Building Your Dream Relationship: Step 1: Slow Down
Building Your Dream Relationship: Step 1: Slow Down
During sessions and couples retreats for marriage counseling in Wake Forest, NC, we often work on emotional reactions partners develop during conflicts. One of my clients recently shared her experience: she was coming home from work, looking forward to dinner that her husband had promised to cook. But soon after arriving home, she realized that dinner wasn’t ready yet. For whatever reason, she suddenly felt completely flooded with a strong blend of frustration, anger, and sadness. After spilling some pretty mean comments about her husband’s competence, thoughtfulness, and love, she ran to the bathroom and started crying uncontrollably.
So, what the heck happened to this woman? Where did this sudden (and very primal) panic come from?
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
To explain the “most detrimental to marriage” behaviors, a respected relationship expert Dr. John Gottman uses “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” metaphor from the New Testament that describes conquest, war, hunger, and death respectively. He uses “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to describe communication styles that can negatively impact a relationship or even predict its end. These communication styles include:
You are attacking your partner’s personality (“Are you stupid? You’re useless! You never think of me!”). If you and your partner are critical to each other, you’ll most likely feel hurt, assaulted, rejected, and unloved, which usually opens the door to the other three “horseman of the Apocalypse”.
When you and your partner are upset with each other, you become truly mean – you treat each other with disrespect, call each other names, etc. (“You’re tired? Oh…poor you. I’ve been exhausted for weeks with this new project I’m working on, and you can’t finish dinner on time?! you’re being pathetic!”).
Research shows that couples that often use contempt as a communication style are more likely to suffer from the flu, cold, etc. due to the weakened immune system. Can you imagine that?! Moreover, research showed that contempt is the main predictor of divorce.
Defensiveness occurs as the typical response to criticism – when you feel wrongly accused, you turn into a victim and search for excuses to defend yourself. While it is totally reasonable to defend yourself when you feel attacked, this communication style is actually a way of blaming your partner and as such will only escalate the conflict.
Stonewalling usually comes as a response to contempt: you tune out, withdraw from communication and stop responding. This response comes as a result of feeling emotionally flooded – the state in which you cannot discuss things or act rationally.
What Happens in our Body when We Are Emotionally Flooded?
Emotional flooding basically means that you’re experiencing a lot of emotions all at once. This experience is always accompanied by stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol). And stress hormones are always being pumped into your body when there is a perceived threat.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that makes us uniquely human – it’s a place where the impulse control and higher planning happens. During arguments and fights, our brain gets overwhelmed with emotions and stress hormones. Research showed that, in stressful situations, the prefrontal cortex literally shuts down, making you act impulsively.
What does this mean? In stressful situations, you need to learn how to slow your brain down and manage conflicts constructively.
How to Slow Down?
If you feel that you’re becoming flooded by emotions during a conflict, stop the discussion and take a break. Some of the effective things that you can do to slow down involve:
· Breathing exercise
Try calming down your body by either sitting comfortably or even better, lying on your back. Then take a few deep breaths in and out. Let the air fill in your stomach, lungs, and finally, your brain. Repeat this breathing relaxation exercise for as long as you need it, or until you feel that you are calming down.
· Taking a Time-out
Start counting to 15, 50, 100…it really doesn’t matter as long it helps you feel better and regain control over your thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Go to the washroom and splash your face with cold water. Go for a walk or a run, tidy the house. Say something like “I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now and I need to take a break”.
Writing your thoughts down on a piece of paper can be extremely helpful in overcoming the feeling of being emotionally flooded. Your writing doesn’t have to be neat or organized in any particular way. Just take a piece of paper and write your thoughts. Journaling can help you organize and externalize your thoughts and acknowledge them, which can have a catharsis effect.
When stressed, we tend to get emotionally flooded and unable to think or behave rationally. All of which is completely normal! But, it is very important that you learn how to slow down and regain emotional control in conflict situations.
Being able to recognize the “Four Horsemen” communication styles is an important first step in eliminating them from your discussions. However, to avoid destructive communication patterns, you need to replace the “Four Horsemen” with healthy, positive ones. And the first step on that road is slowing down. The more you practice to slow down, the greater the chance you’ll be able to communicate your needs and feelings in an assertive, yet respectful way.
I hope this information helps you to better understand why is important to slow down when you feel upset and emotionally flooded. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to give me a call at (703)347 3200 and schedule an appointment in my Wake Forest office.