Pay attention to your body next time you and your spouse get into an argument. What is your physical reaction to marital conflict? In many marriages, verbal conflicts sometimes set off a fight-or-flight or faint-or-freeze response in one or both spouses.
These physical reactions are automatic. We don’t consciously choose to activate them. We do need to choose what we do about them. Launching into a physical fight over a verbal conflict isn’t acceptable or excusable. And running out on an argument, freezing up, and fainting won’t lead to a positive outcome.
When we are faced with physical danger, the automatic nature of these responses may protect us from harm. But when set off by a verbal conflict, these responses just complicate matters.
The fight-or-flight response pumps adrenaline into our bloodstream, speeds up our heart and readies us for action. In an instant, we are prepared to fight the attacker or run for our life.
The faint-or-freeze response stops us in our tracks. Fainting may be a human adaptation to fool a predator into thinking we’re dead. We see this in opossums, which are very effective at playing possum by feigning death when threatened. Freezing is standing motionless and can make us invisible to a predator.
These responses are triggered in the core of our brain and without conscious thought.
You can see how these responses are useful if you’re being physically threatened or stalked by a dangerous human or animal.
Unchecked, a fight-or-flight or freeze-or-faint response in marital conflict almost always leads to an unhappy ending. A flood of negative emotions takes over. One or both spouses become critical or defensive, or clam up.
In a verbal conflict, there is no physical danger. Instead of an automatic response, we need to see, listen, speak and reason. These functions take place in the frontal areas of our brain. Successfully managing verbal conflict depends on our ability to use these functions to reason and make decisions. Fighting, running, or shutting down tends to escalate verbal conflicts.
Couples who successfully manage conflict recognize that when tensions rise, taking a time-out helps to sustain a satisfying marriage. They use their time-outs to take a temporary break from the conflict, not from the relationship. Then they use this break to lower tension with activities that are soothing.
When you feel your physical tension rising in an argument, start calling a time-out. It works best when you call it on yourself. Telling your spouse to calm down or to stop overreacting is only going to add fuel to the fire.
Make a pact between the two of you to push the pause button on discussions. When the fight-or-flight response pushes at least one of you to a heart rate of at least 100 beats per minute, or the freeze-or-faint response triggers at least one of you to shut down — these can be your cues to call a time-out. To plan for using time-outs effectively, consider these tips:
Discuss the rules ahead of time. Before couples can successfully use time-outs to improve their conflict management, they need to give each other permission to use time-outs. Without an agreement to use time-outs, they can be misperceived as an attempt to avoid discussing issues, or as stonewalling.
Take at least a 20-minute break. On average, 20 minutes is the length of time needed to lower physical tension that triggers a fight-or-flight, or freeze-or-faint response. Allow for additional time, as needed. Some people unwind more slowly than others.
Learn how to self-soothe. For an effective time-out, spouses need to do something that gets their mind off the issue that triggered their automatic response. Soothing activities lower the heart rate and may include taking a walk, reading, listening to music, taking a warm bath or shower, praying or meditating. Couples usually do better when they spend this time apart — in separate rooms, at least.
Soothing activities lower the heart rate and include taking a walk, reading, listening to music, praying or meditating.
Close the loop. When taking a time-out from discussing a disagreement, agree to come back within 24 hours and revisit the disagreement. Just the act of putting off the discussion longer can raise tension for one or both spouses.
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”