“I’ve never gotten into an argument or fight with a significant other,” said no one ever. We fight, we argue, we have disagreements, or we butt heads. However you choose to say it, we all have conflicts with our partners. Even as you read this, you maybe be recalling a recent argument with your husband, something that your girlfriend did that pushed your buttons, or a memorable blowout with a past partner. The scene is vivid, whether the fight was “big” or “small.”
It can start with:
“I’ve asked you a million times not to leave your towel on the bathroom floor; why is it so hard for you to hang it up, or throw it in the hamper…”
“You’re such a neat freak…you need to calm down. I’ll pick up the towel in a second, it’s not that big of a deal…”
“I’m tired of spending the holidays with your parents. They’re just too much. Why can’t we just do something with friends…”
“I can’t believe you just said that…what did my parents ever do to you?”
But it often spirals, and it spirals fast. Next thing you know, a small tiff about a towel on the floor has led to how your partner embarrassed you at the party last weekend, and then to how he or she never pays attention to what you need. It escalates, you’re yelling, bringing up ghosts of conflicts past that have absolutely nothing to do with what was originally going on. You’ve both logically and sometimes rationally left the conversation, as your emotional mind takes over. You’re yelling, pacing, crossing your arms, rolling your eyes. Maybe the issue resolves, and you find an understanding with one another. Or one person or both shut down the conversation, and it persists for hours, sometimes days.
After conflict—whether it’s a few hours later or the next day—you experience what I like to call a “fight hangover.” This is the point during which the fight feels like a distant memory, or you feel totally drained. It’s when we find ourselves wondering “Did I really say that to him?” “I should say sorry…I didn’t mean to call him that.” We experience regret and remorse, wondering why the fight happened and why we’ve been constantly arguing with our partner. We wish we could take it back.
But what if we engaged in conflict in a more mindful state? How could that shift the way we fight, and the consequences thereafter?
The Anatomy of a Fight: The What and Why of Conflict
There is not one relationship that is impervious to conflict. We all argue, we all disagree. With our families, friends, and most often, our partners.
Conflict is unavoidable, and maybe one of the few things in life we can predict.
The part we tend to focus on about conflict is WHAT we fight about. You can find a bunch of articles and other resources that focus on the things we fight about most (everything AND nothing). So, it makes sense that we as well often ruminate around all the “what’s” of our disagreements.
Looking at the “what’s” is useful, as we can use the “what’s” of a fight to help identify the things that may trigger certain thoughts, feelings, and memories.
For example, perhaps you notice that you often find yourself fighting about household responsibilities with your partner. On one hand, this could be addressing more innocuous cleanliness needs or preferences, but on the other hand this “what” can be signaling to you that how your partner treats your shared home is bringing up memories of growing up with having to share a room with a sibling who did not respect your space.
This “what” could have an even bigger, perhaps even more trauma-oriented root. Maybe you had neglectful parents that you grew up with who did not nurture and maintain a clean and healthy environment around you. This is where the “why’s” of our conflicts come into play.
The roots of the “what’s” of our fights alert us to why we fight.
Let’s go back to the example of fighting about household responsibilities. We often consider the “why’s” of conflicts on a very surface level:
“Oh, we argue about chores because she’s lazier and I have a ‘type-A’ personality…”
“I just get annoyed because I have to show him how to do everything…”
While these are completely valid and may help us understand our fights a little bit more, the truth about the “why’s” of our fights is this: We fight because a personal need of ours is not being met.
In the context of arguments regarding household chores, the underlying “why” could perhaps be not feeling a sense of safety in one’s own home (need for safety), or maybe feeling a lack of control of our space which leaves us feeling anxious and helpless (need for control).
Therefore, both the “what’s” and “why’s” of conflict have an immensely critical purpose to understanding our patterns, triggers, and needs. But, mulling over only the what’s and why’s in our conflicts is not sufficient enough to improve the frequency or intensity of fights, or how we communicate with our partners.
We have to shine the spotlight not just on the “what’s” and “why’s,” but also the HOW.
The Heart of Conflict: The “How”
The “how’s” of conflict have really come into conversation in the past decade, as much research, such as 2010 published in the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy; Gottman Institute findings, has shown that it’s not if we fight, but how we fight that shapes the trajectory of our relationships. I would add that it is not just about what or why we fight, but rather how we fight.
How we as individuals–and in turn as a couple–approach our conflicts?
Let’s focus on the state within which we enter the conflict. My goal is to discuss and provide tools on how you and your partner can begin to practice bringing a mindful and aware version of yourselves to any conflict you may have.
Because we can intrinsically change the version of ourselves that we bring to the fight. And this will make ALL the difference.
How we fight can be looked at in a variety of ways:
-Active listening skills
And so on…
The Emotional Brain: The Default State of Conflict
When we’re in intense conflict, our logical and rational mind often shuts off, i.e. it “leaves the conversation.” Physiologically, this part of our brain is the neocortex, and when we are in high conflict or distress, our neocortex shuts off in favor of our emotional mind—or our amygdala. The amygdala is indicated when we feel threatened and are experiencing intense emotions, initiating our fight/flight/freeze/fawn. Makes sense that one of the most triggering events for the amygdala is conflict. This is why we get defensive, say things we don’t mean, and our bodies get tense. Our brain is trying to protect us. Of course, this protective survival mechanism is critical, but as cognitive and emotional beings, this mechanism does not quite match up with what we actually need when we are faced with conflict in our intimate relationships. What we actually need is to keep our neocortex online.
The Role of the Neocortex
The neocortex is the part of our brain in charge of higher-order brain functions, including language, perception, spatial reasoning, and cognitions. More specifically, the part of the neocortex we are concerned with is the prefrontal cortex, which houses our executive functions. These functions include decision making, utilizing logic and reason, problem-solving, and self-control. Most importantly, the prefrontal cortex is our “calm down” brain.
Undoubtedly, these abilities are critical to our capacity to interact with others and resolve issues. And yet, during the conflict, we lose our connection to our prefrontal cortex, as the amygdala steps in. And so, the yelling, arguing, invalidating, and disconnection with your partner ensues…
Instead of allowing ourselves to enter into a purely emotional brain activated state, we need to make a conscious decision to keep our prefrontal cortex in play.
Naturally, your emotional mind will come online during the conflict—as we need access to our emotions to understand ourselves and navigate our needs. The point is not to shut this process down, but to rather have your emotional mind and logical mind speak to one another. This will allow for the prefrontal cortex to help you to stay calm and connected to yourself—and therefore your partner—in times of distress.
What will you notice if you begin to practice keeping your prefrontal cortex online while also acknowledging and validating your emotional needs during the conflict?
Just a few of the positive things that can come out of this practice include:
-A deeper ability to self-soothe when active, which will translate to how you can help soother your partner
-Less of saying what you didn’t really mean, more of saying what you do mean
-Improved ability to communicate what you need from your partner
-Increased listening skills and ability to understand your partner’s need
-You begin to validate both yourself and your partner
-Less severe or complete removal of “fight hangovers”
-Conflicts transform into events that fortify your relationship
-Less fighting, more talking
-Ability to stay present
And the list goes on!
What if I said that you have the ability to start this practice for you and your partner right now? Because we all have the ability to harness the powers of our prefrontal cortex, even during the most difficult of times. It starts with awareness and conversation, and you’ve already begun that by reading this blog!
So, let’s get more practical and talk about ways you and your partner can begin to practice exercising your prefrontal muscle.
Be Here… How?
The process of keeping our neocortex or prefrontal cortex online is all about creating a practice of mindfulness (awareness or presence, your choice!) and connection on both an individual and couple level.
Mindfulness has been the big buzzword for some time (you can read more about it in my previous blog ). It is the practice of focusing and refocusing one’s awareness of the present moment. The key is refocusing: We cannot shut down our thoughts and feelings, but we can acknowledge and validate them then come back to ourselves, to the present, to our mind, and to our body. And ultimately, back to our partners.
We must remind ourselves that presence is not only meant for the “good” moments in our lives but also the “bad” or difficult ones as well. Like I listed previously, being present and aware through utilizing our calm mind in the difficult moments can transform how we fight.
Where do I begin?
An important starting place is to have conversations about how to keep our prefrontal cortex/calm brain activated through practices of mindfulness/ awareness/presence) and how you would like to utilize it in conflict. The following is a guideline for how you can start these conversations and practices:
1) Bring up the idea when things are “good”:
Talk about introducing more awareness into your relationship when things are calm, not when you’re in the middle of a heated conversation or already fighting. While you two are enjoying cooking together or watching your favorite show, practice mindfulness by being aware of the present moment. Pay attention and name things you are feeling, seeing, or touching. We listen and process best when our prefrontal cortex is active!
2) Layout a mission statement and define your goals:
Acknowledge and agree that you both want to approach your interactions and conflicts in a more mindful and aware state. That is your mission statement! Feel free to write this down in a shared or individual space (notebook, whiteboard, etc.) if it helps you feel more accountable. Next, define your goals. What are you hoping to gain (as a couple and individually) by being more mindful?
“My goal is to become better at validating my partner’s emotions and needs.”
“My goal is to be more attuned to my body so that I know when I’m really activated.”
3) Identify when and where you will practice mindfulness:
Once you have your shared mission statement and goals ready to go, start to brainstorm and outline ways in which you will individually and together practice mindfulness. It’s key to remember to not only practice mindfulness during the conflict but in all realms of your relationship!
Another great exercise for bringing more mindfulness and awareness into your relationship and its conflicts is engaging in connection/reconnection exercises that incorporate a mindfulness practice. This can be any mindfulness practice that you and your partner can engage in together at the start of your day or right when you see each other.
Reconnection exercises can include:
-Starting your first five minutes of interaction with physical connection—cuddling, hugging, holding hands, and taking a walk
-Doing a mindful breathing exercise together (you can find exercises—shorter or longer, whatever your time may allow—all over YouTube as well as apps including Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer!)
-Having a cup of tea or other drink of choice and taking turns talking about your high and low of your day; this could include incorporating a practice of validating your partner as they are speaking.
I hope this blog will inspire you to infuse your entire relationship with more awareness and presence. The information and practices of mindfulness should not be limited to your conflicts.
The hardest part is being aware of being aware. Practice self-talk around mindfulness, as well as continuous conversations with your partner. Stay self-compassionate: This stuff is hard. Do not expect this to be an overnight process. Mindful awareness takes practice, a side of more practice, and a sprinkle of even more practice. Have compassion for both yourself and your partner as you navigate your relationSHIP to calm waters (see what I did there?). It’s also a great idea to adopt an individual mindfulness practice. When you are holistically in tune with your own needs, thoughts, and emotions, you will in turn be better at being attuned to those of your partner.
About the Author
Cindy is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist under the supervision of Dr. Menije, a licensed psychologist, in private practice in Los Angeles, CA. When she works with her clients individually or as couples, the goal is to help you turn your life around and create the one you are meant to live. Cindy helps her clients turn their disconnection to the connection so that they can feel the true confidence, empowerment, and acceptance they deserve. The practice is currently accepting new clients and offers online therapy.