Having a safe phrase saved my life. I recommend that every couple have one
When COVID-19 shut down borders and sent me and my husband to work from home in March 2020, I lamented that “life was meaningless.” When I had a miscarriage in October, I lay in my husband’s arms and said it over and over as I cried myself to sleep. And as we watched the insurrection at the Capitol earlier this year, we both looked at each other and said it again, feeling an altogether new measure of anxiety and dismay wash over us.
The phrase “life is meaningless” started as a joke, but it’s now become our safe phrase — a way to cue the other person when one of us isn’t doing well and needs support. It has become our greatest communication asset, much like how the reversible octopus plush toy, which you flip depending on how you’re feeling, has become the latest TikTok trend for young couples everywhere.
But I never would have imagined that what started as a silly gesture would transform into a lifesaving measure.
After the birth of our child, something was wrong
After the birth of our “rainbow baby” a few weeks ago, my doctor warned us about the possibility of postpartum depression: “Crying is normal, but you know your wife best,” she said to my husband. “You’ll know if she’s experiencing anything out of the ordinary.”
A few days after returning home from the hospital, my husband could indeed tell something was wrong with me, but it wasn’t because of all the crying I was doing. The reason my husband and I were able to recognize that I was experiencing something beyond typical baby blues was not because of excessive crying. It was because of our safe phrase.
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As I sat on the bathroom floor, my husband sat on the edge of our bathtub holding my hands in his. I didn’t yet have the vocabulary to tell him about the intrusive, racing thoughts invading my mind; the constant worry for our baby’s well-being; the inability to imagine a happy and hopeful future; or the difficulty recognizing my changed face and body in the mirror.
Instead I said, “Life is meaningless.”
After a moment he said, “We’ll call the doctor tomorrow.”
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I was officially diagnosed with postpartum depression by my doctor the next day.
Those 3 words said everything I needed to say
My husband and I have had many long-winded conversations over the years — arguments that led to compromises about what holiday to spend with which family, or when and how much money to invest in a house project. But I’ve never felt more heard or supported than in that moment on the bathroom floor.
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With three words I was able to say everything I needed him to hear and understand. It was three words that immediately led to a solution-based action.
As a married couple, you’re advised to never go to bed angry — a warning I’ve sometimes ignored. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to understand my husband’s perspective or come to an amicable compromise. But after hours of circling the same topic like a frustrated driver searching for a coveted city parking spot, I was often too exhausted and emotional to think clearly.
That type of overwhelming mental exhaustion and emotional fatigue is what makes back-and-forth exchanges so difficult to have during a panic attack. To the 2.6 billion people in the world suffering from an anxiety disorder, myself included, sometimes it takes everything just to breathe. If couples can agree on a safe word or phrase to cue their partners when they’re about to spiral into a pit of anxiety, perhaps nights of panic can be replaced with days of understanding and support.