When Katie and Tim asked for help to better handle marital conflict, I knew what I had to teach them in order to help.

Both Katie and Tim felt that when conflict came up, it would escalate and they couldn’t think clearly. What they described was a difficulty regulating their emotions during conflict situations.

To help them regulate their emotions, I presented the Gottman research on gender differences of physiological arousal during conflict. Men and women respond differently. Men tend to remain vigilant before and during conflict. They rehearse distress-maintaining thoughts. Women tend to use self-soothing and rehearse relationship-enhancing thoughts. This doesn’t mean women are better than men, but that women usually calm down sooner and need to wait to pursue an issue until men are less physically aroused. Regardless of gender, problems are best solved when both partners calm down.

Our goal became very specific. It was to learn to regulate emotions during conflict. When emotions escalated, the couple would focus on calming down. A heart rate above 95 beats per minute meant he or she was getting too much arousal and needed a break. A 20-minute break, accompanied by thoughts and actions of relaxation, was to be instituted in order to slow down arousal before re-engaging with the conflict issue. Basically, I was teaching Katie and Tim how to take a grown-up time-out. According to Gottman, learning to stop the arousal and self-soothe, especially in the male, is one of the best predictors of marital outcome.

Once the couple could identify the need for a time-out by tuning in to their physical bodies and checking their heart rate, each was asked to practice self-soothing. This included breathing exercises, muscle relaxation and focusing on a soothing image such as a beach or mountain top. Prayer was also used as a way to refocus and calm down. When a number of soothing exercises were learned and practiced, the couple was to re-engage in the conflict, again checking their heart rate. This easy skill proved helpful. They were able to regulate their emotions during conflict and move forward to discuss their differences and conflict issues.

The importance of staying calm during conflict cannot be overstated. Most conflict is not solvable. Thus, the goal is not to always resolve conflict. Rather, couples need to regulate emotions during conflict so that they can continue to work on perpetual problems and yet stay together in happy unions.

We need to talk: How to manage conflict

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