You just had a colossal argument and neither of you wants to talk about it. What now?
You’re on the couch and he’s in the bed, but neither of you is sleeping. After the heated argument over your summer vacation destination, he stomped angrily upstairs and you sit sobbing on the couch. He wants to go to camping with tents and backpacks and you want to stay at a resort by the ocean.
Arguments are part of every relationship, but how we respond to them is crucial. Our reaction to conflict or any stressful event is based on our life experiences and genetics. We all have those friends who are so laid back that nothing affects them and we also have friends who become frazzled over the smallest situations. But to successfully manage conflict, we need to manage our stress first. If you cannot quickly calm yourself down, you will not be able to hear what your partner is really saying, so you will have difficulty resolving the disagreement.
How do you stay calm when your partner is doing or saying something that is triggering an emotion? The very first thing is to disengage and allow some time for both of you to simmer down and reflect. Because we don’t all respond to stressful events the same way, it is important to know your stress style, your unique response when faced with frustrating or upsetting situations. When scientist, Hans Selye introduced the “fight or flight” theory, he described either fighting to defend yourself or fleeing to get away. Do you:
1) Get angry or agitated
2) Become withdrawn or sad
It is important to know your stress response beforehand, so in the heat of the moment, you can use the technique that quickly reduces your reaction to the event.
If you yell, stomp and slam doors, you will respond best to something that quickly quiets you down. Try these suggestions and see which ones work best for you:
• You cannot be calm if you are hyperventilating, shallow breathing or holding your breath, so start by taking 5 deep belly breaths (in through your nose, out through your mouth)
• Close your eyes and picture a place that makes you feel peaceful, maybe a place in nature or a favorite place growing up
• Listen to some soothing music
• Enjoy the relaxing sound of a water fountain
• Use aromatherapy, either with scented candles or essential oils
• Pet your dog or cat
• Take a warm bath
• Drink a cup of hot tea
• Listen to a guided imagery CD
If arguments or conflict make you feel tearful, rejected and sad, techniques to quiet and calm may not work for you. You may need something that stimulates and energizes you:
• A brisk walk with your dog, or by yourself
• Dancing to lively music
• Squeezing a “stress” ball
• Jumping rope
• Eating a healthy, crunchy snack
• Talking to a friend
• Deep belly breathing, because it increases your oxygen and shifts your body chemistry
Some of these techniques work best if practiced before stress and conflict arise; they will be more effective and you will respond more quickly. Shifting from the high level “fight or flight” to a calmer, relaxed state will allow you to effectively communicate your thoughts to your partner and listen to his/her ideas.
So now, you have both spent some time apart reflecting on the argument. But first, he did some deep breathing, listened to some sublime music and you took Buddy for an invigorating walk. You both decide to express the honest rationale for your desired choice of vacation. He shares that because of the stress at work, he wants to be in nature and away from people, except you! You agree about the work stress, but want to be by the ocean and don’t want all the work involved with camping. You find a superb little get away with a secluded beach and hiking trails. Ahhh, bliss!