• Cari Sans, LMFT

Decline the Invitation: How to Step Out of Relationship Conflicts




With the holidays approaching, you might want to consider saying “No” to certain invitations to keep your relationships healthy. And despite it being 2020, I’m not talking about COVID. Rather, I want to talk about declining invitations to conflict or dysfunctional patterns in your life.


All year, perhaps even daily, you receive invitations to engage in negative patterns with your partner or family members. Once you add in the stress of the holiday season during a pandemic, the potential for conflict increases. If you are ready to change this, then you have the responsibility (and the right) to not accept these invitations, and instead take care of the relationship in a new way.


What the Invitation Looks Like

The “invitation” to conflict or negative patterns is the thing that triggers you to react in ways you don’t want to. The trigger could be words, an action, or the lack of thereof. And much like a dance, your reaction then triggers your partner, whose reaction hits your wound yet again. This pattern can cycle over and over again in your relationship, causing feelings of frustration, hurt, disappointment, and disconnection.


The worst part of this pattern is that it happens unconsciously! Your partner - or anyone - can hit the button deep inside your brain that triggers your instinctual fight-flight-freeze reaction. All of this happens in the limbic system, an older part of your brain that controls mood and attitude.


Ideally, we would all react from our more evolved cerebral cortex. This part of the brain has the capacity for higher functions like problem-solving, planning, organization, and rational thought. Unfortunately, we aren’t wired that way and tend to react from the less-evolved limbic system. I refer to this place as the wounded child, or an immature place within.


Reacting from this place doesn’t mean you are immature, but your behaviors and your love relationship may be. A goal when working on relationships is to move into a mature love, where each partner takes personal responsibility for their growth and supporting the other’s.


Growth is necessary in any relationship, but especially love relationships. To keep your relationship from fizzling out you must give it positive attention. That means learning to decline negative invitations, and instead show up consciously in your interactions.


The Alternative: Conscious Interaction

Showing up more consciously in your relationships takes practice. For the most part, we don’t really think through our interactions with others. Of course, you aren’t going to be conscious every waking moment, but when it comes to getting out of that vicious cycle in your relationship, you need to evolve. This means tapping into your capacity to rationalize, make sense of things, and intentionally interact.


The next time your button is pushed, and the fight-flight-freeze response kicks in, slow down and ask yourself, “how do I want to respond to this invitation?”


When you react from the reptilian brain that says, “Danger! Quick! Fight, run, or freeze!”, you have just accepted the invitation with a big YES. You are in survival mode, vulnerable, and feeling threatened. Your partner is, too. Now you have two people reacting as if their life depended on it. There is no sense of safety, no softening, and no moving through the vulnerability together.


However, if you decline to engage and instead create a boundary or respond thoughtfully, you are stepping out of the old pattern and creating the opportunity for change and growth.


Breaking the Cycle

Saying “No” is being responsible to yourself and to the other person. If your partner does not accept your regrets, you will get another invitation. Again, you have the choice to turn down that bid and hold on to your new position. When emotions are high, it is definitely more challenging to be in the conscious state, so you’ll be less likely to recognize when you are being triggered.


But you can be prepared!


With a little planning, self-talk, and practice, you can be more intentional. As you repeat this new pattern, your partner will soon realize that you aren’t provoking that old dance. There will be a softening that happens, and the dance will shift.


Tips on Declining the Invitation

  • Ask Questions: If someone says or does something you don’t like or it feels like an attack, get curious rather than defensive. Ask questions before you even respond. Try:

  • Can you tell me more about why you think that?

  • What happened to make you believe, think, or feel that way?

  • Is there more you want to say about that?

  • Learn to Listen. Before you say anything, stop yourself and hear what is actually being said. Practicing reflecting, or mirroring, the exact words you have heard. This gives your partner the chance to hear back what s/he is actually saying, and makes them think. Keep reflecting back until they are done talking. Try:

  • So what you are saying is…

  • It sounds like you are...

  • Is there more? (This ensures they have been completely heard.)

  • Validate Their Reality. We all crave being heard or recognized, so it is very triggering when you don’t feel that way. When you listen to someone before responding, you meet this need and thus create an opportunity for them to soften, and perhaps see things from a different perspective. Validating is not about agreeing; it is acknowledging someone's feelings and experience. Try:

  • I understand why that would make you angry.

  • You sound frustrated.

  • I can see how you would feel sad about that.


Declining invitations to conflict is not easy, especially when you have been reacting from instinct, rather than responding consciously. But with practice, it will soon become habit - and your relationships will grow along the way.


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