Healthy Expression During Arousal
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2017 (edited October 30, 2021)
Communicating during emotional arousal is difficult. We often use adaptive defenses to protect rather than effectively resolve the conflict.
I struggle with emotional exchanges. I change topics when broaching difficult territory. Not purposely—I just smoothly switch to a safer topic. “So, how’s the weather over there?” I discovered this personality tick several years ago. I was oblivious one of my own intimacy-hindering behaviors. I’m sure I’ll discover others—or be informed of other self-imposed barriers. Awareness of the problem didn’t automatically solve the obstruction; it actually magnified the discomfort. Instead of a ready escape, with awareness, I was forced to stay with the uncomfortable conversations. Changing the topic, my adaptation to soothe discomfort, is only one route of many to alleviate unpleasant feelings. There are many ways to calm the disruptions—many unhealthy.
"Some people come into this world with their emotional arousal response on high alert. For others it takes a lot to trigger their emotional arousal response."
While adaptations have varying degrees of dysfunction and utility, many fail to resolve the underlying issue. We will always encounter occasional discomforting exchanges. The larger role a person plays in our life, the more importance we place on disagreements. Discomfort naturally flows when information signals trouble; we can address the discomfort together, discussing the issue, or blindly find relief through escapisms. By facing the discomfort, instead of recoiling and withdrawing, we coordinate differences, build bridges, and establish safety.
Couple differences sparks emotions, we feel insecure or angry. During these moments respectful communication matters most.
Emotional communication is necessary for intimacy. Partners never bond through stoic indifference. When a relationship encounters opposing views, it’s threatening, the disagreement shakes security—rejection often begins with differences.
"With anger, it’s helpful to think of what was the first feeling you felt before you felt angry, and to express and explain that."
Young adults often suffer from deficits in problem resolution. Households with dominating parents demand obedience, undermining the development of difference-solving skills. A child expressing an opinion different than his dominating parents quickly learns of the danger, internalizing the lesson, and braces for swift and painful reactions to individualism.
These exchanges stamps patterns on the soul, memories stored at the cellular level. Later, when similar encounters are experienced in adult relationships, the body recalls the past with memories of painful punishments or rejections, and the blood pressure rises, the heart speeds up, and vision narrows—a protective mode activates. We’re physiological ready for battle! These physiological responses are appropriate for confronting a threatening intruder; not typically best for resolving differences with a lover. The escape or attack (from our agitated state) sabotages closeness.
What’s the goal? Do we want to build security or escape momentary discomfort? By working through differences, we learn emotional exchanges don’t necessarily threaten relationship stability; but, when expertly handled, strengthen the connection. Differences can exist in healthy relationships. All partnerships have differences to address. The durability of the relationship doesn’t demand perfect agreement. The success of a couple rests on the individuals’ abilities to work through differences while still providing love and acceptance.
The relationship success of a couple rests on the individuals’ abilities to work through differences while still providing love and acceptance.
Relationships thrive through positive interactions. When differences are encountered, whether the difference is solved or not, both partners can emerge from the emotional encounter with dignity, feeling respected, loved and secure. Conversely, when a difference is resolved but one or both partners leave the negotiation miffed, devalued or ignored, the relationship is weakened.
Mindful attention to these interactions, noticing bodily changes during the engagements, invites opportunity for change, purposeful action directed towards long-term goals—strengthening the relationship instead of winning an argument.
"While conveying our emotions is an important part of maintaining emotional well-being, experiencing extremes in emotional arousal can be damaging if they occur frequently or for extended periods."
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
Once emotional upheavals are identified, we can address them rather than run from them, staying with the discomfort, and practicing self-soothing so we can also attune to our partner's feelings, focusing on the goal of intimacy. When blind of emotions, our automatic priority is to escape takes priority, and we blindly dismiss our partner’s feelings in our desperate drive for relief. When we rudely ignore their message, the communications are corrupted, widening disconnection, digging a chasm that ultimately destroys the relationship.
When ignored, our partner doesn’t feel felt. We missed “a sliding door” moment for connection, leaving all involved feeling misunderstood and insecure.
To encourage growth and trust, we must face, rather than escape, from these discomforting moments. Listening to partners, hearing their feelings, and appreciating who they are, resolves hurt and creates connection more than any heated exchange of words or sly change of topics. A little discomfort bravely endured, giving lovingly acceptance, builds the trusting security we ultimately seek.
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