Marital Conflict: Managing Your Emotional Brain to Improve Your Marriage

Marital Conflict: Managing Your Emotional Brain to Improve Your Marriage

Marriage couple learning how to manage conflict

I hear it all the time, “We were good most of the week, something was said and we blew up on each other,” or “We ended up not talking for 2-3 days.” It’s in those moments couples feel like they don’t have control of what happens.

And they’re partly right. Our emotional brain heavily influences our consciousness. The arguing, the silence, the feeling of panic, the increased heart rate, the seemingly “irrational” behavior is a response to your emotional brain.

The Amygdala: Always On Guard

The amygdala, the center of your emotional brain, works outside of your awareness. It acts as a guard, scanning for signs of danger. Its the ally you want in your corner if things get out of hand. Its the friend that makes sure a creep doesn’t slip something in your drink.

The amygdala looks for the negative. For good reason. If you’re bike riding through the woods, and there’s a long black stick in the middle of the trail, the amgydala ramps up. Sensing threat, it sends a distress signal to the entire brain.

Danger!

Snake!

Danger!

Receiving the message, your brain and body are provoked to respond. Your heart speeds up, muscles tense, and fight-flight-freeze is activated. If you’re like me, you’re taking flight the other way until you’re clear of danger.

You may freeze, not sure what to do.

Someone else may see it as a challenge, and fight, by trying to kill it or finding a way to get around it. Then again, it’s quite possible it was only a stick, not a snake.

But your amgydala’s job isn’t to be right, it’s to protect you from danger. I guess it goes without saying – sometimes – it’ll be wrong. Better safe than sorry is its motto.

Maybe you’re not riding a bike trail, though.

Maybe you just got home and your partner looks up with a disapproving, frustrated look. Your amygdala evaluating this situation in terms of threat senses danger. It sends the distress signal. And before you have time to think, you blurt out, “WHAT now, I can’t get halfway in the door and you’re already looking at me like I did something wrong.”

And just like that, the evening unfolds with arguing or icy silence.

Scanning facial expressions, body language, volume, and tone, your amygdala judges when there’s an emotional threat. If threatening enough, it sets in motion the brain and body, well before you consciously realize what’s happening. Rational thought fails. You end up impulsively reacting, to the detriment of the relationship.

Managing the “In-between” Emotions

It’s easy for partners to feel out of control when their reactions to each other are automatic. Improving your response to the amygdala’s distress signal, you can consciously choose a better way of responding.

As important as the amygdala is, criticism (fight), defensiveness (flight) and silence (freeze) are common results. Dealing with your feelings helps manage the in-between emotions of you and your partner. Calming the amygdala is the goal, and below are three ways to start building that skill. You don’t have to be a hostage to your reactivity.

  1. Identify your feelings. Being aware of your emotions you observe what feelings are rising and fading. It’s kinda like taking a step back and observing yourself. You may quickly notice an obvious emotion like anger. But then a less obvious emotion like exhaustion. For example, anger at your partner may be motivated by the feeling of exhaustion that the relationship is in a standstill.
  2. Consider your partner’s feelings. Showing compassion for your partner softens how you respond to them. Try to imagine, even in a small way, the painful feelings they’re experiencing. Their feelings are their reality. Try to accept it even if you don’t agree with it.
  3. Mindful pause. Pausing a few seconds before responding calms your emotional brain. It sets in motion the more “reasonable” parts of your brain that offer a clearer understanding (of your partner’s position). Slowing your response system regulates your emotions to make better choices. You respond differently. Mindfully responding instead of immediately reacting gets better results.

Your amygdala is going to do its job and set off a reaction. Sometimes an unhealthy one.  Congratulations, you’re human. But taking an active approach to thoughtfully responding helps you manage conflict differently.

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