I’ve been working with a lot of couples over the years. One of the most common concerns they bring up are arguments that get too aggressive. Spouses end up getting emotionally hurt, upset and angry. While conflicts are a given in relationships, you can dramatically improve how you argue and significantly decrease the emotional damage you are doing to the relationship.
When a conflict is beginning, we tend to think that we know what we are talking about and the other person is wrong. While this could be true, when an argument is escalating towards bickering, heighted emotion and possibly an emotional explosion, something else is happening. Once the emotion gets too high, you are no longer thinking so clearly and it is time to pull back, get out of the conversation or try something to repair the emotional distance and damage that is starting.
I’m going to talk about three ways to reduce the damage and improve the communication between you and your spouse.
Recognizing you are losing control of yourself
The number one thing to do is recognize that you, not just your partner is starting to lose control. Then determine, should you get out of the argument, or are you capable or changing your direction and trying some communication skills.
If you are able to do the communication skills, you may try this:
- Active listening: paraphrasing what the other person is saying and ask if you are understanding them correctly.
- Re-phrase what you are trying to say, but explain it in a toned down way. And that it is just from your point of view. In this case, you are recognizing out loud that there are other reasonable points of view.
And if you are not able to do the communication skills, it may be best to get out of the argument. This next section will help you recognize if you need to retreat temporarily from the argument.
The feeling that is not your friend
Feelings are natural parts of being human. And in general, feelings are useful to express, whether it’s sadness, happiness, anger (in appropriate ways), fear, anxiety, disappointment, and all the others. Except for one…and with couples I am working with, I sometimes call that feeling “the feeling that is not your friend”. This is the feeling or sensation that occurs when the argument is heading out of control. You can’t think clearly, your words come out distorted…you may even hear a tremor or shakiness in your voice. You start getting too aggressive in your comments. You are barely listening to what your partner is sharing – just quickly shooting down their argument and pressuring them with your next come back.
From a brain standpoint, what is happening is that you are “thinking” at this point with the center part of your brain. This is sometimes called the animal brain or the lizard brain. It is a more primitive part of our brain structure. The outer most layer of the brain is the cortex, this is the part of the brain that is the most human…the other animals don’t have it. That’s where logic and higher level thinking occurs. So what do you do with this awareness of your brain?
Well, here’s the strategy. You want to get the cortex working again as quickly as possible, or end the argument, coming back to it later.
To get your cortex back online quickly, try this:
- Take a deep breath. The brain is the biggest consumer of oxygen in your body. Without enough oxygen, your cortex won’t work well… and your brain will fall back to using more of the animal brain. Plus, pausing to take a deep breath activates cortical thinking. That’s because you have to become more conscious just to realize what is happening and to tell yourself to take a deep breath – which means you are activating your cortex.
- Recognize that you are losing control and tell yourself that. Becoming conscious of it is a major step towards turning things around.
- Decide if it’s time for you to take a time out.
The right use of time outs
Someone in the couple frequently will complain about time outs. Usually one person always wants to fight out every argument without pause until they are done, and the other wants to flee the argument, finding themselves pursued by the other. One pursues, the other flees.
There is a remedy for this. It does involve taking space for a while. The partner that always pursues is always upset to hear me say this in couples counseling. But there is hope here…because there is a better way to do this.
Here’s how it works:
- The person who needs space announces they need some space.
- Before they leave, they say when they are willing to continue the discussion.
- The other person agrees to meet at the later time. If it seems too far away or is not a good time they can try to negotiate the time. But if the argument is too heated and one person really needs space quickly, there may not be much time for negotiating. The person who needs to leave should be supported in leaving quickly.
The final part of this process is that the person who left, comes back at the time they agreed upon, to continue the discussion.
For couples who try this approach to heated arguments, things will usually get better, trust increases, and affection can return to the relationship.
If you found these tips useful, you’ll want to take a look at some of the articles about relationships on my website: www.donwallach.com.
Especially, take a look at: