A long time ago, I was at a training on trauma and mental health. I was working in a residential treatment program for people who were dealing with co-occurring substance abuse and severe and persistent mental illness. After the training, I asked the instructor, “What do you do when a crisis hits? When a person loses control?” Essentially, he shrugged his shoulders and gave an unknowing glance. He let me know that at that point in the process, my guess was as good as his.
Some earthquakes have what are called “Foreshocks,” which are small tremors that happen hours or even days before the actual earthquake. What the instructor at my training was pointing me to was the importance of understanding and relating within the moments that exist before the crisis. He enforced that when the crisis hits, something was missed before the acting out. Situations that involve overreactions do not happen in a vacuum but are the tip of the iceberg. Crisis management trainings teach us this as well. It is all about intervening at the stage prior to the loss of control.
Conflict in relationships is inevitable. So it makes sense that many people are interested in figuring out how to manage it better. Although it might seem like an obvious place to start, trying to find a way to handle disagreements at their peak may not be where we should begin our search for a solution. An ounce of prevention might actually be worth a pound of cure when it comes to how we address fighting in our relationship. The question to consider might not be so much about how we can handle conflict better, but what are we missing or what can we do when we are not in the battle that might make us more resilient and/or less conflictual and defensive in the first place.
Increasing Conscious Intentionality
It is essential to be intentional in your relationship. This means that we must question our natural way of being and relating. Problems do not arise out of nowhere though it may feel this way. When we unconsciously go about our days, we are virtually unaware of the dynamic cycles we are perpetuating. When conflict blows up, we wonder where it came from, or we focus on the triggering circumstance that we are facing. We then put a ton of effort into coming to an agreement, which may not even be possible. This focus on problem and conflict management might be wearing down our relationship to an irreparable condition.
When we get into an argument, and the feelings take over, we tend to justify anything we say and do. Besides name-calling, ridicule, and criticism, there are behaviors such as sleeping separately, withholding general affection, and avoiding shared space that some individuals do to prove their point or make themselves feel better and in control. Of course, regaining a sense of personal control is not a bad reason to do something, the point is that whatever we choose to do in these states should not be counterproductive to the relationship. In other words, we should make sure that we do not put the cause or our feelings above the relationship. So when we are engaged in conflict and are not feeling particularly close to our partner, we mustn’t act in ways that will in themselves contribute to the negative feelings and disconnection.
Taking an Intentional Time Out
Passions run deep, and after a while, it may seem as if we are enemies out to get each other. The swelling emotions build-up and resentments kick in. Suddenly we are walking on eggshells. Everything is a potential fight; any sigh, cross-eyed look, or typical mistake is a reason to pounce. We jump back in, right to the heat of the moment we left off on during the previous unresolved fight. With no use for words, we take action.
Couples get into fights over the silliest things. They are rarely make or break issues and typically aren’t even things that can be solved. Most of the things that couples fight about aren’t what they think they are actually fighting about in the first place. In short, what we fight over is misunderstanding the meaning that our partner and we are attaching to the topic at hand.
When the flame starts to burn hot, it is often too late to prevent an explosion. At a heart rate of around 100 Beats Per Minute during the conflict, it is time to take a break. At that point, our body is becoming “flooded.” When flooding occurs, the brain functions that support conflict management, thinking clearly, and listening is shutting down. In a sense, it becomes physically impossible to handle the conflict productively.
As if the lack of connection we are already experiencing wasn’t bad enough, the action we take in moments of flooding makes it worse. We may decide we should sleep on the couch, or we send our partner there. We have just put the cause over the relationship. In your right mind, you know that no cause is more important than the relationship. Perhaps, not holding this truth to be self-evident in our day to day is what allowed us to slip out of step in the first place with our partner. Or perhaps we have such substantial unresolved issues from our past that have not healed and are now adding fuel to what would otherwise be a pretty small fire.
When we fall out of our “Window of Tolerance,” name-calling, threats, and other demeaning words will start to fly. Or one partner will simply refuse to engage and will forcefully shut down the conversation. Solving the original problem is no longer the goal; defending oneself takes over. Although it is difficult to give and receive space, it is essential at this point to realize that the things that are being said and done are flowing from physiological responses. Couples in this place should make it a point to utilize an intentional time out.
An intentional time out is not the same as shutting down the conversation or “Stonewalling.” What is says to your partner is that “I am feeling overwhelmed and need to calm myself down.” It takes ownership for one’s response, but also says to their partner that they are not abandoning the relationship, and intend to reconvene when both parties are in a better physiological state. It takes maturity and self-awareness to know when to pull back and avoid throwing gas on the fire. Some couples benefit from picking a word or hand signal to let the other person know when they have reached that point. It is essential to talk about it and normalize it before you get to the point where you need it.
Manufacturing Oxytocin When Things Aren’t Heated
Oxytocin is a hormone that is referred to as the “bonding” the hormone. It is known in particular as the hormone that is secreted while breastfeeding and is heavily involved in mother/child bonding. It is also released when hugging, cuddling, and having sex. This hormone increases our sense of closeness and connectedness. It is also part of our stress response system. When we reach out to connect and listen during times of being overwhelmed, it becomes part of the “Tend and Befriend” approach that Kelly McGonigal talks about in The Upside of Stress. Oxytocin has numerous health benefits related to decreasing stress, including lowering blood pressure and lowering levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
The beauty of this hormone is that we can manufacture its benefits regardless of how we are feeling. Simply taking into consideration opportunities where we can give and receive mild physical affection can go a long way. Also, by understanding a few easy hacks, we can make intentional efforts to be preemptive in our approach. By increasing hugs, cuddling, and simple touches throughout our day, we can build up a sense of closeness that acts as resilience when conflict or stress hits the relationship.
The “Holding Exercise”
One exercise for getting the oxytocin flowing and increasing the sense of connection with our partner is the “Holding Exercise” professed by Harville Hendrix, the creator of Imago Therapy. During this exercise, a couple will position themselves with one partner cuddled against the heart of the other person. The person being held will simply reflect memories of painful childhood experiences and stories, while the holding partner mirrors back what is said, continually asking if there is more.
When a couple embarks on the “Holding Exercise,” there is a release of the unconscious story that we are bringing to the table each day. This is the same story that lives under the surface and fuels the heat of our arguments in the first place. The space that is being held for the sharing partner allows understanding to develop and compassion to flow. The story that exists under the surface has a chance to be heard and processed, which releases some of the pressure and diminishes its power to be projected onto present-day situations. The comfort we get from being held has pain-relieving effects as well.
Hugs, Cuddling, and Sleep
During a particularly conflictual time in a relationship, one or both parties may withhold affection in the form of behavior, such as sleeping on the couch. What they are doing in those moments is playing right into the hands of their negative feelings and self-protective state. No matter what, do not sleep on the couch. Emotionally it can seem as if we are miles apart from our partners, but there needs to be neutral space in the relationship that speaks to your commitment to each other when words aren’t available.
Now, you may say, “Well, I don’t feel like it.” Well, that’s precisely my point. Doing the right thing for your relationship needs to be more important than how you feel. When our mouths can’t speak to our good intentions and represent our “right” minds, then ensuring that our neutral ground like the bed we sleep in and other spaces we share are not casualties, can at least keep hope alive. We are not necessarily saying everything is ok and dismissing our feelings. Instead, we are using actions to override our primal self-defense instincts for the sake of the relationship and our personal growth.
Cuddling and sharing close physical space increases that sense of love, closeness, and trust we feel. Feelings of closeness decrease stress and improve overall health and wellbeing. The closer and trusting we feel towards someone lends to us being more flexible and less reactive towards their shortcomings. We can let things go and give passes instead of making a big deal out little things, or feeling overly defensive and taking things personally.
Whether we take an intentional-preventative approach to strengthen our relationship or we bite the pride bullet when things are heated, we are taking action to do what is best for our relationship. Also, we are taking steps to improve our overall sense of satisfaction in the relationship instead of living in a self-fulfilling prophecy continually being driven by our own feelings, which in most cases are more interested in being justified than being helpful.
Previously published on “Hello, Love”, a Medium publication.
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