Sure, I’m a relationship and couples therapist, but I am certainly not immune to arguments and disagreements with people close to me. Wife, friends, family. You name it. In fact, having a fight, getting through it, then still being close after is a sign to me of a close relationship. And all relationships are going to have arguments at times. If you don’t think so, let me burst that bubble for you right.. now.
Before I share with you one of my favorite things to do when an argument does start, let’s talk a little about your nervous system. It’s governed by the part of the brain called the amygdala and is just chilling most of the time. But when we experience threat it takes over. It takes over by flooding the body with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, and puts us either into fight or flight mode (occasionally into freeze).
Which is a great response… if we are facing a lion. Or if there is some other genuine threat in front of us that we need to physically fight against or run away from.
Problem is, since we don’t live in caves anymore, those types of threats are increasingly rare. But our brain’s evolution hasn’t quite caught up with this detail, and kicks into fight or flight mode quite often. It kicks into this mode for things like road traffic, running late for work, or a big meeting with the boss. It even happens when we are in a perfectly safe situation, but our brain senses threat because it starts thinking about something in the past or future that was/could be scary.
So as you’ve probably guessed by now, our amygdala also takes over when a disagreement starts (Lion, EEK!) with the person we are talking to. Unless you are a Zen Master perhaps. But for us normal, non-Zen Master folks, that fight or flight mode in turn takes us out of the parts of the brain that govern rational thought. Then we start saying and doing things that are coming from the amygdala thus a fight or flight place.
(Porcelain Metamorphosis by Martin Klimas)
Initially, indications that we are getting into this mode are more subtle. Tone is a little sharp. Voice is elevated. Language is slightly aggressive.
But then the other person’s amygdala takes over and they get into fight or flight mode too. Here’s where things really start to go south. Not south like a trip to the Bahamas.
(Baa Atoll, Maldives by lennble)
South like bad. Heart rate is up, blood is rushing, face may be flush, body temperature elevates. And since we are both in fight or flight mode, we start talking faster, louder, more angry, more aggressive with our words.
Pretty soon, one or both of us says something really ugly and someone heads for the door or slams the phone down.
Okay, getting back to the title of this article. The way to reduce fights with our spouse or loved ones happens first by getting our amygdala back into chill mode, so that our rational brain can take over again. Continuing to argue with the person in front of us is not going to help us get there. In fact, just being around that person might make it difficult to get back into a relaxed, less activated state.
So, we need to take a few minutes or a few hours to allow that to happen. It can be nice for the other person, particularly if they are your significant other, to know that you are taking those few minutes. (That way they don’t just think you are abandoning them or the whole situation. This way they know instead that you are taking care of your nervous system, which in turns takes care of your relationship.)
Something I coach my couples to say here is “Let’s take a break from this conversation,” or “I think I need a timeout.” What’s key here, is you don’t want to mistakenly tell them you are leaving the relationship. You are just taking a little bit of time to let your amygdala get back to normal. And if you have the presence of mind, give them a time estimate. “I’m going to take 20 minutes to calm down.” If that amount of time goes by and you are still pretty agitated, you’re always allowed to come back and let them know you need more time.
(Highliners taking a timeout in Monte Piana by Balazs Mohai)
During this time that you’ve now set aside, do something that is calming to you. Contrary to what we were told many years ago, punching a pillow is typically not a very calming activity. But there are a slew of alternatives including: take a walk, meditate, do a few stretches, draw a bath, go to a workout class, play a sport, watch your breath, read, take a nap, or really anything that helps your amygdala and autonomic nervous system to get out of fight or flight mode. Side note, if you are leaving to do one of these activities, tell your loved one that is what you are doing. “I’m going to take a drive to relax, and will be back in an hour or so.” That way they aren’t getting more upset while you are gone.
That’s it. It absolutely takes practice and hard work. Just like any worthwhile relationship, or really anything worthwhile for that matter. But it works. And pays back in dividends. Let me know how it goes.
Jeremi McManus is a Relationship Therapist, Couples Therapist, and Author who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own ups and downs in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field. If you feel like you could use some perspective, he looks forward to hearing from you. Jeremi is a Licensed Psychotherapist and delighted to call San Francisco home.