A few weeks ago I announced on our facebook page that I was starting a new book, The Science of Trust, by Dr. John Gottman. Dr. Gottman is at the forefront of understanding the nuances of couple relationships. His research is fascinating so I thought I would share a tidbit with all of you. He measures couples physical responses when they are interacting in both positive and negative ways. Men and women are not equal when it comes to discussing difficult issues. Women are more likely to bring issues up and to do it using harsh start-up, where she criticizes her partner. Men are more likely than women to respond by stonewalling, where he emotionally and sometimes physically withdraws from the interaction. I’m sure men and women alike can relate to this experience. When interactions are characterized by harsh start-up and stonewalling partners are likely to become emotionally flooded, but men tend to become flooded faster and stay flooded longer. Hence the intense need to get away from the situation. When flooding happens the part of the brain that helps us to make rationale decisions stops functioning and our more primitive sides take over – this is why people do and say things they wouldn’t normally and this has the potential to create hurt and conflict beyond what the original issue was about.
So what can help when this happens?
Take a break. I’m sure everyone has heard of this strategy, but Dr. Gottman’s research shows there are important things that need to happen during this break in order to make it more likely that a couple can resume the discussion in a more helpful way. First the break needs to be long enough to allow both people’s bodies to clear the adrenaline horomones out of their blood and since this happens slower in men, he suggests 20 minutes is a safe time. Second, both people need to trust that their partner will come back to discuss the matter. I think this is especially important for women and a reason why they seem to not be able to stop and leave their male partners to calm down – they are afraid he will not want to resume the conversation and with good reason as many men having power do refuse. Third, it is important to do things that will calm your brain and body down during that time. If you just go to the other room and start ruminating over what happened (women are more likely to do this) your body is more likely to stay flooded. Doing anything that actively gets your mind or body or both involved in another activity will be helpful such as reading a magazine, going for a walk, meditation, or my favorite Sudoku. This is called self-soothing and if you need to do this 5 times in order to work an issue out – don’t worry in the long run your body will learn to sooth itself faster and it will take less time with practice.
Note: Content from this post was adapted from the following reference: Gottman, J. M. (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. New York, NY: Norton.