Cavemen were actually complex people — even their art was more sophisticated than you might think. Think of the shapes drawn on cave walls in the Paleolithic era. Rather than being simply crudely drawn animals, scientists discovered many of those illustrations were proto-animations that give the illusion of movement by firelight. Imagine a family group sitting together telling stories using the flickering images to bring their words to life. Those artists were the original Pixar animators!
Another thing we can give our ancestors credit for? Our stress response cycle.
When presented with a perceived threat, the human body enacts a series of physiological processes meant to keep us alive. As efficient and useful as it has been over human history, the stress response cycle isn’t so great at telling the difference between an impending bear attack and a tense exchange you just started with your partner.
To your body, stress is stress. A difficult topic can escalate your physiology into high conflict mode within seconds, making it feel like there is nothing we can do to ease the tension in our communication.
So how can we talk about hard things without one or both partners spiralling out of control?
If you’re having trouble managing conflictual conversations, world renowned marriage therapists Drs. John and Julie Gottman have some strategies. They invited couples to navigate difficult discussions in their “love lab” and then recorded the patterns and habits they observed in both successful and unhappy relationships.
As part of this study, they monitored the stress response cycle while couples were in active conflict by measuring physical metrics like heart rate, blood pressure, eye contact, physical touch, and voice volume. After observing many conversations in their lab, they discovered a threshold that, when crossed, means couples are unable to navigate conflict well.
When a conflict escalates and activates the stress response cycle, the couple becomes (in Gottman terminology) “flooded” — adrenaline and cortisol sends them into a precognitive state where they turn to the instinct to fight, flee, or freeze. If a couple can avoid this flooded state, they retain the capacity to navigate the conflict with reason and compassion.
The couples who successfully avoided going into full-alarm reaction again and again were those couples who could bring specific techniques into active conflict so that it never got out of control. They could work on soothing and repairing the relationship in the midst of the conflict, which cooled the conversation down. Imagine a pot of water over a hot coil — the successful couples knew how to keep conflict at a bubbling simmer as they resolve it, avoiding the rolling boil that eventually spills over to scald everything around it.
The Gottmans identified the top 10 soothing techniques used by successful couples in conflict — strategies any of us can use:
- Reach out for your partner’s hand during a difficult discussion. It’s a non-verbal way to let them know you are still on their side despite the hot topic.
- Pepper in well-timed humor that does not belittle your partner. Humor allows us to recognize that this isn’t an all-out battle.
- Purposefully turn toward your spouse as you listen, maintain eye contact, and refrain from interjecting when they are trying to share their perspective.
- Allow yourself and your partner to make a U-turn in the conversation. For example, be willing to say (or hear), “I’m sorry. I misspoke just then out of stress. I care about this. Let me try again.”
- Stay in close proximity to your partner so you don’t have to raise your voice to be heard. The body cannot tell the difference between yelling out of stress and yelling because you’re trying to talk over a dishwasher, the kids in the other room watching TV, or the neighbor’s dog barking.
- Allow your partner to decline physical touch if they are feeling overwhelmed and intimate touch is making them feel more flooded.
- If you are the person overwhelmed by physical touch at times, communicate that you’re feeling overwhelmed — not that you are rejecting your partner.
- Take a seat. Creating a relaxed posture helps lower stress levels.
- Communicate if you are feeling tired, hungry, or stressed about another deadline that may be distracting you.
- Verbalize your shared goal of working together to find a solution you both will feel satisfied with. We often need to be reminded of the bigger picture to help give us strength and hope to keep going.
When soothing techniques are absent or fail, the alarm reaction in the body usually reaches a critical peak and flooding completely takes over. This reaction shuts down the frontal cortex area of the brain — precisely the part we need to navigate complex arguments and process theoretical planning.
It’s at this point the Gottmans recommend a hard reset. Take a 15-minute break to do something to calm your body and get back to a healthy equilibrium — go for a walk or a run, do dishes, play video games, do yoga, pray — before attempting to talk to each other again. (And no, you are not allowed to use this time to brood over a brutal comeback! That may make for a satisfying fantasy, but it’ll keep you flooded, and will defeat the goal of communication.)
Conflict is inevitable in marriage because each person comes with their own background, history, beliefs, and values. Even with significant overlap there will always be friction. This friction itself isn’t bad. It offers us the chance to grow. As the Bible says, “As iron is sharpened by iron, so one person sharpens another.”
We don’t get sharper without friction and conflict. But this dissonance doesn’t have to become a constant source of stress if we can maintain a healthy dialogue that evolves over time.