Consider a fire; it requires an ignitor, fuel, and oxygen to keep it going. Smoke fills a room and causes irritation, anxiety, coughing, partial blindness and lightheadedness. Remove the oxygen, and the fire dies.
A repeated argument in a long-term relationship requires similar ingredients. Fuel: The triggers from childhood. Ignition: a statement or action that activates the fuel. Oxygen: a partner’s defensiveness, or willingness to engage in escalation. Smoke: emotional reactivity.
Once the “smoke” of emotional reactivity is activated it fills the room, making it hard to see clearly and causing an increase in panic and pain. Events and emotions are happening at the same time, and both are real. The person who is experiencing more emotional reactivity sees the events through more smoke, so the events are not as crystal clear as they are for the person experiencing less reactivity. They may be trying to yell “fire!” based on something from their past rather than what is happening right now. Or, what is happening right now may feel like it could lead to serious burns, maybe even death, because of past experiences.
How can we manage the smoke and fire? Remove the oxygen: slow it all down.
Take a break when you start to feel the smoke coming into the room. Get a drink of water. Take a minute. Let your partner know that you’re going to slow down because you’re feeling the temperature rise inside yourself. You’ll be able to see much more clearly once the smoke of emotional reactivity clears.
Here’s a good video from Ze Frank. He sums up the best of relationship fighting advice in around 5 minutes. He’s funny too!