Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Fall 2008

Emotional Management in Conflict

Emotions in Conflict

Why did you get married? Was it to love, honor, and enjoy your mate or was it to loath, disrespect, and trash your mate? This is a trick question because of course couples marry with the great intention of the first goal. Then why do they unintentionally end up spending too much time doing the second? The reason is because it is so hard to regulate the strong negative emotions surrounding the normal everyday conflicts that plague us all.

This fancy $10 vocabulary word describes what happens when unhappy couples have a conflict: their emotions escalate and spin out of control. They go from feeling a little frustration to feeling hurt, overwhelmed, angry and even violent within minutes. An oversimplified neuropsychology of the problem is that the prefrontal lobes of the brain, the site of planning, logic, and long term goal setting, get hijacked by the amygdala, the brain center in charge of assessing and responding to life threatening emergencies.

Therefore, a simple conflict about housework morphs into the same feeling as if it is a life threatening attack from an enemy. To help you increase your skill in managing the high emotions associated with conflict, we will share some of the new research findings and techniques from Dialectical Behavior Therapist Alan Fruzetti from the University of Reno and include a brief review of the procedural steps in handling conflict.

A couple conflict is any situation in which partners have different and seemingly incompatible goals. While happy and unhappy couples do not differ in the numbers or types of conflict, they do differ in the ways that they deal with conflict. There are two types of differences, procedural and emotional. Procedurally, happy couples take a problem-solving rather than a person-attacking approach to conflicts. Emotionally they manage their feelings during conflict in self-soothing and skillful ways. Instead of releasing emotions that feel good to the individuals in the short term and damage the relationship in the long term, they regulate the expression of feelings in ways that promote the long term deepening of intimacy.

For unhappy couples the inability to manage the normal emotions of frustration, disappointment and loneliness becomes so problematic that a host of secondary emotions quickly pile up including anger, depression, disgust, and rage. During neural hijacking, they fail to think clearly or communicate in useful ways. Their long term goals of commitment and love get forgotten in the short term stress of feeling hurt and momentarily wanting to hurt back. After a while the arguing and putdowns become so wearing that people withdraw from each other. The key to getting back to functional conflict management is to prevent the occurrence of the secondary emotions and deal with the primary emotions and the real issues.

Steps to Emotional Regulation

Fruzetti has developed these key skills and practices for couples who want to increase effectiveness with conflict.

  1. Being Mindful.
    When you are mindful you concentrate on one important thought or activity at a time. You notice and can describe what is happening around you. You can remind yourself how much you love your partner, how much your partner loves you, and how you need to remain in each other’s good will in order to have a great life.

    Sit quietly and just notice your breathing without doing anything else. Sounds silly and easy? Try it. Research on experienced meditators shows that the more they practice the better they get in focusing and preventing neural hijacking. Practicing a simple exercise by yourself will train your brain to be able to use your frontal lobes even when in conflict with your spouse. Next time your spouse does something that aggravates you like criticizing or yelling, just breathe for a moment and observe your breathing before you react. With practice, you will feel calmer and more in control.

  2. Accepting and not judging. As you practice mindful breathing your mind will begin to play tricks on you. It will begin to evaluate the exercise as “dumb,” “a waste of time,” or “You’re not very good at this.” Your mind’s ability to make quick judgments is an instinct you need in the jungle to decide when you are in danger of enemies attacking you. The problem is that your mind can overuse its jungle instinct to judge your spouse as an enemy and react accordingly.

    While you are observing your relaxed breathing, notice any judgments that your mind make. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breathing. You will get better at accepting yourself without judging and with practice you will also get better at being able to observe others without judging them. Next time your spouse does one of those chronic annoyances, imagine you are an investigative reporter who is not allowed to editorialize on the issue at hand. You can describe the scene but not judge, “He is talking in a louder tone than his normal inside voice,” instead of “He is yelling at me like I’m an idiot and that’s not fair. I hate when he does that.”

  3. Self-regulation. The ability to self-sooth and control impulses is key to the successful handling of conflict and the prevention of the shame that comes from acting far away from the ideals you married with, being loving and supportive.

    Before you act impulsively in the conflict, ask , “Is this going to make things better or worse?,” “What can I do to advance the goal of being supportive of my own and my partner’s needs,? “Am I keeping my long-term goals in mind?,” “What part of my brain is in charge here?”

    Next time you are with your partner be aware of your needs. Ask for what you need in a kind, caring manner. Ask your partner what s/he needs in that moment. Negotiate your differences by being aware of the reciprocal nature of the relationship –how you are both helpmates to each other and how loving it is to find solutions that meet both persons’ needs in win-win ways.

Functional Conflict Management

We have reviewed some of Fruzetti’s emotional management techniques for high conflict couples. Here is a review of the steps of conflict management:

  1. Define the conflict or problem from each person’s point of view, taking turns summarizing what the other is saying. Decide on an aspect of the issue that you can work on together and call that “the problem.” For example, the fall car pool schedule.

  2. Brainstorm as many ideas as you can think of that would solve the problem. Don’t rule out anything crazy or expensive for the moment. Resist the tendency to judge the ideas and the tendency to foreclose prematurely when you get a good idea.

  3. Now use your judging skills to critique the ideas. Resist the tendency to critique each other. These ideas are merely ideas to be discussed.

  4. Hone in on the most appealing and feasible of the ideas or combination of ideas and construct an action plan with specifics about who does what, when, and how.

  5. Execute the action plan.

  6. Come back in a timely manner and evaluate whether the plan solved the problem. Not all conflicts can be solved but all can be managed.


Alan Fruzetti. “High Conflict Couples.”

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