Dear Skipper Jenn, Sailing and Love

Dear Skipper Jenn: Trouble in Paradise

In this blog series I answer questions from fellow sailors. You write me a question via e-mail, posting on one of my blog threads, or from Facebook and I write a post about it. Simple. All questioners will remain anonymous and unless you give me one, I will pick a snazzy name for you.

From: Trouble in Paradise

I am trying to master the communication thing with my guy. Mostly, how to process and direct my anger in a healthy way and have it come out not so fucking charged that my partner takes it like an attack. I want a dialogue we can both contribute to. So I guess, I need help on my end, processing anger and the relationship end, how to have healthy dialogue. If there are any resources on anger you think would help, I would love to dive in.

Dear: Trouble in Paradise

Conflict is unavoidable in any kind of relationship, particularly romantic. Conflict gets heightened when you live together in a very small space, like a boat. It gets even bigger when you are in the middle of nowhere together navigating the unknown. I suggest you check out my Tantrum Series for some pointers on how our bodies and minds are effected by stress. Hopefully that will address some questions about how to calm down when you are noticing the anger arise.

The good news is that consciously engaging your relationship, living in a small space and navigating the unknown can also create deeper bonding and trust. I know many cruising couples who are still in love and happy after circumnavigating many times. It’s all in how you repair the conflict and work together emotionally as a team. I am going to outline some tangible suggestions on how to navigate the conflict and repair it for deeper connection and understanding.

Step 1: Awareness. The very first aspect of this process is that you, or your partner notice that agitation is occurring. What are the physical cues that one or the other of you is getting pissed? Knowing your own signs of agitation is important. Do you get hot? Do you shake or tense up? Your body is the one to alert you first that something is off. Knowing your partners is equally important. Do they bite their lip? Do they hang their head or sigh? What is their sign that upset is occurring?

Do you know what triggers you and your partner? Are they more cranky when hungry, or hate being cold? Do they freak out every time something with the engine goes wrong? Do they have a soft spot when you question their expertise or become heightened when you shut down? My suggestion here is that you have discussed this all beforehand and have intention on noticing so you can stop before pissy words have exchanged. It’s great to have a code word when this happens. Eric and I use “anemone” because when you touch one their little tentacles retreat for a while before they are ready to come back out. The retreat part and calming down is step two.

Step 2: You both need to get your heart rate down before anyone says anything. When people are upset they are not thinking clearly, this is when tone and words can go sideways and pour fuel on the fire. When the code word is said, that’s when you both do something to calm down. Having a plan ahead of time is key. Maybe you take 5 min and do deep breathing or distract with another task. Maybe you separate one below decks, one above or aft and stern. While you are there find ways to calm your body down. What you are aiming for is getting your mind and body to focus on something neutral or soothing in the moment to reset. Do not obsess on whatever pissed you off, thinking about it will only keep it going.

Sometimes this takes time, like 30 minutes or more to let the chemical surge of fight or flight sequence through. If one of you is more calm than the other they can also help you regulate if that is helpful. When Eric notices me start to heighten, he sometimes rubs my shoulders and says, “Let’s breathe together for a minute.” Co-regulating is a gift of relationships. This is when one of you is able to stay online to help the other. This builds trust and attunement. It’s non blaming and not personal. He is showing me in that moment that he sees me, understands, and can be a support. He’s not running away or going combative. Let’s remember that when people get angry and yell, it means they need help. They are overwhelmed.

Step 3: The third part is to discuss it rationally and with emotional connection. As I outlined in my perimenopause post, what we are fighting about is often not the main issue. I say in my office to look for the meaning behind the behavior. Often we have a need that is not being met or understood and that’s what we are really upset about. Are you feeling unsafe, not heard, disconnected, insecure? Do you need respect, acknowledgment, transparency, clarity? Are you actually anxious or afraid? Go to the vulnerable spot. Non-violent communication is a great place to explore to understand feelings and needs and how to communicate them.

Eric and I often get in arguments over things gone awry on a boat. Shit breaks, needs fixed, we get tired and overwhelmed. It’s easy to get into state of bickering. We are learning to circumvent this if we slow down and say, “I’m so disappointed and overwhelmed that this broke. I’m tired and really need a hug before we start in on this.” Go towards your deeper truth and connect there. Respond with empathy to one another, “I know sweetie, me too. I really wanted to chill today and needed a break, I am irritated we need to work on this now. Let’s take a minute and then make a game plan together.” This is ideal, and not always how it goes.

Step 4: The fourth part is repair. Let’s say steps one through three went to shit and you said, “GOD DAMN IT! I KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN, I KNEW THIS WOULD BREAK! I TOLD YOU WE SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN THE OTHER PART! YOU NEVER LISTEN TO ME! THIS ALWAYS HAPPENS! I’M JUMPING SHIP THE NEXT PORT ASSHOLE!” You know some version of this has happened with every couple on every boat of all time.

When everyone is calm at some point this is when you come back and try again for step three. Only you need to add in some heart-felt apology along with a review of where things went off the rails and how you can do it differently next time. This builds trust. Just saying you are sorry isn’t enough for most people, especially if it is a repeat offense. “I’m so sorry I lost it again. I got totally overwhelmed when I saw so much water in the bilge, I was scared and took it out on you. I should have slowed down and took a breath or used our code word. I am so sorry.” Then allow your partner to express their pain. “I feel so helpless when you lose it like that, I get confused and just want to fight back or run away. I want to try to do it differently, how can we work together on this?”

In a partnership there needs to be a sense of we, us and team. The foundational work we do in communicating outside of conflict is what sets the stage for how we engage conflict. Just like when we practice docking over and over on calm days, this gives us skill sets to set her in just right in a blow. If we do this in our relationships our intimacy and trust increases, we stay calmer in times of crisis and are able to tolerate more stress. Studies clearly show that when we have trust in relationships it can calm our nervous system just by holding one another’s hands in intense situations. Working through conflict actually builds trust, so look at each time as an opportunity to grow. Ultimately we are pack animals and with strong bonds, we can go further together.

I hope this helps you Trouble in Paradise, and may you have fair winds out there!

Below are some of my favorite resources for learning more about how to create a healthy relationship.

Sue Johnson Hold Me Tight is an excellent book for learning how to communicate needs and reflect with empathy for greater connection. She also has great talks online.

Stan Tatkin Wired For Love talks a lot about co-regulation and how to navigate conflict for greater bonding.

Why You will Marry the Wrong Person video by Alain de Botton is a great video on normalizing that everyone is a pain in the ass to live with.

Eshter Perel has many podcasts that can be helpful online, her work is very contemporary and helps question the more traditional and monogamous roles of relationship.

Gottman Their 4 Horseman of the Apocalypse work  is very helpful in learning to fight better.



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