How to Handle it When You or Your Partner Shuts Down During a Fight

John Gottman calls it Diffuse Physiological Arousal that state that a person goes into when they have started to emotionally flood and they are starting to shut down emotionally and physically. During Diffuse Physiological Arousal we might experience a racing heart, we might feel tense, we might go into what feels like fight, flight or freeze.

The 4 Horsemen - criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling tend to show up during Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA). This is because we (or our partners) are having a hard time managing the emotional flooding and are seeking ways to pull back or push away.

People who are in DPA have lost the ability to listen, some report hearing music or white noise, others report it being completely silent. People in DPA also can’t access their sense of humor, a key component to being able to navigate through conflict. Additionally when we are in the state of DPA we can’t give or receive affection which means any attempt by our partners to help us soothe or any attempt we make to soothe our partner is often overlooked and not helpful.

We can tell when our partner is in DPA because they start to show us the 4 horsemen by either criticizing, becoming defensive, stonewalling or expressing contempt. Another way that we can tell our partner is in DPA is if they start to repeat themselves (this is because in their physiological state, they can’t listen).

What Do We Do When We Are In DPA?

When you catch yourself or your partner showing signs of flooding:

  1. Stop Immediately and take a break. Breaks should last at least 30 minutes in length. Research shows that it takes our bodies about 30 minutes to work through the physiological arousal of flooding. Sometimes we need more time and that’s OK. Breaks shouldn’t last more than 24 hours, after 24 hours the likelihood that you and your partner will return to the issue decreases.

  2. Set a time to meet up again with your partner. Saying something like “This is hard, I need to take a break. How about we continue this conversation in 30 minutes, is that OK?” can help you to communicate your needs and set a time to return to the conflict.

  3. During the break take positive actions to help yourself calm down. Physical movement such as going for a walk or doing a short yoga routine can help your body to process the physiological response to your emotions. Other soothing activities to do during a break can include listening to music, watching a TV show, doing a meditation, going outside to get fresh air.

  4. Don’t ruminate on the issue. If possible think about something else, anything else. Spending your break ruminating on the issue will cause you to re-enter the conflict with more fire and fury.

  5. If you need more time, ask for it, tacking on 30 minutes to an hour each time and checking in with your partner as you go.

  6. If your partner becomes upset with your need for a longer break, offer reassurance. A statement like “This is important to me and I want to make sure that I can really understand what you are telling me. I can’t do that right now but I do love you and I want to work through this with you” can be reassuring to your partner.

If you are finding that you and your partner are having the same fights over and over and are unable to resolve conflict, couples therapy may be able to help. A trained couples therapist can help you and your partner to learn communication skills to help move the two of you beyond the arguments and towards feeling more connected, supported, and closer.

Gwendolyn Nelson-Terry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in the states of California and Missouri is a Gottman trained, Level 2 (soon to be Level 3) therapist who specializes in couples seeking to rebuild their connection and create a fulfilling, meaningful, lasting love.

Call today, or click the link on the homepage to schedule a free 20 minute phone consultation to find out how couples therapy may be able to help your relationship.