31 Jan Rapidly Interrupting Destructive Relationship Cycles: Setting up “Dead Stop Contracts”

Posted at 10:02 pm in Couples Therapy by jlbworks

Couples therapists want to help couples with interrupting the destructive cycles that lead to so much hurt and pain in relationships. Psychologists Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson specialize in training couples in their approach, which includes what they call the “Rapid Repair of Relationship Ruptures.” The steps they suggest are:
1) Avoid blame, withdrawal, resentful compliance, and whining; 2) Avoid long explanations and justifications—just say ‘ouch’ or ‘I am getting defensive.’; 3) Identify and express the pain, on a 1 to 10 scale; 4) Soothe the pain rapidly—‘I am sorry I hurt you.’; 5) Ask what your partner would like to hear from you; and 6) Say the words your partner would like to hear from you.”

Terrence Real, in his most recent book The New Rules of Marriage, outlines the steps involved in setting up “dead-stop contracts,” in order to bring destructive interactions to an immediate halt. He describes the steps as follows: “Of all the techniques of relationship empowerment work, the use of dead-stop contracts is without doubt the simplest and most direct way to transform the playing out of your usual repetitive bad deal into a moment of healing for both of you. Because they rely on both partners’ cooperation and because they demand a fairly high degree of discipline, dead-stop contracts are geared for couples on the higher end of the troubled-to-heathy spectrum.” (p. 89)

Real elaborates as follows: “The dead-stop contract itself is an agreement to interrupt the vicious cycle of Core Negative Image meets Core Negative Image. The agreement goes like this: ‘If I feel, rightly or wrongly, that you are behaving in ways that reinforce my Core Negative Image of you—if I feel, for instance, that old, horrible feeling of being bossed around by you—I will signal a dead-stop. And you agree in advance that whenever you hear that signal, understanding that your behavior is Core Negative Image triggering, you will come to a dead stop—whether you agree with my perception or not.’

Let’s say, for example, that my Core Negative Image of you is that you’re a big bully. Whether I am nuts for feeling bullied by you in this particular instance or not, you agree, upon hearing my signal, to stop whatever it is you are saying or doing on a dime. Instead of continuing, you agree to turn to me and say your version of ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to bully you. Forgive me. Is there anything I can say or do right now that might help you feel better?’ On my side, I promise not to use this as a moment to give you a hard time but rather to appreciate your effort and move on as quickly as possible.” (p. 90)

Real concludes with the following admonition: “When you agree to use a dead-stop contract, nothing short of physical safety takes precedence over your goal of stopping your repetitive pattern. No matter what you think your partner may be doing, you pledge to honor your side of the contract.” (p. 90)

Clearly the ability to utilize dead-stop contracts demands a lot of self-discipline. When a conflict develops in our relationships, we typically are convinced that we are right, that our partner is wrong, and that our point of view is the correct one. We tend to insist that we be heard and and at that juncture we show minimal interest in validating our partner’s perceptions. Thus utilizing the dead-stop contract turns our usual pattern upside down!! If my partner calls a dead-stop, I must immediately stop what I am doing and saying and attend to my partner’s emotional upset and apologize for whatever I have done that they have experienced as hurtful. Hard as this may be to do, the relationship payoff can be enormous. As Real stated above, “the use of dead-stop contracts is without a doubt the simplest and most direct way to transform the playing out of your usual bad deal into a moment of healing for both of you.”