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How To STOP An Argument With Someone You Love —​ Before It Gets SCARY

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All couples fight ... but for love to last, you need these skills.

There you are again. Your relationship has been here before.

You make your point. Your partner makes theirs.

Then you go into what seems like twelve rounds of a verbal boxing match, arguing or fighting with your boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. Both of you making the same points over again, but making no progress.

Worse, maybe, you have expressed your feelings over and over, and your partner just sits there in silence.

There is no understanding, no give-and-take, no negotiation, no compromise  so you may have come on stronger and louder. Maybe you stand up, wagging your finger, leaning toward them with that scowl.  

But you wanted caring connection, not a fight!

Wait a second! What is happening? This is not what you wanted to happen.

You wanted to have a loving conversation about something you needed or about the relationship. However, it quickly fell apart, turning into a tension-filled debate rather than a caring interaction.

While conflicts are common and a natural part of a relationship, heated, unproductive arguments are not helpful.

 

How can you tell when it starts to go wrong?

It's not that easy.

Because when you have this response to a threat (yes, conflict with your partner can seem like a threat, even in a loving relationship), part of your brain goes “offline”.

What this means is that the decision-making parts of your brain (prefrontal cortex), and its ability to keep your automatic reactions in check and ensure that you behave in accordance with your values, are not working well.

Basically, you find yourself in a Fight-Flight-Freeze response. 

Before we look at ways to catch yourself in Fight-Flight-Freeze, let’s talk about how you may be triggered.

Often, when we think of Fight-Flight-Freeze, you may think of threatening situations that involve violence, like an assault or a wild animal attack, or a serious car accident.

However, this threat reaction can happen even in a loving relationship.

Sue Johnson and others have studied how attachment concerns in a relationship can cause severe conflicts — what Johnson calls “demon dialogues” — interchanges that “go from bad to worse.”

When you perceive distance from an attachment figure, in this case, your lover, you may experience this sense of being triggered.

In other words, when you feel like your companion is not listening to you, or if you keep asking for certain needs to be met and they are not, or if you keep trying to connect verbally with no avail, your attachment may feel threatened.

Women, especially, see communication as connection. So when her partner is not listening, she may see it as his not caring.

The less he listens, or the more he purposely ignores her, the more threatening the situation may become.  

 

So how can you figure out if you're in a Fight-Flight-Freeze Reaction?

There are many ways to catch yourself when you are in Fight-Flight-Freeze:

 

1. You notice every little expression, sigh, or movement in your partner. 

You can observe very small details about your partner, because your pupils are dilated so that you can observe small threatening actions of a perceived predator to keep yourself safe.

Consequently, you are very aware of another’s facial expressions and body movements.

However, when we are reacting like this to a partner, it is a warning we are moving into Fight-Flight-Freeze, and it is time to back down.  

 

2. You are super focused.

You feel hyper-focused on your partner rather than the surroundings, like others in a restaurant, because you have “tunnel vision.”

Focusing on the danger is more important than peripherals when under threat but not when you are trying to relate to a lover.

Try to get yourself to notice your surroundings to ground yourself during arguments.  

 

3. You keep repeating yourself.

Your comments are repetitive because you are hyper-focused on because of a threat response and because your thoughts are not in the higher regions of your thinking brain.

In other words, you have “tunnel vision” for your argument, too.

Once again, try to expand your awareness.  

 

4. You're quick to counter-argue.

Answers come flying into your head, because the threat reaction has caused blood to move toward your brain, speeding up your brain so you can act more quickly.

In attachment conflicts, the action may include your mouth acting more quickly.

Sometimes, the man becomes “uber” rational, rejecting or even mocking the woman’s emotionality acting as if it is inferior.

Women can become quite frustrated at this point, feeling that the man has missed the entire point of connecting, which involves emotions.    

 

5. You do most of the talking, and it can be loud and offensive.

If a person thinks he or she can overcome a threat, you are in fight mode so you may be “attacking” your partner vocally.

As a generality, women are usually capable of overcoming a partner verbally by using details and high-pitched vocalizations, while men are usually capable of overcoming by using volume.  

 

6. You may want to “fight” your partner.

Women tend to be more indirect when they want to be physically violent, which means that they may throw a phone or slam a door.

While women may have the urge to slap, men are more likely to use more dangerous physical violence against women.

If the discussion has escalated to this point, it needs to stop immediately!

 

7. Your body seems restless.

This happens because some of your blood has shifted away from your stomach and from your skin to your large muscles, so you can fight or can run from the threat.

When a person does not assess that they can overcome a threat, they will want to get away from the threatening person as quickly as possible.

Of course, some men may move away because they do not want to act on aggressive urges.  

 

8. You want to block your partner's ability to leave the conversation or the physical space.

They want to "flee" and you want to "fight". 

This is a dangerous time because our physical bodies are now highly involved.

Men often do this to show control while women are pleading for connection. However, the conflict has escalated way past a safe point.    

 

9. Your heart rate is raised. 

I know it may be difficult to take your pulse in the middle of an intense argument, nonetheless, it is a way to confirm that you have a threat reaction.

John Gottman cites research that indicates that, when our heart rate is above 100 beats per minute, we have the equivalent of a high-risk scenario occurring.

This is a good time to “take space” which will be discussed in a moment.

 

10. You are mentally checked out, or in "freeze" mode. 

This happens when we feel we have no control over the situation, that nothing we can do will change the situation, or that we are going to experience some negative effect no matter what we do.

Usually, when freezing first occurs, the person has experienced a high level of perceived danger.  

 

What can you do if you're in the Fight-Flight-Freeze mode to avoid an escalating fight?

If you are in a Fight-Flight-Freeze situation, especially if it is about to become physical, you need to signal to your partner that you need to “take space.”

Taking space involves leaving the immediate area of the other person.

When a partner is a perceived threat, you cannot have a productive interaction.

Loving conversations depend on the couple having a safe and secure environment to talk and discuss their conflicts.

If a person is in the Fight or Flight response, that cannot happen. It is best that the parties agree that they need at least 20 minutes to allow their brain chemicals to calm down.

A couple should agree in advance, prior to a conflict, upon a word or signal so that the parties know that one of you is going to take space. It's almost like a conversational "safe word"

To “take space” means that you do not rehearse the offensive thoughts, that you take only as much time as it takes to calm one’s brain, that you use calming techniques, like taking a brisk walk around a safe neighborhood (don’t drive when angry), and that you only text or email to update your partner on your readiness to have a productive conversation.

Then, when you two are calmer, you can try to communicate in a more loving way. 

 

Max Stager is a Licensed Professional Counselor who specializes in assisting couples so they can go from having Fight-Flight-Freeze reactions to experiencing conversations that are warm, loving, and respectful.  Download Max’s free report “The #1 Killer of Relationships: Is This One Impacting You?”

 
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