Keep conversations


COMMON QUESTION: It seems like I have to get extremely mad at my mate to get their attention on things that matter to me. They get mad back at me and we talk, but it is a distant conversation. What keeps us from changing this pattern?

DON: Overwhelm.

Neither you nor your mate can learn anything new when either are overwhelmed. Neither of you are emotionally available for learning and to feel connected.

When the pulse is elevated around 100 or more beats per minute a person's brain and nervous system is what psychology now calls "flooded." 

The Emotional Intensity Meter by Don Elium, MA MFT

The Emotional Intensity Meter by Don Elium, MA MFT

The Relationship Research of Julie and John Gottman's book Why Marriages Succeed and Fail, calls it "diffuse physiological arousal" meaning that the part of both or your brains that warn of danger, Flight or Flight Response, has been activated and your body is in high self-defense alert. Your attention isn't in a "curious" mode but in either an attack, defensive or freeze (detached) state, meaning no one is really listening to learn anything new.  Neuro-science has confirmed why people who are so bright, capable, and smart in so many situations appear shallow and unable to learn the simplest things in a committed relationship. Why?  They are overwhelmed. They have not allowed themselves to calm down, as long as it take, before they reengage with the other person. In a calm state, reason toward what is actually happening or has happened becomes stronger than the emotion and a dialogue can happen that allows the possibility of new learning to take place.

Nobody learns when overwhelmed except how to be mean (fight), run away faster (flight), or detach and give the angry person whatever words they need to hear so they will stop being so intense (freeze--appease).

Curiosity is in the GREEN on the Emotional Intensity Meter

Curiosity is in the GREEN on the Emotional Intensity Meter

You succeeded in getting your partner's attention, and you also guaranteed that nothing will change. Along with all of this another thing happens that makes this even harder, details will not be remembered accurately.  And, I am sure you have ended up here because calm talking about the concern went unaddressed in a productive way. We will get to that shortly, but I want to answer your question fully first.

If you use our Emotionally Intensity Meter, you can see what happens to the brain and nervous system and therefore what a person is capable of at various levels of emotional arousal.

When a person is upset, making a very strong point over and over, or is listening and getting madder and madder, when their pulse hits around 90-100 beats per minute, they are flooded with intensity and changing the area of the brain that is function. They are now in a fight, flight or freeze mode and not open to reasoning or learning unless they calm down their pulse and emotionally become calmer.

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On The EIM-Emotional Intensity Meter, that would put that person in the "red."  They are not available to speak, listen, learn, nor be reasonable.  And, if the conversation continues, the research shows it will end badly in minutes and sometimes seconds.  It takes at least 20 minutes, but can take hours and for some people a day or two, before they can calmly and therefore more reasonably reengage about the topic that triggered the overwhelm. The longer either or both people keep talking in the "red" the longer it takes for the nervous and brain to calm to "green" on the EIM, which means calm. 

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Most people make the error to either keep talking in the red or not wait long enough to get into the green before re-engaging the topic.  And since the topic is usually important in some way, the upset patterns happens over and over again, until the couple stop talking about it and that creates another set of problems that become more and more complicated.

So, your strategy gets their attention, but the part of his brain you really need to talk with that can learn and make reasonable decisions, is not home.

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The bottom of the Emotional Intensity Meter is Blue, that is when you are starting to detach from the conversation and the other person and thoughts about wanting the conversation end appear or other types of distancing thoughts. When in the deep blue, you are not available for an engaged closeness conversation. You may feel calm but your partner will most likely experience that as “cold” and “you don’t care about me.” So deep blue or deep red are both signs of overwhelm and the need for a time out from the conversation and away from each other physically until calm returns.The Emotional Intensity Meter can be most helpful in both stopping prolonged arguing as well as a way to gauge when ready to try and have a repair conversation.

Note: It is common to mistake “numb (overwhelm” with calmness. You will know it is calmness when you feel “like yourself” again and you can see the negative impact on your behavior toward the other person and take responsibility for it as you also see to repair and address the issue at hand with the other person.

The GOAL: Keep conversations in the GREEN, and when they aren’t, take immediate TIME OUT, no less than 20 minutes and no more than 24 hours. 

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How to take a break during conversations at home when either partner is getting flooded.

a) If one person asks for a break, the other partner needs to agree without either partner trying to get the last word into the conversation;

b) The partners should agree on a time that they will get back together again to resume their conversation. The break should last at least 20 minutes, but no longer than 24 hours;

c) The couple should then part and go to separate places where they can no longer see or hear each other, such as separate rooms in the house or one person outside while the other remains inside, etc.;

d) During the break, each partner should do something self-soothing that takes their minds off the discussion with their partner, such as reading a book, listening to some music, taking a walk, going for a run, etc. It's important that the partners do not think of how they can next respond, as that will only keep them flooded;

e) They should return to talk together at the time they designated earlier. If one is not yet calm, she or she should still return, but then ask for a specified additional amount of time in order to fully calm down;

f) After returning to one another in a calmer state, the couple may resume their conversation.

—-Gottman Relationship Check Up