Think about a time when you were with someone you care about and you became angry. We all have experienced it: where time seems to stand still, we are not thinking clearly, or seemingly not thinking at all. Some describe it as ‘going red’ or ‘blacking out.’ For many people, this is an overwhelming experience that either leads to shutting down or becoming reactive toward the other person. We may feel a range of emotions from anger and resentment to fear and sadness.

In writing this blog, I am reminded of a friend telling me about an emerging pattern of conflict with her partner. She went on to tell me that they used to have periods where they could work through issues, but lately, they struggled with their discussions spiraling into reactivity or withdrawal – their arguments became more about winners and losers, getting in the last word, being ‘right’, and ‘one-upping’ the destructive banter. She told me that she or her partner seem to snap into a fit of irritability without any warning. Other times, she went on to tell me, the opposite would occur – one or the other would shut down and have a difficult time responding to anything at all.

This is not an uncommon experience. In fact, all of us will experience emotional dysregulation in our relationships. Emotional dysregulation can be defined as a feeling of confusion, overwhelm, or extreme anger/irritability (although, it is often a mix of emotions that are being experienced, as we will discuss), which can create a sense of defensiveness within our bodies and minds. Through decades of research, we now know that emotional dysregulation tends to follow a predictable course in our brains, and that we can identify ways to slow down, and thereby, become more responsive to our partner.

In his book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work,” John Gottman talks about how the brain responds to feeling stressed or threatened. He writes how the brain literally floods and shuts down, making it very difficult to have a calm, rational response. In his research, he finds that men, in general, have a harder time calming down after an argument. It is true, however, that both male and female brains become dysregulated in the context of some type of ‘threat’ – emotional or physical.

In another book by Stan Tatkin, “Wired for Love,” he talks about how different parts of the brain are wired for love/connection, while other parts are wired to respond to perceived danger in the environment. His book discusses how the latter ‘takes over’ the former when a person perceives a threat in the environment, including nonverbal messages from one’s partner (e.g., facial expressions, tone of voice, body posture) and other signs of an impending conflict. And when these parts of the brain ‘take over’ to address the conflict, we tend to become emotionally dysregulated and flooded, making it very difficult to have a calm and assertive discussion.

There are several ways to achieve emotional regulation after an argument – or to stay emotionally regulated during one. One approach is to engage in self soothing. You can do this by mentally telling yourself to stay calm, reassuring yourself that things will be ok, or by doing a mental scan of your body and trying to let go of areas of tension. You can also do this by removing yourself from the situation – go to a quiet place and sit down, close your eyes, allow thoughts to pass through you, and settle into a meditation/mindfulness state where you are focusing on your breath. You can also ground yourself in the moment by focusing on the sensations around you, such as the sounds that you hear, the things you see, the sensations you feel. Try to identify what emotions you might be feeling ‘underneath’ the pain and anger (perhaps sadness, isolation, fear).

Additionally, if you are in an emotional place where you are receptive to another’s influence (not being too emotionally dysregulated), helping each other to self soothe can be a calming and connective experience. Try connecting and soothing each other with physical affection, small acts of kindness (bringing your partner tea, for example), eye gazing, and the use of mindful attention (attuning to your partner with all of your senses).

It can also be helpful to look at your own history and think about significant relationships and attachments in your past/present. Is there something about this conflict that is reminding you of a past attachment relationship? If so, what needs were going unmet back then, and how can you get these needs met now? Sometimes just having the awareness that your reactivity is stemming from somewhere else can help you to be more regulated in the present moment.

Couple’s therapy or individual therapy can also help you identify ways to stay emotionally regulated. Additionally, there are several books for couples, which focus on this topic:

  • The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver
  • Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help you Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship by Stan Tatkin
  • Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Sue Johnson

Remember that it is common for us to become dysregulated at various points in our relationships – our brains are wired for this and wired to protect our well-being. However, our brains are also wired to self soothe and be in connection with one another. To keep our brains more often in a state of calmness, it requires raising awareness of our emotion/thought patterns, practicing ways to slow down and self soothe, and engaging in soothing practices with those that we love and trust.

Aleisha Maunu, MA, LMFT, LAC, is a therapist who works with individuals, couples, families, and children/teens. Her areas of experience include adoption/attachment, substance abuse, and other family/couple concerns. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center in Denver, CO.

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by Aleisha Maunu, MA, LMFT, LAC