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Communication Skills

How to fix a broken relationship?

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Couples therapist, Susan Campbell, PhD, shows us how to approach hot issues with advice from her book “Five-Minute Relationship Repair”.  Get a step-by-step process for handling conflict. Learn how to quickly heal upsets and how to fix a broken relationship.

How to fix a broken relationship?

A broken relationship is one in which trust and communication has broken down.   Arguments and fighting have a tendency to erode trust over time and will create a sense of separation.  The opposite holds true too. Healthy partner communication not only builds trust, but it also improves the connective tissue in a relationship. Susan Campbell discloses one of the best ways to have a healthy relationship in her book “Five-Minute Relationship Repair”.  Her advice is composed of three parts; The first is good self-regulation, which is finding ways to stay balanced and rational during a tiff with your loved one; The second is strengthening your loving relationship through physical connection; The last is a tried and true process for resolving a matter before it occurs or to make peace when things have gone to far.

Neuroscience: Your brain during a fight

During a fight the amygdala is triggered and we react by going in to fight, flight, or freeze mode.  The amygdala is the part of our brain below the cortical regions associated with conscious cognition. It operates largely at an unconscious level and is hidden from our normal awareness. The amygdalais constantly scanning for danger and at the slightest detection, our body’s chemistry is triggered to take action. Susan Campbell refers to this response as a survival alarm. Sadly, when this happens the higher part of our brain responsible for empathy and conscious awareness goes offline. The two ingredients must needed (empathy and awareness) are n longer available for effective two-way communication.

Thus, instead of coming from a soft, tender and vulnerable place when dealing with our loved ones, our triggered response likely comes across to our partner as aggressive, defensive and hard. In addition, our brain which is always looking for meaning during a triggered reaction tries to make sense of everything. This is another way in which our brain muddies the communication process because it has to make up a reason for what the other person’s behavior means and why our survival alarm is totally justified. Unfortunately, our brain creates these stories and we feel as if they are real. As the story replays and time goes on, we reinforce its validity making it part of our long-term memory and very difficult to unwind.

VIDEO: Neuroscience

VIDEO: What does fight, flight, or freeze look like in an argument?

Why do couples fight?


Love has many distinct cycles. Initially, we see only the good in the other person. Over time, the initial romance starts to be replaced by the practical realities of sharing a life, family, and home together (Learn more about Love cycles here). Many of our fights arise from not clearly communicating or having dissimilar expectations on what “good” looks like (e.g.- what does a clean kitchen look like.  Find our more here.).

Another reason we fight is because our emotional needs are not being met.  Our basic needs are to feel acknowledged, accepted, and appreciated.   In her book, Susan Campbell shares a classic argument between a couple she counseled Eric and Donna. Donna wants to vent about her over demanding boss. Eric, a problem-solver, tries to show his love by advising ways she can fix her problems. As a result, Donna felt unheard and Eric felt unappreciated, both walked away feeling misunderstood and frustrated and feeling emotionally vacant.

As Susan dug deeper into the root cause of this couple’s emotional ordeal, she found that that Eric’s tone shifted to being more critical during the conversation which triggered an unpleasant memory for Donna. It prompted her to  recollect her father’s disapproving tone and how he lectured her as a child. Unbeknownst to Eric, he exhumed an unhealed emotional wound from childhood. Similarly, Eric’s alarm system was triggered when Donna’s voice grew louder and more high pitched and strident, which reminded Eric of his over bearing mother. Both Donna and Eric survival alarms and instincts rapidly spiraled out of control and neither was able to effectively communicate.

The bottom line is that each person enters a relationship with a myriad of triggers programmed by scary, painful, or upsetting past experiences in their home, work, or school life that were scary, painful, or upsetting. The beautiful part, however, is that we are conscious in our partner’s triggers,  our fights can become opportunities to heal old wounds and the broken parts of us that we bring to a relationship (Learn how our relationships bring us to a sense of wholeness here.)

“ When we are in a relationship we think completes us, we think “I didn’t know I could love like that, I didn’t know that I could make a sacrifice like that. I didn’t know it was in me. And you (my partner) have introduced me through this relationship to qualities in myself that I would have never dreamed existed.  See, that’s perfect.  But the quality that you introduced me to in myself isn’t there because you are there. You introduced it to me in myself, but begin to think that the only way I can know this (love) is if you are around.  No, I’m afraid. I have to control you, because if you go away, this beautiful part of myself is going to go away. And the more we try to control, the way we push away the very thing we (want)”- Guy Finley – See more at: .  Get full blog post here.

As both parties start to spiral, it’s common that we start going into what Susan Campbell describes as the Hole. Sadly, The Hole gets deeper each time we argue and fall into it. However, the key is to recognize that are amygdala is triggered and that we are in a fight-flight-freeze mode and that we must move to a different place. Susan says “No matter how hard you work at being understood, if you’re trying to communicate while in The Hole, you will only make matters worse”.

How do we know if we are getting triggered?

There are certain changes that happen with our voice, body temperature, and internal sensations. A few typical responses include a raised voice, clammy hands, rapid heart-beat, or being judgmental.

What are the core emotional needs that each person has in a relationship?

Susan Campbell explains that each partner has core needs that are basically the same:

I need to feel…connected to you, accepted by you, valued by you, appreciated by you. Respected by you, needed by you, that you care about me, that I matter to you, that we are a team, that I can count on your, that I can reach out for you, that you’ll comfort me if I’m in distress, that you’ll be there if I need you”.

What are the core fears that trigger a fight?

Each of us enters the relationship with core wounds that are triggered by previous relationships. These fears create a fight-flight-freeze response that causes us to be more defensive and sensitive and less prepared to address the disagreement at hand.

Here is a list from Susan Campbell’s book “Five-Minute Relationship Repair” on common fears:

  • Fear of being abandoned: You fear your partner might leave. You feel that your partner doesn’t need you as much as you need him or her.
  • Fear of being unimportant or invisible: You fear you are not as important to your partner as other things or people, or that you don’t really matter.
  • Fear of being rejected: You have trouble feeling accepted or valued just the way you are. You fear that you, or your needs, will be rejected.
  • Fear of being inadequate or a failure: Complaints or criticisms trigger fears that you are not good enough, that you are inadequate or unlovable.
  • Fear of being blamed: You fear being seen as wrong or as the case of relationship upsets, so you either defend yourself or shut down in the face of negative feedback.
  • Fear of being controlled: You fear feeling weak or vulnerable. You instinctively try to be in charge or control of any situation.
  • Fear of being trapped or suffocated: You fear intrusion, losing yourself, or being consumed by others. You become uncomfortable with other’s expectation or too much closeness.

What are justifications we use to rationalize our position?

Susan Campbell shares the most common statements in her book “Five-Minute Relationship Repair”:

  • “I’m alone.”
  • “He shuts me out.”
  • “She is so distant.”
  • “I am way down on the list.”
  • “He just doesn’t seem to care.”
  • “My feelings don’t matter”.
  • “We are never close anymore.”
  • “She’s not that into me.”
  • “I am just not sure I matter.”
  • “It’s like he doesn’t see me.”
  • “I don’t know how to reach her”
  • “If I didn’t push, we’d never be close”
  • “He doesn’t really need me at all.”
  • “Nothing I do is ever enough.”
  • “She doesn’t appreciate me.”
  • ”I can never get it right, so I give up.”
  • “I must be flawed somehow.”
  • “I feel like a failure as a mate.”
  • “It just all seems so hopeless.”
  • “I try to keep everything calm.”
  • “I try not to rock the boat.”
  • “I go into my shell where it’s safe.”
  • “I am just not as needy.”
  • “She just gets overemotional.”
  • “I can handle things on my own.”
  • “ I don’t know what he is talking about. We’re fine.”
  • “I try to fix things to solve the problem.”

How to prevent having an argument


Susan demonstrates how over time, you can get better at owning your side of the equation and averting an argument all together. She suggests that we speak our requests in a softer tone, make eye contact and be reasonable that our partner is likely to actually hear our requests. By gently approaching our partner, we rewire our partner’s reaction. Over time, we’ll be able to effectively communicate what triggered our defensive reaction, how we feel, the story our brain have created, and what we would like to happen.

Book ReView: “Five-Minute Relationship Repair”

Understand your part in the relationship

The above summarizes some of the high level concepts in the book “Five-Minute Relationship Repair”. The remaining part includes three chapters that focuses on a self-assessment exercise. It includes key questions to help you gain clarity on your triggers and the particular stories you create. The end of the book includes a few chapters to help your partner identify and examine their triggers through body sensations.

If you would like to spare yourself needless tears and frustrating experiences with your partner, I strongly recommend working through these exercises.

Agreements and scripts

In her book, Susan denotes the key areas that you should discuss with your partner so that both of you can feel safe and less triggered during hotly discussed topics. In addition, templates are provided to help you figure out what to say during an argument and avoid triggering your partner. There’s also an assortment of healthy processes and scripts on how to clear the air when you are having a challenging feeling.

Body Language: How to recognize that your partner is triggered

Susan Campbell offers her thoughts on the three different ways your partner may react when triggered and how you can identify when this occurs:

  • Fight: Your partner may demonstrate being frustrated, annoyed, resentful, irritated, angry, or infuriated.
  • Flight: Your partner may appear fearful, nervous, worried, insecure, panicked, and/or anxious.
  • Freeze: Your partner may demonstrate a sense of hopelessness, confusion, shame, stuck, numbed out, or paralyzed.

Get a live demonstration on how to read your partner’s body language here:

What to do when you are triggered?

Susan Campbell explains why it’s impossible to not communicate when we are angry and in fight mode.  As described above, our brains are hardwired toward a primitive fight or flight response when confronted by things we tend to misconstrue as threats. Instead, it’s important to self-regulate or calm ourselves through meditation or anything that allows us to feel relaxed.


Once you are triggered, the goal is to get yourself back into a balanced state. Here are a few videos that will demonstrate some of the ideas presented in Susan Campbell’s book.

VIDEO: Notice your feelings and call for a PAUSE. Before the argument, sit down with your spouse and create an agreement on when to PAUSE (time out to calm down). The agreement should include the ground rules for listening, the indicators that signify a trigger, how to notice those signals and how to call a PAUSE. Then you and your spouse should talk over the amount of time it took for each person to calm down.

  • Yoga- Deep Belly breathing

  • Grounding yourself and deep breathing:

Other ideas that you may want to try from our video library:

  • Buddhist: Loving, Kindness meditation:

  • Shamanic: Getting into your heart:

  • Meditation to resolve conflict:

  • Moving from resentment to love with a loved one:

  • Toltec-based concepts: Getting clear with what is happening on your side (your awareness, transformation, and intent).

  • Toltec-based concepts: Letting go of your unhelpful states of mind.

Couple coregulation

There may be a time when you can tell that your loved one is getting triggered. You may notice this by picking up on one of the fight, flight, or freeze cues based on your partner’s body language or tone of voice. During these times, you can use what Susan Campbell calls coregulation. These are techniques to calm your partner from their excited state. Here are a few ideas that may help:

  • Physical contact: Hug, hand on shoulder.
  • Eye contact: Soft loving gaze.
  • Voice: Speak slowly and in a soothing tone.
  • Verbal: You could say “We’re ok”, or “We are going to work this out”.

Other ideas include:

  • Couple’s meditation:

Reasons why couples fight

Most often, a couple’s argument clusters around a few key ideas. Find out more here:

Case Study: How to handle a hard conversation with your partner?

Argument about different parenting styles

Susan demonstrates how you could use her model to change a hard conversation and argument into an effective dialogue.

Hard Conversation:  Parents argue about disciplining their kids on computer limits.

Calm Conversation: Susan demonstrates here ( how using her 5 minute  repair handout can help in creating an effective conversation. Whichever party is triggered first should fill in the blanks and use the handout as a useful script. It may be helpful to try this script a few times until you reach a point when you don’t need it anymore.  The intention is to change our normal response and move from controlling another person to relating to  the other person.

* I like to repair what happened when I _____

* I know see that when I did ______ that I was triggered

* When ________  happened, a story came up in my mind that my needs don’t matter to you  or I don’t matter to you or I don’t feel supported.

* I reacted by___, but deep down inside I felt (core feeling- hurt, fear, sadness, grief, pain)

* A fear came up in me that ____ and as you know this has been a fear that I’ve had all my life and it reminded me of all the times when I was a kid when____

* What I need more than anything is ____________

* I want to apologize and if I had to do it all over again _______

* I want to reassure you that ___________________

How a partner may respond to their spouse yelling at them

Susan demonstrates how your partner can use one of their scripts to acknowledge your feelings, then tell their side of the story and apologize.

7 tips: How to strengthen your loving relationship

Relationship advice tip 1: Agree on how you will handle situations when either of you are triggered.

Check out “Five-Minute Relationship Repair” for what Susan calls a pause agreement that you could work out with your partner. Her book walks you through how to set a pause agreement, which is the agreement you make with your partner on the actions and next steps once either of you is triggered..

Relationship advice tip 2: Physical touch is very important

Most people enjoy physical touch to soothe their systems during a fight and generally. Hugs, massages or a gentle pat on the back are all nice ways of connecting to your partner. This is an especially nice way to start off and end the day, to welcome someone home or to wish someone off. I always give my kids and husband a hug and say, “I love you”. Based on personal experience with my dad dying, I know that life is short so I want these gestures to be the memory they have should something happen to either of us. Another idea is from one of my guests, Jonathan Robinson, who made a pact with his wife to spoon in bed whenever they are feeling disconnected.

Susan Campbell explains in her book,

“Frequent cogreulation with your partner strengthens the braking mechanism in your brain, improving self-regulation.  Instead of having an accelerator stuck to the floor- going full speed to the Hole—your nervous system can slow down and give you breathing room to make different choices”p60

“Receiving coregulation improves brain wiring. It helps develop a stronger connection between the part of your brain that spots false alarms are reassures us of our safety”p62.

“Bottom line, if you are triggered, your partner will soon feel triggered too- and vice-versa” p 62

Relationship advice tip 3: Let it be. Care more about love than being right

In the beginning of my marriage, my husband and I would argue as if we were two lawyers in a courtroom. We’d drag out all the evidence of our correctness (e.g., “how about when you said the same thing two years ago at my mother’s house?!,” etc.).  The goal was for one person to feel morally and intellectually superior and win the debate—to be “right”. Somehow we missed the point that we were in a sacred relationship and forgot the relating part of the equation. Now in our 17th year of marriage, we have trained ourselves to understand the truth in each of our perspectives, and recognize no progress will be made if we are angry or in a bad place emotionally. We let each other be, which means letting go of our own stories of blame and moving to a place of assuming the best in each other and seeing the perfection in the whole dynamic.


Relationships are like waves with “ebbs” and “flows”. Ebbs” are natural cycles in your relationship. Too often are we in this cycle and incorrectly decide that it’s time to call it quits. Learn to go with the flow and relax into this space and to not making any moves to end the relationship when you are in an ebb.

Find out more about the 5 cycles and the ebbs and flows of relationships here: (

Relationship ADVICE TIP 5: Set clear expectations early on in the relationship

There are so many arguments that go awry just because we don’t know how to articulate our feelings in a kind way. Get a whole list of strategies on how to communicate effectively here.

Relationship ADVICE TIP 6: Love and Accept your partner “as is”

Spiritual wisdom reminds us that we’re an embodiment of perfection. This is not the flawless perfection that we desperately want for ourselves and demand from others. Instead, it’s a holy perfection that refrains from judging others as good or bad and sees the divine perfection in all of us. It’s when we accept that a person is perfect as is.  In real life, this translates into seeing the beauty and charm in our partner’s flaws, their crooked smile, the breathy way they say their p’s, or their habit of slurping their soup. Your heart opens to noticing the pure essence of that person and you learn how to move from feeling annoyed to being enjoyed. Get more tips from an interview with Arielle Ford here: (

RELATIONSHIP ADVICE TIP 7: Create a couple bubble

It’s really important that we understand our partner’s emotional style or needs.  Couples therapist, Stan Tatkin, suggests that it’s key in creating a couple bubble.  A couple bubble is key to creating intimacy. Stan Tatkin describes the couple bubble as a cocoon that holds a couple together and protects each partner from the elements and creates an intimate environment where partners convey agreements to put the relationship before anything and everything else.  Each partner agrees to put their partner’s well-being, self-esteem, and distress relief as a top priority.  Agreements can take many forms such as:

  • “I will never leave you”
  • “I will never frighten you purposely.”
  • “When you are in distress, I will relive you, even if I’m the one who is causing he distress.”
  • “Our relationship is more important than my need to be right, your performance, your appearance, what other people think or want, or any other competing value.”

Find out more about how to create intimacy here.