How to Stay Calm During Couple Conflicts
Use of Empathy and Self-Calming
Posted Jan 28, 2019
If you have found yourself frustrated by getting into arguments that escalate or drag on for hours, you are not alone. Disagreements between partners are unavoidable even in the happiest of relationships. There is usually at least one unsolvable problem for every couple (Gottman, 1999), as well as a number of minor, solvable problems. Even the small disagreements often require skillful communication in order to come up with creative ways to meet each person’s needs, and to avoid becoming more intense arguments. You have probably experienced how quickly emotions can become intense in your own couples’ conflicts. This development is what clinicians refer to as “emotional escalation”.
In general, this rise in emotional intensity occurs more quickly during couples’ disagreements than it does in other relationship disagreements, such as with co-workers. Once escalation occurs, it is often an uphill struggle for at least one of the partners to regain emotional self-control. It is clearly to the advantage of both individuals to avoid the escalation, or to de-escalate as soon as possible when it does occur. In my clinical work with couples, I guide them in practicing two critical skill sets for resolving conflicts: 1. preventing the escalation of emotions through the use of empathic responses, and 2. De-escalating as soon as possible through the use of self-calming skills. The importance of empathic responses was also described by Dr. Leon Seltzer (http://psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201809/the-single-most-powerful-way-resolve-couple-conflicts).
Let’s look at an example of a very common argument that I hear in doing couples counseling: spending vs. saving money. I frequently see couples in which one person values saving for the future, whether it’s a basic nest egg for emergencies or a larger account for their children's college funds. Often the other person values living “in the present” and enjoying life whenever possible, even if that means racking up debt. This creates a classic conflict for many couples, particularly if there is an imbalance in perceived power between the two individuals. However, it is actually a very solvable problem in which escalation can be avoided with the use of empathic responses, or managed via self-calming skills. Here I will demonstrate how this type of argument might occur naturally, and then how it might be modified to lessen the intensity of emotion and to be over more quickly.
Jack: “You promised that you would stick to our monthly spending limit, and then you went ahead and bought a bunch of dog toys which we really didn’t need.”
Sarah: “I didn’t spend that much and we did need the chew toys for the puppy or he would have destroyed the furniture.”
Jack has presented a complaint and Sarah has become immediately defensive and started to present her facts to justify her spending.
Each of them has added to the conflict in this situation. Jack has taken a “direct opposition” approach to stating his complaint, by speaking in direct terms about a behavior of Sarah’s which was upsetting to him. For more explanation of the risks of different approaches to starting a discussion, refer to Dr. David Ludden's recent blog (http://psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-apes/201901/how-to-stay-task-during-conflict-your-mate). Direct and confrontational complaints like this one are advised only for the most serious issues, as they do get the attention of the other person, but often draw a defensive response. Sarah responds by immediately defending her behavior, which will probably just further frustrate Jack because he will not see that his complaint is being taken seriously. Jack and Sarah have already started down a rocky path, so let’s follow where this will likely lead them.
Jack, now with obvious frustration and resentment in his tone: “We have talked about this for month after month already and I don’t see you making any real effort to work with me on this. You know how important it is to me that we save some money for the bigger items that we both want.”
Sarah says nothing. She has noted the familiar angry tone and shuts down to avoid further confrontation. She may be feeling fearful of being criticized or she may be disappointed in Jack’s tendency to get angry so quickly. Underlying these feelings, at the most basic level of emotion, she is feeling unloved. Her lack of response at this point further frustrates him, as he perceives the silence as more evidence that she does not care about his point of view or his feelings about this problem. It is very possible that he is wondering if his concerns are of any importance to her. His emotions have escalated from mild frustration to anger. Underlying the anger, at the most basic level of emotion, he is feeling unimportant to her.
Use of Self-Calming
The surest way to de-escalate at this point is for Jack to acknowledge his intense feelings and to give himself the time to calm himself down. He and Sarah will not resolve anything by continued communication with angry tones and will likely cause more hurt feelings if they continue while feeling so frustrated. There are various skills for self-calming, such as conscious breathing, positive self-talk (“this will pass and I’ll be okay”), and self-compassion (“I’ve had a long day and I need to relax for a while before I can deal with this situation”). The standard recommendation is to allow yourself at least 20 minutes to calm down and be able to return to the discussion with less intense emotion. This ability to self sooth is a critical skill for adults and one which is ideally learned in childhood with the help of a parent. However, it can be learned in adulthood and is well worth the effort to learn. For additional suggestions of ways to self-calm, refer to Dr. Judith Orloff (http://psychologytoday.com/blog/us/the-empaths-survival-guide/201810/self-soothing-strategies-8-ways-calm-anxiety-and-stress).
Use of Empathy
To provide an example of the use of empathy, let’s re-imagine this conflict with the same initial complaint from Jack, followed by an empathic response from Sarah. Instead of defending herself, she might try to imagine how he is feeling about the fact that the money was spent on things that he perceives as unimportant. As stated by Dr. Seltzer, it is helpful to “emotionally identify with the other person’s experience.”
Sarah: “I can see your concern about whether we’re saving enough. I know that’s important to you.” She is validating his point-of-view, which can be done even if she disagrees with his views on this situation. She may still believe that she made the right choice, but she is hearing his complaint and trying to feel the emotions that he is feeling. To connect on an emotional level, she might say: “Your concerns are important to me. You must be frustrated by this.” By acknowledging his feelings of minor frustration before explaining why she made her own decision, she is effectively preventing this argument from escalating.
Please note that I am not suggesting that it is entirely Sarah’s responsibility to prevent escalation here. The entire discussion might have also gone differently if Jack’s initial comment had been an indirect (humorous or light-heartedly sarcastic) and cooperative (solution- focused) one. For example, consider how this discussion might have gone if Jack had started with:
“The puppy looks happy with all of his new chew toys. Maybe now we won’t need to save for that new sofa after all!” Let’s assume that Sarah shares Jack’s sense of humor about the optional (?) new sofa. The shared humor allows for the chance of a solution-focused discussion without the emotional escalation.
To sum up, disagreements are unavoidable for any couple. Emotions tend to run high and intensify quickly for many couples. The practice of empathic responses as well as self-calming skills can make a major difference in how quickly a resolution can be reached, with a minimum of hurt feelings and a greater chance of dealing with the underlying emotions. It helps to remember that all of us have the same basic emotional needs in relationships: to be heard, feel loved, and know that you’re important to your partner.
Gottman, J. (1999). The Marriage Clinic : A Scientifically-based Marital Therapy. W.W. Norton & Co. New York.