What does make the difference, however, is how we manage inevitable conflict, and whether we have a physiologically arousing or calming approach to communication.
The Angry Brain's Effect on Conflict Communication
The part of the brain that makes that safety/danger decision can't tell the difference between physical danger and emotional danger. When the brain decides that we aren't safe, it triggers a mild fight or flight response called Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA) or flooding.
When we are flooded, it gets harder to think rationally, flexibly or emphatically. You know that moment in the fight when the gloves come off and you end up saying that thing you'll regret when you calm down? That's flooding at work.
Flooding is a big factor in Relational Anger and Relational Aggression. Learning to recognize and manage flooding is a key skill in Anger Management.
Taking a Break is the Best Bet for Solving Heated Discussions
Now that you are no longer fighting, your job is to calm your body down so that you can reengage with your partner in a positive way. This is where physiological self-soothing comes in.
The Secret to Effective Couple Communication
Do not ruminate, rehearse the fight, or entertain negative thoughts about your partner.
If you do, your brain will still think you're in danger, and keep the adrenaline and stress hormones flowing.
Other than that, self-soothing can look any way that works for you. Here are some techniques I've found useful in my practice working with chronically high-conflict couples:
- Distract: Watch TV, read a book, go for a walk, take a shower, do anything other than think about the fight. Find something that leaves you feeling recharged and relaxed.
- Connect: Connect with a friend (other than your partner) and talk about anything under the sun, other than your fight with your partner. More often than not, what we're looking for in that fight we just had is connection. Go meet that need from someone better equipped (for now) to do so.
- Exercise: Research has shown that 30 minutes of sustained exercise has the same mood buoying effect as Prozac -- with none of the side effects.
- Eat or Sleep: Being hungry, tired, or otherwise physically depleted raises our stress and makes flooding more likely. Take care of your body's needs so you're better able to connect with your partner
- Be Present: Bring mindful awareness to whatever task you are doing, or focus your attention on your sensory experience. This focused present moment awareness prevents you from ruminating and can help convince the body you are not under threat. (why would you focus on the smell of a flower if you were in danger?)
- Breathe: Breathe in slowly counting to five, hold it, then exhale slowly for five seconds. Repeat 10 times. Check in with yourself to see if you're still upset. If so, repeat. There is evidence that slow rhythmic breathing (the opposite of the fast shallow breathing we do in fight or flight) can down regulate (calm) your nervous system.
As You Become Calm, Practice Compassionate Thoughts
Once you have that compassionate understanding, it's a lot harder to be mad at them, and a lot easier to have a good conversation.