When we get upset, a disagreement or conflict with our partner can escalate into a fight. This is when we say things we’ll regret. This is when we slam doors, yell and blame each other. We get defensive and feel disconnected. We start thinking our partner doesn’t care about us.
This is when our “survival alarm” goes off and takes over. The amygdala is a key component of this alarm system. This part of the brain is constantly scanning for signs of safety or danger, write Susan Campbell, Ph.D, and John Grey, Ph.D, in Five-Minute Relationship Repair: Quickly Heal Upsets, Deepen Intimacy, and Use Differences to Strengthen Love:
Since survival is its higher priority, if the alarm detects even the slightest sign of danger, it quickly takes control and changes your body chemistry to support immediate self-preservation. It’s strictly a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ deal. The alarm reacts automatically, instinctively, and without your permission. Most of the time you don’t even realize when your conversations have been taken over by this primitive part of your brain.
When this happens we also stop hearing each other or caring about creating helpful solutions. We talk in absolutes. You never do this! You always do that! We get lost in the fight-flight-freeze response. We start seeing each other as adversaries.
We see our partner as “a caricature — with features exaggerated in the worst ways. We don’t see the real person because we’re looking through the lens of our fears. We have lost the higher brain’s refined capacities to see complexity, so we see one another through the lens of our stories and stereotypes,” according to the authors.
This happens to all of us. It’s inevitable that we’ll get upset. However, what isn’t inevitable is a conflict escalating into an emotional explosion. We can intervene.
The key lies in pausing. In their excellent and comprehensive book, Campbell and Grey suggest partners agree to pause when one (or both) of them gets triggered. “Any attempt to resolve an issue when you or your partner is triggered is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline,” they write.
They further note that “the point of pausing is to insert a new choice into what is otherwise an automatic accelerating sequence of reactive behaviors. You are learning to interrupt an unconscious pattern.”
They suggest these tips:
- Learn your own early warning signs of being triggered. The first signs are physical. For instance, when you get upset, you might feel a knot in your stomach or a lump in your throat. Or you might get shaky, feel a sense of numbness or feel your heart pounding.
- Explore which “F””(fight, flight or freeze) tends to take over. Usually a person’s nervous system favors one “F” over another. But when one “F” doesn’t work, you’ll just use another one. Here are examples: Fight includes getting annoyed, angry or resentful; flight includes getting worried, insecure or panicked; and freeze includes feeling hopeless, ashamed, confused or paralyzed.
- When you notice that you or your partner is triggered, say something like: “I need to pause,” “Can we slow down for a moment?” or “Let’s take a break.” Always speak for yourself — your own needs and feelings. Don’t say, “You need to pause.”
- When one of you gives the signal, pause immediately to reflect on your feelings and calm down.
- Practice pausing every day, even when you’re just slightly uncomfortable. Doing so helps you learn to hear and respond to your partner better.
Campbell and Grey also suggest couples sign an actual pause agreement. They feature this six-point contract, which includes more guidelines on pausing:
- Our pause signal is ____________ [examples: “I need to pause” or “Time out”].
- Each person’s job is to give our pause signal as soon as he or she detects reactivity or signs that one of us is triggered. It is our job to be alert for signs of distress and then quickly call for a pause.
- When our pause signal is given, we both will stop talking. We will also cease any and all nonverbal reactive behaviors (such as rolling eyes or slamming doors). When possible, we will also offer each other kind reassurances of safety we know we each like (supportive touch, hugging, reassuring words).
- We will discuss and agree on how long a pause period is needed. The length will be determined by whoever needs the most time to calm down.
- During our pause period, we each will calm and reassure ourselves that we are safe — that although we may feel upset, there is really no tiger nearby. We will prepare to come back and engage in constructive communication to repair what happened.
- We will not use a pause to avoid issues. We will return to and repair each rupture caused by our reactivity. We will aim to resolve our issues in a way that is fair and works for both of us.
Pausing is hard to do. It takes a lot of practice. But it’s a valuable and straightforward tool you and your partner can use. It’s especially powerful for decelerating conflict so you can stay connected and brainstorm effective solutions that work for both of you.
Firefighter photo available from Shutterstock