By Matt Lensing, MTI Contributor
On our wedding day my wife and I received the advice for a happy marriage to never go to bed angry. After nearly 15 years of marriage I adamantly disagree with that commonly recited line. Too often I forced resolutions to disagreements before I had time to process what occurred because I believed I was a bad husband if I didn’t solve the problem right away. Resisting the urge to jump into an argument allows better clarity to de-escalate or potentially avoid trivial arguments. The best methods I found to avoid my default emotionally charged response in an argument are:
- Stepping back from the situation
- Emotionally connecting with the other person
- Writing down what I am feeling and what the other person is likely feeling in the moment.
Stress in my Marriage
One such argument resulted from my response to a social gathering at our house. After a night of having friends and their kids over I withdrew from the conversation with the adults. My body language conveyed exhaustion and irritation. My wife asked me if I was having fun and I made a comment about the condition of the house and the noise from kids playing. I regretted the remark immediately since I knew she was looking forward to having people over, but my words already soured the evening. Tensions rose from there.
Personality tests reveal that I score high for introversion, so I know social situations have a draining effect on me. This explained my mood, but I made things worse by trying to solve the problem right then. I started by trying to take back what I said. When that didn’t work I started to rationalize my emotional state, which didn’t help either. Honestly, I can’t think of a time where I was ever successful to resolve a fight with my wife in the moment. The reason is human physiology, and specifically the part of the brain known as the amygdala.
College psychology courses and my Army career taught me about the body’s natural fight or flight response, which is activated by the amygdala. Articles about the amygdala’s role (https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/amygdala-hijack) reveal how this evolutionary development helps humans survive dangerous situations. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this same process the kept me vigilant on patrols in combat zones was also making it impossible to resolve arguments with my wife.
I failed to notice my physical responses to stress during arguments:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased respiration
- Avoiding eye contact with my wife
I was clearly in a heightened state of arousal similar to when the body prepares to engage an adversary. My efforts to diffuse the situation were futile. She didn’t want to talk about what happened. I grew more angry and try to deliver more evidence to support my viewpoint. Not surprisingly we went to bed angry.
The next day we avoided each other in the house and spoke minimally until eventually we had a conversation. The mood was less tense. We both agreed that in retrospect the event should not have escalated. I apologized for being inconsiderate with my comments, and she agreed her reactions were exaggerated. By trying to solve the argument in the moment I lost a night’s sleep, and a better part of the day replaying the event over and over in my head.
While I am fortunate that arguments are rare in my marriage, sadly this is not the first time this scene has played out in our marriage. Fixing my response to stress has been my greatest relationship and personal challenge. The harder I pushed my wife to resolve disagreements before going to bed the more she resisted. Eventually I learned to relent and journal about what I was feeling during the fight instead of forcing a settlement.
Journaling revealed insights into common themes from our arguments. One entry revealed that I had an argument with my wife when I wasn’t honest when she asked if we wanted to get together with friends. Even though I wasn’t feeling like having people over I agreed because I could tell she was excited to host. That night we had a fight because I was in a bad mood while we had friends over, and my attitude embarrassed her. The takeaway was that if I had declined the offer to have people over she may have been disappointed in the moment, but it could have avoid a larger argument that evening.
Another entry taught me that when we were in an argument I avoided looking my wife in the face as I felt my heart rate and blood pressure rise. Looking back on it I realized it was easier for me to stay angry with her by not making eye contact. Clearly I was not empathizing with her since I couldn’t look her in the eyes. Writing down my observations about my emotional state helped me when we would eventually discuss what happened.
After journaling and reading what I wrote I was able to more articulately describe the perceived problem, and how our viewpoints were not aligned in the moment. Writing down what I thought she was feeling also identified how my behavior was a catalyst to the disagreement. Reviewing the entries showed that I had fallen victim to my amygdala, which identified my wife as a threat when I felt disrespected.
My physical responses during those arguments were similar to when I faced other external threats. The amygdala triggers a chemical response designed to increase survivability in dangerous situations, so it was not surprising that I focused on finishing the fight instead of seeing things from my wife’s perspective. I was doing more damage to my relationship by not stepping back and trying to empathize.
Resolving an Argument Outside of Marriage
Reflecting on previous arguments paid off recently when I de-escalated a situation with a close family member. My extended family was in town and the house was packed with adults and children. I had just gone into the backyard after mopping up water in a bathroom caused by one of the kids. A family member confronted me about the lack of food, which in all the chaos had never been taken out of the fridge. I was taken aback by the comment and started to get angry, but stopped when I observed a disproportionately intense response from my brother. In that moment both our amygdalae were initiating the fight or flight response.
There was a momentary flash were I thought about telling him off for his nerve to yell at me in my house. Instead I responded, “you appear to be upset and I don’t think I can talk to you right no without saying something I’ll regret.” I went inside and pulled out left overs, delivered them outside. Then I left the situation to sit down and calm my breathing. After thinking about the situation I realized my response contributed to how my brother reacted. When I was questioned about food for the guests I got defensive, which almost led to an argument that would have been catastrophic for our relationship.
After about 20 minutes I felt I could talk rationally, so I went back and looked my brother in the eye and asked him to take a walk with me. I shared how my emotional response was triggered by his comments, and that it appeared that he was going to respond in kind. We resolved the issue that day, but I would not have been able to notice the stress indicators in myself or others if I had not worked on better approaches to resolving arguments with my wife.
On the range I manage stress to accurately hit targets when adrenaline is pumping and heart rate rises. The same physiological response occurs in stressful social situations as well, and I now apply techniques for a positive outcome:
- Avoid interactions when one or both parties are in the flight or flight response
- Step away from the situation
- Write down what you’re feeling in the moment
- Reflect on the situation and look at the other person’s perspective to reveal how your actions contribute to their response
- Acknowledge that you control your response even if your body is gearing up for a fight
I was not so contemplative in my younger years, and was often a hot head. My brain processed arguments as threats the same way it perceived physical danger. I feel foolish for the times I fell victim to my biological response instead of realizing my brain was preventing me from thinking rationally. Thankfully understanding human physiology and looking back on past arguments has improved the most important relationships in my life.
Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.
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