How you start speaking with your partner is important

if the conversation starts in a harsh tone, or with criticism, or even with ‘you’ statements which tend to be associated with allocating blame; then it’s probably predictable that the conversation is not going to end up in a good place.

Our fight or flight system kicks into gear very quickly

Our emotional system, or if you like the fight, flight or freeze response kicks into gear very quickly. There is a space in our brain called the amygdala which is a grape-sized system in the centre of our head that monitors any physical or emotional threat. When we are being triggered by our partner, it is likely that our fight and flight responses kicking into gear with heart rate up over 100 bpm, adrenaline and cortisol being released, our blood pressure increasing and blood being directed to major muscle groups and away from our stomach which may have been digesting food.

Conflict is an ordinary part of all intimate relationships. It’s how we handle it that’s important.

It is estimated that even masters of relationships are in conflict about 40% of the time. That doesn’t mean you’re necessarily having an argument, it can be as simple as you prefer Weet-Bix, they prefer cornflakes. Technically that’s conflict. However masters of relationship can also have quite strong arguments, it’s not the absence of arguments, it is the nature of how we go about that and what is happening for us when we are engaged in conflict. In the example I was talking about in the previous paragraph, we see where there is what we call diffuse physiological arousal. In this state what happens is that we forget to breathe, or breathe shallowly.

A pulse oximeter detects diffuse physiological arousal. eg. being worked up or slowly boiling

I use a pulse oximeter in couples counselling which actually attracts the heart rate and the oxygen saturation in the blood. What happens in diffuse physiological arousal is at our heart rate goes up over 100 bpm, our oxygen drops below 96% in our blood and therefore we become less smart because our brains getting less oxygen. So the situation is we are worked up, we are less smart, and yet like a bull at the gate we can be trying to solve the problem in front of us when in fact we are in a state to be trying to solve problems, what we need to know is actually settle, breathe, walk away and take some time out until we are in a better state to actually deal with what we need to deal with.

This is where a counsellor comes in handy to work couples through the conflict space

The Gottman-Rappaport intervention is something I use with couples. It draws on practices used in international diplomacy which really foster hearing and understanding what the other person’s perspective is, and acknowledging, even if you don’t agree with it. There’s more to it than that and I won’t go through the specific instructions for the listener and the specific instructions for the speaker, but needless to say you familiar with how quickly people can be triggered, and so the role of the therapist is to be there as the two people are speaking one to the other. It is important in therapy that the couple listens just speaking to the therapist as if the conversation is going through therapist, we actually get people to face each other so the therapist is there but this is something that is really happening and people working on together in a constructive way.

In conflict, we either tend to run away and avoid it, or we try to solve it then and there even if we fail.

We actually need to be able to work with people in conflict when they are starting to get aroused rather than just having a tame session, everybody’s ‘happy’but then things, of course, blow up later during the week. So we actually need to do the work is what I’m saying and good therapy with people that know what they’re doing actually does make a difference. If you have a situation where you have only spoken and repeated your problems at therapy, and then gone away feeling worse, then that’s probably not good therapy. So don’t give up on the process, there is good therapy out there. And we would be happy to help.