Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

Maria had an appointment with her physician this morning, who has been closely monitoring the progress Maria is making on managing her chronic condition. Her doctor informed Maria that her numbers were not on target, not what they had hoped for. When they reviewed how closely Maria had been adhering to her regimen, the doctor identified some areas where Maria had not been as diligent as she needs to be.

All afternoon, Maria had been feeling sad about the conversation with her doctor, as well as disappointed with herself. When her husband, Rolando, came home from work, Maria told him about her test results.

“I’m sorry to hear this,” he said. “You know it’s important to get serious—“

“Serious?” Maria interrupted. “I just knew you were going to say that, Rolando! As usual, I’m trying to tell you about my health and all you want to do is tell me I’m not serious and scold me.”

Rolando tried to defend himself. “I didn’t mean to say—“

“Yes you did!”

And at that point, Rolando and Maria were, as the saying goes, off to the races.

Your partner says “Niagara!” and you react!

When my clients tell me about conversations like this, I am reminded of a vaudeville routine I saw in an old comedy movie when I was growing up. One character uses the word “Niagara.” And when he does, the other guy says, “Slowly I turn, step by step. Inch by inch.” And then he goes ballistic in a slapstick comical way. Something about hearing Niagara just sets him off. Rolando’s use of the words “get serious” is like Niagara for Maria.

Do you and your partner have a Niagara word, or a few of them, which, once said, cause the conversation to go downhill from there? If you’re like most couples, you probably do.

So . . . the next time you hear your own personal Niagara, how about reacting in a way that doesn’t lead to conflict? Interested? Here’s how:

Take a step back. Take a breath before you launch into a defense or counterattack. This can help you to avoid jumping in with both feet.

Pay attention. Has that Niagara word been used with you in the past? Or does it represent an attitude, scolding for example, that brings up a lot of past hurts and resentments? If so, it can cause lots of feelings to be remembered and brought into the present. Feelings that most likely don’t belong there.

Identify the story. Usually there’s a story somewhere behind that Niagara word. And most likely, it has nothing to do with the present moment. If you are willing to do the work to identify that story, then leaving it in the past where it belongs can work wonders in helping you to not jump to conclusions that derail communication with your partner.

Decide not to react. Start by not assuming your partner is attempting to disrespect, scold, or otherwise make you feel bad. Sure, all those emotions are stirred up and you want to unleash them on the source—your partner. But ask yourself: is this going to lead you in a direction that benefits your relationship? If what your partner said makes you feel like you are being baited, then don’t take the bait. You have a choice.

Open up and listen. Allow your partner to finish his or her sentence. Along with any sentences that might follow. Ask for clarification if you need it.

And be open about your feelings. If certain words or a particular tone of voice push a button with you, then make your partner aware of these words, your feelings about them, and why. Knowing what’s behind your reactions can go a long way toward helping your partner to be more sensitive in the future.

Work it out. Return to the issue itself. After Maria and Rolando had this discussion, Rolando was able to express how using the words “get serious” were intended to encourage Maria while also expressing his concern that he was not being as helpful to her as he could be. Had the conversation not turned into an argument, Maria and Rolando might have had a conversation that revolved around care and support. Without the Niagara word shutting down the conversation, you and your partner are back on track for working through the issues that strengthen you as a couple and help you to support each other.

Get help if you need it. It’s not easy to live with a chronic condition, for you or for your partner. If you find yourself feeling overly sensitive to what your partner says, or if you feel like baggage from the past is constantly finding its way into the present, then you may want to think about getting some help from a counselor. Couples counseling can also help you and your partner to improve the way you communicate.

Niagara! Slowly you turn . . . and then you decide to hear your partner out before you react to the words that just pushed your button. Another communications breakdown avoided!

What has helped you and your partner improve communication and avoid conflict? Share your best tip by commenting below.