By now you may have realized that most of what the Gottman Method suggests about marital health isn’t rocket science or brain surgery, or even rocket surgery. In fact, it’s pretty standard fare as far as relationship advice goes. Get to know each other. Be kind. Anticipate one another’s needs. Learn to fight fair. You don’t need 40 years of research data to tell you these are good strategies for loving another person.
Dr. Gottman’s research does, however, reveal an aspect of relationship health that is both surprising and unique. It turns out that managing conflict isn’t simply about being aware of and intentional about your thoughts and your words. It’s also about being attuned to the signals being sent to and through your body.
Your physiology plays a huge part in your relationship, particularly in conflict. It plays a role in calmer times as well. (Remember the role of oxytocin in the limerence phase of love.) But with regard to conflict, it’s important that you become attuned to the ways your body and brain are shaping the way you communicate. And when you become aware that arousal is complicating the relationship, the next step is to Practice Self-Soothing.
When in conflict or danger, human beings enter a heightened state of arousal. This arousal has protected our species for millennia. It’s why your hair stands up when you hear things go bump in the night. It’s why you pull your hands away from a hot stove or from a husband who’s been criticizing you for most of the past 45 minutes. This built-in alarm system has a name: Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA). When your body is in DPA, your heart speeds up, blood flow to your gut and kidneys slows down, adrenaline starts to pump, and ultimately you head into the infamous “fight or flight” response.
We all have different tendencies around fight or flight. Some lean into conflict. Others are conflict avoiders. Most of us use some combination of both to keep ourselves safe. Dr. Dan Siegel has added two other responses to the list: faint and freeze. In each case, the body sends all of its attention energy into the cortex of the brain and attention becomes very focused with tunnel-vision and tunnel-hearing. Obviously this makes effective communication difficult.
Stop reading for a minute and imagine a conflict that may have led you into DPA. You may not have been aware of your heart rate, or of your stress hormones, but certainly you’ve experienced a time when you couldn’t focus on whatever the argument was about. Maybe your skin got blotchy. Or tears formed in your eyes. Perhaps you just stopped talking and shut down. Maybe you said the same thing over and over again or your argument becomes suddenly disorganized. For me, the tell-tale sign that I’m in DPA is that my back starts to sweat. I’m lucky that my indicator is so obvious. You might need to pay more attention.
You must learn to pay attention. If you don’t, you’ll waste a lot of time stuck in futile conversations. Have you ever gone running with a friend? How easy was it to carry on a meaningful conversation? Chances are, if you were really running, it was impossible. The fact that your heart rate is elevated at or above around 100 BPM means that you simply cannot process social interaction. When your heart rate gets up to 100 BPM in a relationship setting, that’s called flooding. If you’re not paying attention, flooding leads to erratic communication. Erratic communication leads to the Four Horsemen. The Four Horsemen leads to emotional disengagement and eventually to dissolution of the relationship. It’s a slippery slope indeed.
The antidote to flooding is learning to soothe. In the healthiest relationships, partners help one another soothe, essentially interrupting the pattern trauma caused by DPA. Early in the relationship is a perfect time to get creative about the ways you will do this.
Dr. Gottman suggests using a hand signal – not the one you’re thinking of – to call a timeout when one or both of you realize that flooding is occurring. Those of you who are old enough to have watched Friends may remember Ross and Monica had a special hand signal. That’s the one my wife and I use, and it never fails to shift the argument toward humor. Once you’ve interrupted the negative cascade, you can focus on soothing.
Consider establishing a withdrawal ritual, some formal agreement where you take a break from one another long enough to get your heart rate down and your wits about you. In order for your break to be effective, consider these steps:
- Be aware of the timing. Both partners should agree about when to get back together. It should be at least 20 minutes but not more than 24 hours. If you’re truly flooded, you’ll need at least 20 minutes to let your body reset. If you wait longer than 24 hours, you risk avoidance which ultimately gives the conflict more power.
- Don’t stew. It’s not helpful at all to use your time away to replay the argument in your mind. Building your case or focusing on the injustice of it all doesn’t serve the larger purpose, which is soothing. These thoughts are distressing and not useful.
- Relax yourself. The practice of soothing can take many forms. Maybe you go for a long walk, listen to music, or read a magazine. You might also try deep breathing exercises. Getting control of your breathing is an ideal way to release tension and achieve a relaxed state of mind.
In the end, you might be really good at reigning in the Four Horsemen, dialoguing about problems, and accepting influence, but if you’re prone to flooding, it’s much harder to manage conflict. When your brain is attuned only to danger and not to opportunity, you’re more likely to attack or get defensive. Learning to soothe opens the door to empathy, positivity, and creativity. Trust me, it’s not rocket surgery.
Zach Brittle is a Certified Gottman Therapist, best selling author of The Relationship Alphabet, and host of the highly-rated podcast Marriage Therapy Radio. He has a private practice in Seattle, WA and offers online coaching to couples across the country. He he has been happily married to his wife for 20 of 21 years. Together they have two daughters, a minivan, and most of the silverware they received at their wedding.