A moment of relational heroism is a phrase coined by married family and relationship therapists, Terry Real and Belinda Berman in Terry's book, How Can I Get Through To You.
It describes the moment where every fibre of your being wants to get defensive, lie, attack or walk away and instead you choose to soften and to lean in. It’s in that moment when you go into fight/flight, your prefrontal cortex and your rational self goes offline, your chest tightens, your jaw and shoulders stiffen and you just react blindly and automatically. You’re often not even reacting to what’s in front of you and what your partner is saying, but you’re reacting to the past and the story in your mind about how this argument will go and what it means. You go in circles, having learnt this specific dance of tit-for-tat.
It’s a moment of relational heroism when you choose to do differently and to learn a new dance. When you notice the walls going up and the chest tightening, you instead choose to take a breath and extend the olive branch. To go against what every cell and muscle in your body is telling you to do - to fight like hell or to run like never before, and to still choose your relationship.
It's when you decide it doesn't matter who yields or who's right or wrong, because you remember that the end goal is this relationship. You set the internal boundary within yourself to recognise when you're in this reactive mode and to do better.
I love this concept because it so perfectly encapsulates where many couples get stuck in their arguments, and the sheer work that has to go into unlearning your own sh*t and taking responsibility for how you want to show up in your relationship. It’s asking and asking regularly: are you protecting or are you connecting?
What it means to do one or the other looks differently for everyone. For some, they’ll run so fast out of there and the decision to stay and stick it out means everything. For others, the decision to not poke, prod and pursue their partner and to instead self-soothe is game-changing. This isn’t to say that these internal decisions are at all easy, it’s a heroic act for the person and for the relationship because it requires so much awareness, courage and discipline to choose differently than what your fight/flight brain wants for you.
During an argument, protecting can look like:
During an argument, connecting can look like:
- Shutting down the conversation - Lying - Refusing to listen to your partner - Silent treatment - Bringing up old arguments - Attacking your partner's character - Dismissing their experience - Walking away - Withdrawing
- Apologising - Sharing how you're feeling - Comforting your partner - Offering to make a snack or cup of tea - Showing appreciation - Expressing commitment - Taking an agreed time out - Holding their hand - Giving them a cuddle - Finding a common ground
In any argument it’s easy to get sucked into the details of who said what and when and how and it becomes a game of tit-for-tat. It’s less vulnerable to argue about your partner’s tone or the fact they didn’t message you that one time or who’s more tired. Considering 69% of relationship conflict is unsolvable (thanks to the Gottman Institute) this approach doesn’t sound so sustainable and more like a recipe for resentment. It takes real courage to remember that you’re a team and to actively let go of your ego for your relationship.
Be unafraid of taking that first step and work towards building a relationship where that first step isn’t just the exception but the norm. You don’t need to know what to do just yet or even have the perfect thing to say. You just need to lean in, soften and connect.
"The question isn't who's right or who's wrong, it's how are we going to make this work for us?" - Terry Real