Couples: How to Regulate Yourself During Difficult Conversations

Sharing your life with someone means having open and honest conversations, even when those conversations are difficult.

During hard conversations, it’s common for many people to become triggered by something their partner has said. Calm one moment, and seemingly in the next, they are thrown into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, their brain sensing danger. Before they know it, they become “flooded,” and the most primitive part of their brain activates and kicks into survival mode. From here, the conversation usually escalates or devolves because speaking calmly and rationally or taking in information is virtually impossible when your entire body is in survival mode.

However, there are things we can do during difficult conversations to regulate our emotional reactivity and move back to a state where we can be responsive instead.

The first step is to recognize the signs that you are becoming flooded. A rise in your heart rate, a change in your breathing, nausea, or feeling the urge to escape, lash out, or shut down, are all signs you might be flooded.

Take a Time-Out

It is essential to take a time-out. If your disagreement has escalated to the extent that one or both of you are feeling flooded, it is crucial to take a break to self-soothe. Take about 30 minutes, making sure to leave the argument behind. You cannot calm yourself if you continue to play out the argument in your head.

Pause and Breath

As soon as you recognize you are feeling triggered, pause and take a few slow, deep breaths. While deep breathing may seem like a cliche, it is a potent tool that helps us get out of “fight. flight, or freeze” mode and into a more relaxed state. When we breathe slowly and deeply, it sends a signal to our brain that we are out of danger.

Use Your Senses

Another effective way to regulate your emotions in the moment is to focus your attention on a physical sensation. For example, try taking a sip of water and concentrating on the sensation of drinking, or you try running your fingers along the seam of the sofa cushion. Or take time to focus on your surroundings, listing five things you see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can touch.

Use Tools that Work For You

You likely have ways to relax and calm yourself already at your disposal, such as taking a shower, going for a jog, listening to music, or reading. Focusing on something you enjoy and know tends to calm you down.

Listen Fully

It is so common in a conversation to listen to form a response. But when we do this, it is far easier to misunderstand what the other person is saying. When you return to the conversation, focus on listening to understand, not form a response.

Be curious. Avoid making assumptions and instead focus on understanding your partner’s perspective. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Like you, they are probably trying their best and might also be triggered.

Difficult conversations are inevitable when you are in a relationship. But if you use these tips to regulate yourself, you can remain calm and communicate effectively with your partner.


How to Self-Regulate During a Difficult Conversation

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