Did you know that when you are fighting with your partner that not only are your reactive responses being triggered on a psychological level but also in your nervous system?
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the culprit of stress hormones in your bloodstream that activate your fight-flight response. The SNS fires so quickly that it often presents at a subconscious level making us respond reactively to our loved ones without really knowing why.
The sympathetic nervous system is part of the larger automatic nervous system and has been studied and brought into clearer focus using the Polyvagal theory https://ct.counseling.org/2016/06/polyvagal-theory-practice/.
Couples counselors are now applying knowledge of the sympathetic nervous system response in therapeutic sessions. Counseling with a trained couples therapist is important to calming the SNS response for two main reasons:
- The therapist is a partial third party not activated by the SNS response playing out between the couple,
- The therapist has clinical knowledge and experience on how to calm the SNS response while validating the client’s experience which, in turn, actually changes the neuro-wiring of the brain and nervous system response in real time.
It’s hard to accomplish this task in real time at home between the couple without a therapist because it requires a conscious commitment from both partners to change reactive negative energy by individually calming the SNS and creating soothing energy during a fight.
I don’t know about you, but when I fight with my partner I tend to feel angry and our negative cycle feels out of control.
A skilled couples therapist will help the couple to talk about tense moments using skills that highlight calming the SNS and preparing for the next inevitable fight.
While a couple therapist is critical in supporting a couple to make meaningful change in accelerated time, there are things that a couple can do at home.
- Start a mindfulness routine.
- Meditate 1 time a day for 10 minutes.
- Reflect on your body response to stress.
- Identify stress triggers.
- During a fight or stressful confrontation with your partner take a time out.
- Say to your partner, “I feel like I might say something I don’t mean. I’d like to calm down before moving forward with what’s going on”.
- Remove yourself to another room or take a walk.
- Close your eyes and identify in your body where you are feeling stress.
- Breathe in slowly and out slowly for 10 breaths.
- Move your body and increase your heart rate at least 3 times a week for 20-40 minutes.
- Find ways to exercise while playing games like basketball or soccer.
- Create a predictable routine for exercise and play.
It’s a fact that you won’t always be happy with your partner. But you do deserve to lift your relationship to the next level. A harmonious and mutually supportive marriage or long term commitment is well within your reach. With all that we know today about the mind-body relationship and interpersonal reactivities there is help, you need only reach out and get it.
~Angela Jensen-Ramirez, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Austin, Texas. She works with couples of all stripes and relationship phases. If you or someone you know could use support in their marriage or relationship you can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.