3 Steps to Preventing a Meltdown During Conflict

What to do When Emotions Run Hot

Imagine you want to talk with your spouse in the middle of a tornado. Debris is flying around, you are shouting, your spouse is shouting, the wind is roaring. You can’t hear each other. Nice setting to have a talk, right?

How to stop making fights worse

Now, imagine you decide to get out of the way of the tornado. You simply wait for it to pass. Then, you invite your spouse to sit with you on the porch, have a drink, and talk. Which way would you prefer? I mean, if you’re not an obsessive adrenaline junkie, the answer is clear. This post is about how to avoid getting to a point when all you hear is roaring and things get really nasty. That’s when feelings get hurt.

Research shows that couples who are skilled at stopping the escalation of tension during a discussion, before things get out of control, are the ones who thrive in the long run. Because nasty fights are just that—nasty. They build resentment and negative thoughts. Anger invites anger.

When Things Get Overheated

When (thousands of years ago) our ancestors met a beast in the woods, they didn’t think much. They either fought, hid in the bushes, or got the hell out of there as soon as possible. While this was extremely useful thousands of years ago, nowadays it’s not.

Nowadays, most of us are not being harassed by the beasts in the woods, right? So we need to use more refined strategies to cope with stressful situations successfully. But when we are in the heat of the moment, our outdated wiring prevents us from communicating properly.

If you’re upset and your heart is pumping like crazy at 150 beats per minute, you won’t hear anything your spouse is saying, no matter how hard your spouse tries. Your amygdala—the ancient part of the brain that’s responsible for fight or flight response—has taken over full control. You are now officially in emergency mode and your body starts to produce vast quantities of adrenaline. It’s impossible to have good conversations like this.

Still, we all screw up sometimes. We let our anger take over. That’s okay, as long as it’s a rare exception and not a rule.

Sadly, many couples do exactly the opposite. They let things get overheated for almost any reason, as a rule and not an exception. Things are said and done. If this happens frequently, it spells trouble.

Why is Letting Anger Off so Damaging?

If things get out of control frequently, a less talked about, but not any less damaging, phenomenon happens.

Your partner’s brain starts to associate you with danger, the same as our ancestor associated a tiger with danger. Once this association is established, even the most well-intentioned behavior of yours is accompanied with suspicion and disbelief, the same as you would closely monitor a tiger lurking around even if he is not hungry.

Therefore, when emotions run hot, how you react makes all the difference.

1 – Stop Talking

It’s impossible to have a meaningful conversation in the middle of an emotional tornado. Therefore, if you see the “tornado” coming, your first goal is to stop talking. But you should do so in a mindful way:

  • “Let’s take a break. It’s not you, it’s me. I need to calm down.”
  • “I don’t think this is going in the right direction. Let’s talk about it later. What about when the kids go to bed?”
  • “Honey, I’m sorry but I’m getting far more upset than I would like. Let me think about this. Can we talk again tomorrow evening?”

Beware, though! Even after successfully stopping a conversation, you can still screw up.

Here’s what can go wrong, and how to avoid it.

  • Make sure you don’t sound arrogant or patronizing. Be sincere, look your partner in the eyes, and try to soften your tone. Even better, ask if it’s okay with them.
  • No further arguing, no comments, even under your breath. And no door slamming.
  • Politely resist the temptation of your spouse trying to pull you back into an already heated conversation. Explain calmly why you are pausing, and assure your partner you WILL come back and will not forget. This is important, so your “withdrawal” won’t be misunderstood as fleeing.
  • Avoid negative self-talk. Don’t fall into the trap of stewing in negative thoughts, because this will only increase your anger. This is easier said than done, and yet it’s crucial. If you use the time in the pause of your conversation to further nurture your bad thoughts, you will come back even more upset than before! For example, steaming somewhere and saying, “What a nasty pig he is, leaving socks all over the place,” is only going to add salt to the wound.

2 – Retake Control

Once the amygdala—the unconscious part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response—is set off, there can’t be any meaningful conversation until you calm down. Your brain simply needs some time to reboot, and it has been scientifically proven that men need even more time than women. When you are calm you can start thinking clearly again (and your conscious mind steps in). It’s then that you can retake control of your brain.

You can speed up the time needed to reboot, though, by moving your body.

I mean literally moving your legs and arms and doing something with them, not moving your fingers over a keyboard or a remote control.

That’s because when you move, your brain releases neurochemicals called endorphins. They have a soothing effect on your mind and make you feel good. By the way, did you know that endorphins are also released during laughter, eating chocolate, and having sex?

So, what can you do?

  • Go for a walk
  • Mow the lawn
  • Start putting dishes in the dishwasher
  • Do the laundry
  • Go out, throw a ball with the kids

Or, it can also be as simple as saying ”I need to get a glass of water. Want some as well?” This gesture of yours serves two purposes. The first one is that it gets you on your feet and walking. Secondly, it shows your partner that you care for them, even though you are having a disagreement.

Anything that makes your body move will serve the purpose.

I wouldn’t suggest going shopping to calm down, at least not every time, if you don’t want to anchor yourself into spending money every time you need to calm down. Because if you do that on a consistent basis, your brain will make the connection: angry-shopping-buying nice things for me-pleasure-let’s get angry some more!

3 – Continue in a Different Tone

Now you can start your conversation again, this time in a different tone. Follow the principles outlined in one of the previous posts, where we covered how to approach to your spouse mindfully and start a difficult conversation. If you are the one who is about to talk less and listen more, then follow the post where we covered how to handle complaints gracefully.

Your Turn

Noticing that your anger is growing when there is still time, stopping things from going downhill, turning them back into a pleasant and calm solution, and finding a way to talk is a true achievement. Celebrate this small victory. Write it down in a journal and reflect on it each time you do it, because your subconscious will remember it as well, and you’ll have an easier time repeating it in the future.

QUESTION: Which step in this post do you find the most challenging? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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