Couples Communication: Staying Emotionally Grounded During Conflict

Conflict is inherent to intimate relationships.

But the outcome of conflicts isn’t a given. Marital/relationship conflict can spin out of control, resulting in significant distress, hopelessness, and ultimately, a failed relationship. But conflict can also strengthen your marriage or relationship. This is why learning to navigate relationship conflict is essential for couples.

The Mindful Communicator

When a conflict escalates, couples reach a threshold of emotional and physiological overload.  We’ve all been there and done that. When this occurs, our communication options are narrowed drastically, and we all-too-often either argue more intensely (fight response), walk away yelling, “I can’t do this anymore!” (flee or disengage response), or emotionally go numb and remain stone-faced as our partner attempts to desperately re-engage us (freeze response). 

These responses are somewhat automatic, and it’s as if we become victims of our own defensiveness (“I said things I didn’t mean to say”; “I hate the way I acted, that’s not me”; “I’m not that person, I’m so sorry I spoke to you like that”).

Clearly our defensiveness can get the best of us at times.

Yet under certain circumstances, even in the face of considerable frustration and feelings of indignation, we are able to show impressive self-control over our reactions. Many of the couples I work with rarely (if ever) speak to their bosses, coworkers and friends the way they sometimes speak to each other. And it’s not because those other relationships are devoid of frustration. The fact that we can get highly upset with someone (other than our spouse/partner) yet maintain some level of self-control suggests that we can learn to (even when feeling highly stressed with our spouse/partner) maintain our emotional equilibrium when conflict occurs on the home front. 

Here are some reasons people are able to maintain impressive control in their work environment.  Each of these reasons listed below can be used to regulate your defensiveness with your spouse/partner whenever arguments are starting to escalate.

From The Work Environment to the Home-Front: 5 Ways to Stay in Control

1) I’d get fired…

Here you are mindful of the extreme negative consequences (the loss) that will result if you impulsively speak your mind whenever you don’t like how a coworker or superior treats you. The negative consequences of verbally haranguing your partner is pretty significant too—after all, don’t relationships end because of the way couples treat and speak to each other?

2) I make a good living and I have security at my job; I don’t want to jeopardize that…

Here you are mindful of the different benefits that the job brings you and your family. During the heat of an argument, couples quickly forget all the ways in which their lives are better because of their relationship. What if you managed to hold onto at least one of these positives the next time you are about to verbally let loose during an argument? 

3) He’s just a jerk sometimes; this too shall pass…

Here you are mindful of the temporary nature of a troubling interaction—the frustrating experience with your boss will not last indefinitely, and you are anticipating getting back to your normal (more harmonious) work life. When engrossed in conflict, couples often lose sight of the fact that the conflict is temporary (it has a beginning, middle and end), and that the relationship can go back to normal once the emotional heat has cooled.

4) I’m not going to let this get in the way of my future…

Here you are mindful of the big-picture—in this instance, your ability to take perspective and see that your goals are bigger than the current squabble gives you an emotional anchor that can prevent you from sinking into the defensive current that conflict creates. When couples can maintain perspective (and see the big-picture), a conflict about not emptying the dishwasher is less likely to consume half the weekend.

5) That’s not who I am…

Here you are mindful of your values—the ideal of who you want to be and how you want to act  remains in the forefront of your mind even when you’re feeling frustrated with others. The fact is that even these values can momentarily buckle under the defensive patterns that couples get caught in. But that doesn’t mean you should abandon your ideals as a spouse/partner—rather, make conscious efforts to hold onto these ideals even when the relationship waters get rough.

I am not suggesting that couples attempt to use these strategies as a way to avoid conflict. It’s important to have a voice and communicate what you each need in the relationship (as well as what isn’t working). These can be difficult conversations to have, but they are important.  The above communication strategies are designed to help you maintain your emotional equilibrium so that you communicate more effectively, rather than falling victim to hostile-defensive modes of relating.

Effective Communication Workbook/Resources

Check out my couples communication workbook (over 186-pages dedicated to teaching you easy-to-use couples communication skills and strategies);

Wishing you and your relationship a life-time of meaningful communication!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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