Sometimes we get upset ― really, really, upset ― with our partner. The person who knows us best can push our buttons, after all. This can be destructive and leave us wondering how to stop fighting.

When we are upset, we are in no shape to problem-solve or communicate anything remotely worth communicating. But often communicating seems urgent. It is much, much better to learn to recognize what is happening and take some time away from our partner to calm down. Once we are calm and rational, we can have a more effective and rational – and loving – conversation. Stopping the cycle of fighting will benefit our partners, our relationships, and us. Recognizing the signs of being flooded is a great step in learning how to stop fighting.

Amygdala hijacking

Researchers have taken to referring to the state of emotional overwhelm as “amygdala hijacking.” This is because the amygdala, a tiny structure in the middle of our brains responsible for big feelings like anger and fear, takes control. When the amygdala is in control, we do not have full access to our frontal lobes, the part of our brain responsible for impulse control and higher-order thinking. No wonder communicating in this state is such a mess!

Recognizing the signs

Maybe our legs are shaking (with fear) or our arms are trembling (with anger). Or we are insistent that our partner hear us out right now. Perhaps we have withdrawn into a shell, seemingly impervious to our partner’s upset.

No matter how differently it shows up on the outside, we are having a similar experience on the inside; even that seemingly unflappable partner is in distress. When we are flooded, our heart rate is probably about 100 beats per minute. Our blood pressure is elevated. We are sweating. Our breath is shallow and fast. The stress hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol are flowing through our bloodstream. We are experiencing a classic case of fight-flight-freeze.

Of course, our outward behavior is a reflection of our inner experience: fight  (I’m going to tell you everything right now, don’t walk away from me!); flight (I’ve got to get out of here!); or freeze (our partner wonders if we have cotton in our ears; maybe we cry.)

Make a pact

No good comes of continuing to dialogue, or trying to dialogue, when we are so upset. We will only hurt ourselves, and each other, by trying to see it through. The best practice is to

  1. First, go to our separate corners and focus on doing something else.
  2. And then, when we are calm, resume the conversation.

In order for this to work, we have to focus on something else. Tetris. Solitaire. Candy Crush. Yoga. A walk. Some breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation. EFT tapping. Gardening. Anything, so long as we are focused on the activity and not the fight, or our partner’s role in it.

The 20 minute pause

If we were thinking about how they “done me wrong,” we haven’t accomplished the assignment. It takes a good 20 minutes to allow all those stress hormones to leave our bodies and our entire brain to get back on line.

You will know when you are ready. Make sure by taking a few breaths, and then thinking of a few things you like about your partner.

And then, repair

Use the formula:

  • I feel _____ about _____ and I need (or ask) _____.
    • Go beneath your anger to find your emotional vulnerability, and speak from there. It is much more compelling!
  • Validation precedes problem-solving.
    • Say something along the lines of: “I think I get it, you felt ___ and thought _____, is that right?”

The bottom line: how to stop fighting

Engaging while angry is destructive, and the decisions you make will necessarily be irrational because your rational brain is not available to you when you are upset. So, do your love a favor and take time to calm down. You and your partner will reap the rewards!