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  • Writer's picturelarahammock

Try this Amazing Relationship Hack from FX’s The Bear

There are so many things that I loved about the Hulu series “The Bear.” But one thing that has particularly stuck with me is a beautiful, healing gesture used among chefs in the tension-filled kitchen of the new restaurant: the sign language gesture for “I’m sorry.”

Jeremy Allen White in FX’s The Bear.

Carmy, played by Jeremy Allen White, explains the sign to his sous chef, Sydney, in episode two of the second season. His explanation starts about 14 and a half minutes into the episode and it’s worth watching. He sees that Sydney is confused when he does this sign and says,

“It’s “I’m sorry” in sign. Two of my old chefs used to do it. If they were angry and fighting on the line. It was their version of “Let’s talk about this later.” It didn’t matter if one tore the other one apart, it always got them through service. It’s good.”

This is just lovely. After his explanation, you see them use this gesture several times in later episodes in high-tension scenarios. One was where he neglects to inform his partner about a big business decision. They use it several other times when tempers flare in some high-intensity kitchen scenes.

When things get emotionally reactive and tempers start to flare, someone makes a fist with their thumb pointing upwards and rubs their chest in a circle. That is a sign that, “I’m sorry and can we deal with this later?” It keeps the anger and volatility out of the kitchen and allows everyone to get back to their jobs. And ideally, they will come back to the discussion later, when there’s not so much on the line, and when their emotional brains have backed off a bit.

Can we normalize using this in our relationships? I simply love it. I’m a couples therapist and I have been teaching the couples I work with to ask for a time-out when they are feeling emotionally reactive. But I generally allow them to come up with their own cue to use. If they can’t think of anything, I recommend the sports time-out gesture. But for many reasons, I love the “I’m sorry” sign so much better.

“I’m sorry”

Why? I love it because it encapsulates so much more than “I need a break from this.” It also says, “I love you and I’m sorry that I’m contributing to this dynamic.“ It does not say, “I’m wrong to feel the way I’m feeling“ or “I completely agree with you,” but simply, “I’m sorry that we are behaving this way and, specifically, for my part in it.”

“I need a break”

You can certainly use this gesture when you’ve made a mistake, as Carmy does when he first introduces it. But more importantly, it can be used when emotions are running high and you feel you are, at least in part, contributing to the dynamic. You don’t have to take full responsibility for the tension or volatility. This gesture is simply an admission that you are feeling emotionally reactive and that you would like some time to calm down. And for those of us who shut down rather than ramp up — this gesture simply means “I’m starting to shut down” and I need time to get centered.

Gestures can be easier than words

It is particularly good for those of us who have a hard time saying, “I’m flooded” or “ I’m triggered” or “I need a break.” This simple sign is easier to do. It communicates non-verbally to our partner when we don’t have the words or the courage or the humility to say it out loud.

It’s inherently calming

One more thing — since I work somatically with clients — meaning I work with where you feel emotion in your body — I know that this gesture activates the vagus nerve, which turns off our fight or flight response. Simply placing your hand in the center of your chest and applying pressure lights up the same part of our brains that activate when we receive a hug. So, in addition to all of the other lovely things about this, It’s also inherently calming in and of itself.

I’ve been married for over 26 years. I’m going to start using this with my husband. In my relationship, I’m the one who gets a little blame-y and critical while he shuts down. I want both of us to be able to use this gesture to indicate that “I love you, I’m sorry, and let’s either take it down a notch or come back to this later.“

With my couples, we talk about the difference between simply leaving a discussion and taking a responsible time-out. When taking a responsible time out, it’s up to whoever is taking it to restart the discussion. This is not an excuse to avoid stuff altogether, but simply a way to dial back the level of emotionality and readdress the topic at a time when both people are calmer and less reactive. All of us have a hard time hearing each other when we are in self-protective mode. And this is the perfect way to get ourselves out of that state and into one that invites connection.

Thank you to The Bear for many things, but particularly for this relationship hack that can help us all feel more connected to our partners.

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