One of the most common – yet woefully under-appreciated – communication tools is nonverbal communication. From body motions to tension levels, nonverbals can offer a great deal of insight into how individuals are feeling about a situation, and how they may respond to certain stimuli.

In marriage, nonverbals can quickly become normalized and internalized. Think of the last time you noticed a particular tone or edge in your spouse’s response to a simple question or statement. The speed at which we notice, internalize, and respond to even the slightest change in tone or speech can cause us to decide what is happening before we truly understand the reality of a situation!

Even unconscious noticing of nonverbals can give to a panic signal: a small rise in volume, an increased edge in a voice, a frown, or quiet response can shoot a signal to our more primitive parts of our brain that scream: “Oh no! Something is wrong!”

This panic can be a great thing, actually. It is absolutely normal to feel a sense of protection or emotional response when engaging with those we love and care about. In the same way that we quickly notice a child’s struggle or fear, we can pick up on nonverbals with our spouse to realize when something is not quite right.

In marriage, the problem arises when we respond to nonverbal stimuli and immediately assume that there is a problem, conflict, or blame involved. We quickly fear that they are upset with us without understanding what the actual problem may be. Our fear response can lead to a fight, flight, or flee response that can spiral into disagreement or fighting.

To help head off conflict before it begins, it can be helpful to implement a method of noticing nonverbals and respond with healthy safety signals.

Developing Spousal Safety Signals

One way to help our spouses understand where we are and how we are feeling is through the use of safety signals. As we begin to enter into a tense situation or conflicting conversation, safety signals are great ways to help one another recognize emotions and defuse situations.

Consider these common safety signals:

  • Coming home from a hard day of work, and need to let your spouse know that you aren’t ready to joke around? Try: “It’s not you, I’m just having a stressful day today. I would love to spend some time together once I’ve had a chance to rest and gather my thoughts.”
  • A hard topic that needs to be discussed? Say: “Hey, I’d love to chat about this, but are you feeling ready to chat about it now, or do you need a day before we discuss?”
  • Arguments leading to a spiral of frustration? Try: “I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed. Can I take a minute to calm down? I would still like to resume this conversation later.”

As you try out these safety signals with your spouse, what do you notice? Is the tension diffused from a difficult or tense moment? Do you find it easier to see clearly and communicate your feelings?

A great way to begin building a stronger marriage and relationship is through the development of clearly-defined safety signals. By implementing these signals into your routine, you can more easily reach for them as your stress levels rise. Before you see red and erupt with emotion, use a safety signal to bring peace and calm – and show that your love and respect can overcome even the most difficult moment.

Safety Signals are only one of many methods for helping develop healthy routines and habits in responding to stress in marriage. Through Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, you can learn how to stop your negative pattern of communication, by learning what you both do in this pattern, how you both feel and how to step out of it, so you can talk to each other in a better way.