I held a Couples Workshop a week ago and something that the participants liked was learning about how our arousal systems (our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems) get involved in out- of- control relationship arguments. And what I’m talking about here are arguments during which things were said or done that were unproductive and later regretted. (I’m not talking here about domestic violence which is a behaviour of trying to control and gain power over your partner using abuse, threats, and isolation because couples counselling is generally deemed unsafe in those situations). But for most couple arguments, it can be very useful to understand how our ability to assess, hold and manage our own stress impacts our relationship fights.
We all have an optimal amount of arousal in our systems. By arousal, I don’t mean sexual energy, but rather stress or anxiety. We all need some arousal in us otherwise we would not get up in the morning, parent our kids or get to work.
WHAT HAPPENS IN ARGUMENTS?
But what happens is that in arguments with our significant other we often feel emotionally threatened and so we get overloaded with arousal. We stop using our prefrontal, “rational” brain and go into our limbic brain which contains our instincts to fight, flight or flee. We are reacting to a threat, the same as we would if we were confronted with a tiger.
Women often show this with yelling (fight). Men tend to stone wall (freeze) or distance (flee). And the fight often escalates because both are feeling so emotionally threatened that they are not able to use their rational brain anymore, but they may not be aware that they are in such a state.
WHAT SHOULD COUPLES DO INSTEAD?
One major strategy is to learn signs that you are starting to get too much arousal and then ask for a break (and make sure you re-engage after a few hours when you are back in normal state). Signs that you are getting out of control are the same ones you’d have if you were in physical danger: faster heart rate and breathing rate, feeling hot, a knot in your stomach, tense shoulders, clenched fists, a sensation in your legs of wanting to run or feeling stuck, or feeling like you are floating out of your body.
When you notice these body sensations it means you are already too overloaded with arousal and continuing to have an important discussion in this state is not going to go well. You aren’t fully present and you will say and do things that you will later regret, and may not even remember.
As hard as it is, it is better to take a break and use the skills you have to bring your stress down and then continue the discussion at another time. If you immediately start arguing again, you probably have not lowered your arousal enough. Try again.
How to ask for a break without further escalating the argument is something that can be practiced in couples therapy. You can also learn ways to quickly come down from too much stress in the therapy room.
When couples become skilled at this they learn to see their and their partner’s arousal states go up and can spontaneously do things to help each other get back into an optimal state. Better yet, they learn to read a situation and know whether this is the best time to bring up a discussion (this will be the focus of part 2 of this blog post).
Brantbjerb, MH., & Stepath, S. (2007). The body as container of instincts, emotions and feelings. Copenhagen: Moaiku Bodynamic. Moaiku.com
Gottman, J.M. (1999). The marriage clinic: A scientifically based marital therapy. NY: W.W. Norton.
Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence- from domestic abuse to political terror. NY: Basic books.
I previously published this post on CounsellingBC.com in October, 2015.