Have you ever found yourself saying the same thing over and over when you are “discussing” an issue with your spouse? You think if you just say it one more time, he (she) will finally get it! Or maybe if you say it louder, or more emphatically. With more conviction, more feeling…
It doesn’t work does it?
We all “get dumber” when our emotions are intense. We become too “bothered” to think straight. It’s as if there is a fuse or circuit breaker between the limbic system (the emotional brain) and the frontal lobe (the executive decision making, judging brain). When emotions get too hot, the fuse trips, the thinking brain shuts down and the emotional brain takes over.
There is a good reason for this emotional circuit breaker: the most intense emotions are usually associated with threats to safety. And a threat to safety requires immediate action to fight or flee. When a lion is about to pounce, you need to act. You don’t want to get involved in a deliberate and balanced consideration of all the factors and points of view. So when emotions are intense, we are wired to react quickly, not to discuss thoughtfully.
Is it any wonder then that couples find it difficult to resolve conflicts when emotions are high?
Use a bother scale
One well known couples therapist has each partner hooked up to sophisticated physiological monitoring equipment. When either partner’s body starts to signal high levels of emotional arousal, the talking stops. The upset partner focuses on calming down. When he or she is calm, as shown by the physiological monitoring, the discussion resumes. The rule is: “We only talk when we are calm. We only discuss when we are capable of being reasonable.”
A good rule. You can use it too. But you don’t need fancy equipment. All you need is a home made “Bother Scale” and some duct tape.
For the bother scale, just spend some time paying attention to how bothered you feel. Notice times when you are nice and calm, able to think and problem solve. Times when you are getting bothered and at risk of escalation. Emotions are rising and starting to take over. And finally, notice those times when you are so bothered you are not really thinking straight. So bothered that you do things you later regret. (Maybe yelling at your kids, slamming a door, laying on your horn…) So bothered that you are not capable of reasonable problem solving.
With kids in treatment to improve emotional control, we label these states: being in the green (calm), in the yellow (at risk), and in the red (danger zone).
Problem solve only when you are both “in the green”
Here is where the duct tape comes in. Make an agreement with your partner: We will not discuss a conflict when either of us in the yellow or red. Each of us will pretend to put a piece of duct tape over our mouths.
When you are in the red or getting there, don’t discuss. Use your duct tape. Find ways to calm yourself down so you are in the green again. Then problem solve with your partner.