In couples counselling sessions I’m often asked ‘how can we stop arguing?’ ‘we fight over petty stuff’
‘we love each other but get stuck in our conflicts’. Although partners arrive in session expressing how much they love and care for one another, it’s difficult for them to know exactly what is going on when they fall into the hurtful patterns of arguing and being defensive.
Four points to consider next time you and your partner go into an argument:
1. Feel safe The initial interaction with your partner can trigger your flight/fight/freeze response, which is activated from the amygdala in the brain where emotions are experienced. If either you or your partner feel threatened in any way from the beginning, it can stop communication all together. Some ways this flight/flight/freeze response can show up through facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, rolling of the eyes, ignoring or sudden movements like slamming doors and cupboards and the list goes on.
Common areas I hear about that couples argue over are: money, children, intimacy and sex, daily life tasks, lack of quality time together, ex-partners and disorganisation/mess. Whilst these are areas to negotiate through, they are often not the primary cause. The cause is much deeper and when either or both partners feel intense feelings (such as threatened, frustrated, resentful, repressed anger etc), this sets off their flight/fight/freeze responses, resulting in them acting out in defensive ways. Underneath the arguments are partners who yearn to be emotionally connected, heard, validated and loved.
2. Agree to have ‘time-out’ Before a disagreement begins to escalate, give each other permission to have ‘time-out’ and met back together after around 20 minutes. Go into separate areas, this allows your nervous system to calm down, also decompress and take a few breaths. Do a reflective self check-in ‘what am I trying to say to my partner?’ ‘how am I expressing this?’ ‘am I having a tantrum?’ ‘how can I be better?’
3. Self Check-in Before you arrive back to our partner, do body scan self check-in, even if you need to look yourself in the mirror beforehand, be aware and take note of your body language, facial expression, your ‘vibe’ and be mindful of your dialogue you will use.
4. Re-connect Once you have calmed down and done your self check-in, return to your partner. Approach them with kind intentions. Face each other and really look into your partners eyes, this allows you to truly see each other’s pain. This can also help soften and soothe each other’s triggers and reinstate that sense of feeling safe with each other. Once you see the genuine hurt in your partner’s eyes, it invites understanding, care and love to flow between you both.
Couples learn to have constructive disagreements by firstly acknowledging their own initial responses, then self-checking to understand what and how they are communicating to their partner and then re-connecting with empathy and curiosity. Once each partner validates the pain they see in each other, they can progress to explore their challenging areas they argue about, with a deeper awareness of one-self and their partner’s feelings during conflict.
Note: this blog refers to general differences between a couple. It is very different if you are involved in a relationship with domestic violence and if so you need to seek help. Some information and support for on Domestic Violence is available at Brisbane Domestic Violence Service www.bdvs.org.au