Cooling Down Couple Fights

Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
August 10, 2016  | Last Updated: August 10, 2016


Here’s another study showing that mindfulness — this time during couple fights — can make your life easier and happier. 

As we all know, just talking about a fight from the past can set you up for another fight, retriggering its emotions. 


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For the study, researchers observed 88 romantic couples as they discussed a conflict in their relationship. Before and after the discussion, the couples gave samples of their saliva, which contain levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. 

The researchers also asked each partner questions intended to measure their ability to notice and accept their own moment-by-moment thoughts, feelings, and sensations. 

Not surprisingly, cortisol levels generally spiked during talk. But they came down more quickly in people who scored better on the mindfulness questions. For example, these people would agree with the statement, “I was aware of my thoughts and feelings without over-identifying with them.”

Family and marriage counsellor Linda Graham, the author of “Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being,” coaches her clients on mindfulness, “usually without even using the word,” she writes.

One thing you can do is ask yourself, “What am I feeling now physically?” If you stop haranguing your partner, you might notice that your chest is tight and you’re breathing quickly. Stop and breathe more slowly. 

If you’ve gotten tied up in details about an event, you can save yourself stress by asking yourself, “What am I feeling emotionally?” 

You can be curious about your thoughts and feelings without agreeing with those thoughts. Anger doesn’t mean your partner did something wrong. You may also realize that you’re sad or frightened rather than angry. Or vice versa.

Simply noticing those sensations and emotions can calm you down.

Ideally, your partner will do the same. Then you can each tell each other what you noticed.

People may get different benefits out of this process. If you tend to dwell on your emotions, you’ll benefit from adopting a compassionate but detached stance towards yourself — letting thoughts and emotions enter and leave your mind without further analysis or justification. Women are more likely to brood — psychologists call this rumination — and ultimately become depressed. 


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On the other hand, some people, typically men, have trouble even knowing what they are feeling. They distract themselves, surfing the internet or watching porn. They think that brooders are wallowing drama queens. The brooders think the distractors are un-insightful avoiders. Judgments fly. 

Just as a thought experiment, accept that your husband is going to watch a movie rather than discuss overdue bills. Why might that be the very best thing for him in this moment? Maybe because he’s scared. He needs time to calm down before he can even think about finances. 

Now, just as a thought experiment, accept that you have a lot of intense and unnecessary feelings about letting a bill go unpaid another week. 

The stories we tell ourselves about our lives shape our happiness. Your story might be that your husband is neglecting the bills because he doesn’t love you enough to take care of you. 

When your usual story is making you unhappy, try making it less powerful. You can regard it as a dream. “See it as a dream, not solid, and see if you can come out of the dream to the physical reality of the world around you in this moment. What sensations are happening right now, as opposed to in this dream?” writes Leo Babauta, author of the blog Zen Habits

You can choose not to act on the story: “Just sit with the story, notice how it’s making you feel, notice the physical sensations in your body.” 

You might sit and watch the movie with him, and ask him about his feelings later.    

When you are listening to your partner, adopt a stance of curiosity and kindness, as if you were a well-intentioned friend. If all is going well you will both begin to make more eye contact, and even smile or joke. Much research suggests that all couples have unsolvable problems — but they can stay together happily if they find ways to make conflict less stressful. 

Paying the bill in the next hour may not be the only solution. Maybe you really just want to feel safe. You want to feel that you and your husband are a good team. 

Another story you can tell is that you care more about finances and you’d like to take on managing bills. Maybe he’ll agree and you’ll find some clever ways to cut costs. Your relieved and grateful husband might start doing laundry. You’ll be happier and more peaceful, even if money remains tight. 


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