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Help For High Conflict Couples
Suzanne Burger, PsyD

Couples who argue regularly and intensely yet profess ongoing love sometimes describe themselves as experiencing two distinct marriages. One, formed around connection and engagement, is a place where both partners view the other as a friend, a source of comfort and interest. In contrast, these same couples when struggling in the alternate marital state, approach each other with suspicion and perceived threat. John Gottman, a noted marriage researcher, likens couples in the first condition to children who greet new input with a “what’s this?” curiosity and openness. He notes that couples under the second set of conditions approach each other with a “what the hell is this?” reactivity and fear. On a good day, a wife or husband hears common communications like “you’re late” as an expression of concern or sympathy. On a bad day, the same expression feels like an accusation or challenge. As Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist puts it, “our nervous system reacts differently to the same stimulus, depending on our psychological state.” Fortunately, spouses can learn to increase awareness of their triggers, reduce their sense of threat, and better maintain feeling safe and connected within their marriage.

People all have an internal scanner –always set to “on” - checking the environment to answer the basic questions: “safe or harmful?” and “friend or foe?” Even lovers or spouses are subjected to this rapid and largely unconscious scan. When the scanner sounds the alarm, all systems in the body get set to prepare for fight or flight. While this process has evolved as a protective and adaptive response to danger, it often becomes problematic when the alarm is tripped in intimate relationships. Then, regardless of whether the threat is externally real or merely internally perceived, sensations, feelings and thoughts about a partner can change abruptly.

It is impossible to take in new information or maintain a capacity for empathy when in such a state of arousal or, diffuse physiological arousal (DPA) as coined by Dr. Gottman. In these activated states, partners may lose the ability to reason and to feel connected. This helps explain why many couples that have highly emotional arguments become so distressed. At a basic physiological level, the lover rapidly becomes the enemy.  For some individuals who have suffered from severe trauma in their childhood, a third response, the “freeze state” or immobilization takes hold as the sole means of survival.  Spouses of such individuals will feel their partner becoming unreachable and may escalate the negative exchange as a desperate attempt to connect, albeit in a highly negative way.

Fortunately, couples can learn to recognize and work with these rapid and nearly automatic responses and counter them. Here follows some suggestions for working on self-regulation. The first step for partners, particularly those prone to quick and explosive outbursts, is to become better acquainted with their own physiology and sensations. They can note whether they are getting hot, their breath is quickening, their heart is pumping, their voice is growing loud and strident. It is essential to identify these signs of activation in their early stages.  Think of it as seeing steam arising from a kettle before the whistle blows and turning down the heat. At this point, it’s still possible to shift out of this early warning state and into a state that is self-regulating.  If both parties can recapture a feeling of genuine concern and curiosity about one another, they can resume a productive conversation.

But it’s equally essential to know how to recover after the whistle has blown, that is, when DPA has taken over. At this point, the work is to return to a steady state.
Some of the most helpful tools for self-soothing at such times include:
-slow, steady breathing
-progressive muscle relaxation
-physical exercise as a means of expending pent up energy
-visualization of a safe and comforting place such as a beach or lake scene or fluffy clouds
-prayer or meditation
-distraction through social engagement with other family members or friends (not to be used as an opportunity to rehash the argument or gripe about the spouse)
-distraction through  engagement in work, play or hobbies

What all of these share in common is the need to put on the brakes, that is, to disengage from the spouse, even if only for a few moments. Research indicates that once in the clutches of flight/fight/freeze, men in particular require longer –a minimum of twenty minutes - to return to a resting state.

Effective couples can also enlist each other’s support during the early moments of distress, prior to the gasket blowing. In a study of heterosexual couples, Gottman’s research has identified that couples with higher levels of marital satisfaction include a husband who responds to mild irritation or complaining from his wife by offering understanding, accepting his wife’s influence, or diffusing the low-grade discord.
Couples can learn to react to small disruptions in their connection and empathy by offering each other comfort, compassion, distraction or humor.

Imagine the following scenario: Maddie returns home late from a harrowing day at her legal practice only to find the kids still eating dinner and the sink full of dishes. She frowns and, turning to her husband Daniel, lashes out with “this is what I get to come home to? You expect me to clean this all up?”

Under circumstances in which Daniel feels attacked, he is either going to respond defensively, justifying the many difficulties he has encountered in his day or reactively, accusing Janice of unreasonable expectations.  Or he may resort to name-calling or retreat into the den and drown out Maddie’s complaints with the sounds of the tv. This would be the fight or flight system at work and if Daniel’s heart rate were monitored it would likely be spiking over 100 beats per minute. If this script is a familiar one and Daniel has experienced early trauma or if this initial affront is the familiar first act in an epic and often repeated fight, he may go into freeze mode. In such case, his

Fortunately, couples have more options. If Maddie and Daniel have built a strong foundation of communication, fondness and compassion, Daniel might receive Maddie’s remarks with curiosity or even recognition. If he can experience her outburst as an expression of her exhaustion and frustration and not feel rebuked or attacked, he can remain grounded and open. From this position he might respond with “tough day?” or “why don’t you go run yourself a bath while I get the kids and the dishes squared away?” or  “why don’t we set the kids up with a movie and take a short walk; it’s a lovely evening?” Needless to say, the couple in this latter example is going to have a much more satisfying relationship.

While we want to love our partners, our evolutionary development has us primed for war. After all, we evolved into loving beings long after learning the basic skills of survival. Luckily, we can learn to reign in our troops and call upon our inner resources such as our capacity for self-regulation, along with our mediators and consensus-builders.

Gottman, John, and Silver, Nan (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Porges, Stephen W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. New York: Norton & Company.

Tatkin, Stan (2011). Wired for Love. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Books.

Suzanne Burger, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Westchester County. She is the author of Steering Your Marriage: A Guide to Navigating the Road Together (2012).

Suzanne Burger's website: http://drsburger.com/
Disclaimer: Although Dr. Burger is a member of the Westchester County Psychological Association (WCPA,) the views in this article are her and not the views of WCPA.
Statements contained in the authored articles on the Westchester County Psychological Association (WCPA) website are the personal views of the authors and do not constitute WCPA policy unless so indicated. The information in the articles on the WCPA website is for educational purposes only. The information contained in the articles is not intended for diagnosis, psychological advice or medical advice.  It is not intended to be treatment and is not a replacement for psychotherapy. If you are in need of psychological treatment, you can utilize our clinician database which can be accessed by clicking on the link, "Find a Psychologist." WCPA and its directors and employees are not liable for any damages resulting from the utilization of information contained in articles posted on the WCPA website.



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