Surveys have shown that for the most part, couples divorce because they don’t feel loved. One of the biggest things that makes us feel like our spouse doesn’t love us is fighting. Since we can’t expect to remove all conflict from marriage, what are we supposed to do? The answer is to change the way we fight. Today I’ll share one thing that can start to change the way you fight.
When we get in a fight with our spouse, our emotions are running high, and we feel attacked. Researcher John Gottman has found that we experience the fight-or-flight response which he calls being “flooded.” Our heart rate gets up around 100 beats per minute, our digestion stops, the blood rushes out of our limbs to prevent from us bleeding to death if injured, and most importantly, our brain mostly shuts off except for one part. The part of our brain that is highly active during fights is the part that looks for threats. And when we are in a fight, we perceive our spouse to be a threat. Even if there is never any physical violence, there is a very real threat to our self-esteem and our happiness if we are in conflict with the person we are supposed to love and cherish. When we are flooded and our brains are on high alert for threat, almost anything we say will cause more harm than good.
For this reason, Dr. Gottman recommends a time-out. It takes at least twenty minutes for our bodies to calm back down. While we take this time-out, we can’t be thinking about the argument, or we will continue to be in this state of physiological arousal. In order to calm down, we have to think soothing and calming thoughts. Dr. Gottman has found through his research that men have a harder time with this. Men are more likely to mull the argument over in their heads, thinking thoughts like, “I shouldn’t have to put up with this.” Women are much better at thinking thoughts like, “Everything is going to be fine, we’re still in love.”
It is a lot harder to think calming thoughts when we are charged up with emotional energy. It can be very helpful to do something physically demanding during the twenty minute time-out that will drain that energy. Sprinting, for example, is quite effective. Afterwards it’s much easier to take control of the thoughts we’re thinking about our spouse and relationship. Meditation is a powerful tool that can help with this if we will develop it as a skill.
When you feel yourself getting flooded with emotion and adrenaline, that’s when it’s time for a break. But walking away from your spouse during an argument can make things much worse. When you call a time out, make sure that you agree on a time when you will come back together to continue the discussion. In part two, I’ll share how to make the fights less distressing in the first place.
About the Author: Kenneth Jeppesen is a Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and a member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Child and Family Studies from Weber State University, and a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is currently at the Provo Center for Couples and Families