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To Fight, or Not To Fight. How To Not Argue With Your Partner.

I often get clients who ask "How do I not get so upset and argue with my partner?" I am not a couples counselor by specialty, although there is one strategy I recommend based off anxiety theory. When you are speaking with another person, be it your spouse, relative or friend, we may sometimes end up moving from a discussion or debate into an argument. You can tell when this is happening if you notice any of the following: voices begin to become louder, you make hurtful statements or begin to swear more often, you lean into the other person (which can be intimidating or threatening to the other person), your fists become clenched, your jaw becomes clenched, you experience any physical signs of anxiety (sweat, chills, heart rate increases, breathing rapid, etc.), or you are simply arguing but no longer about any particular point.

At this point you have become dysregulated, your mind has determined you are being threatened, it falsely determines it is a threat to your actual life and your mind has triggered the release of hormones and chemicals (norepinephrine, adrenaline, cortisol, etc.) to send you into fight or flight mode. As discussed in previous posts, once you are in anxiety mode your only options are fight, flee, or if you become too overwhelmed, freeze. You are at a point where emotion is driving the car and logic is asleep in the back seat; the discussion has ended and nothing can be gained. In this state your mind and body simply tell you to attack or just walk away and ignore, neither appropriate or useful options to debate your point. You become so overwhelmed with the fight or flight response you can no longer truly hear and take in the other person's words or logic because you are now in predator and prey mode.

The best thing that can happen is if both individuals are able to regulate their nervous system so it shifts back to the calm parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) side of the central nervous system to trigger the fight or flight response in the body to begin to rev down. The best way to ensure you can remember to do this is to keep the regulating activity short so the conversation may continue in a reasonable amount of time for both individuals, and to have an understanding in place of a sign, object, or statement that both people know represents the need for a regulation break. Below are the suggested steps for this process, and are just a suggestion not a definitive plan you must follow:

1) Ensure both individuals understand what anxiety is at least on a basic level. That it is a survival response and corners you into only being able to choose fight or flight. You can do this by watching short videos online that are everywhere for free or use any of the videos or articles on this site that describe where anxiety comes from and what it means.

2) Identify a word, hand gesture, or even an object you keep in the living room that you can present during an argument that both people understand the meaning of. The meaning being that both individuals agree to stop and allow the individual a predetermined amount of time to walk away and regulate before returning to the discussion.

3) Write down or at minimum discuss what the object means, how much time the person will have before the other person waiting is allowed to approach them again, and any other details you feel are relevant.

4) Get a timer of some sort to ensure the individual sticks to the 2, 3, or 5 minute breaks without having to focus any attention on watching the clock.

5) After starting timer, use deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques to trigger the nervous system to shift from the activated PNS to the calmer sympathetic nervous system (SNS). This will slow breathing and heart rate and relax muscles, triggering the body and mind to know you are safe and can calm. I recommend starting with a simple breathing and muscle relaxation exercise, such as the one described HERE.

6) After regulating just relax and continue to breathe. When the time is up, take a big breath in and shrug your shoulders up towards your ears; hold them there and hold the big breath in. Then after 2-3 seconds release the breath and drop your shoulders, then exit the room and head back out to the other individual.

7) Now continue your conversation in a calm body and repeat as often as you must to continue to be able to communicate in an appropriate and effective manner.

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