Isn’t it surprising how quickly things can go off the rails when you have a disagreement with your partner? One minute, you’re driving down the road easily talking about vacation plans, and the next minute your partner is crackling with tension and you’re fighting back tears. How did this just happen?
Part of why arguments happen so quickly is that what happens inside of us in those moments is happening so quickly. If we feel attacked, blamed, or misunderstood, we will defend ourselves in microseconds. Even in a controlled argument, our hearts beat faster and our minds start whirling with thoughts. We can sometimes get overwhelmed and flooded, and at that point truly lose the ability to be present and calm. All this can happen in a few seconds. Stepping away, we think, “why did all that happen over a dish in the sink?” but in the moment, it can really feel like life or death to your system when you doubt if your partner cares about you.
Part of what we try to do in couples therapy is simply slow the argument down. What is happening for each of you in those moments? What raw spots are being hit? What assumptions are you making? When we enter into a topic we know hasn’t gone well in the past, our system is already anxious. Our minds are scanning our partners for signs that this conversation, like the others, won’t go well. We read each other in microseconds. A held breath, hesitation, a tense voice, all will start to tell us, “they aren’t on my side, they don’t understand why this is important to me, they don’t care about me.” When we slow the argument down, we often see that the couple cares about each other deeply, but the argument cycle is creating misunderstanding on both sides.
At home, try experimenting with taking deep breaths, grounding yourself if your body starts to feel anxious, or even tell your partner, “I need to slow this down, it’s ramping up too fast for me.” Don’t be upset with yourself it that’s too hard to do in the moment, it’s hard for all of us! Sometimes it works best to come back after the fight and try to have the slower conversation then.
- Gottman, J., Silver, N. (1999, 2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, New York: Harmony Books.
- Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight. New York, New York: Hatchett Book Group, Inc.