useful in terms of understanding the power of co-regulation, the potential to engage in a relationship that heals all kinds of wounds from adulthood and childhood, and what a big deal anxiety and stress management are in parenting and in relationships.
See you next month for Month 10 of Ready Set Love!