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When Emotions Get Hot! Differences in Response Styles

Jeannine Crofton - Calgary Marriage Counsellor

JEANNINE CROFTON

Does this sound familiar? You and your partner see a situation differently. After a number of exchanges the conversation becomes emotionally charged and one of you becomes upset. At those times we are often told that we move into a fight or flight response and either want to exit or escalate the conversation. Those who want to escalate really are moving beyond their window of tolerance or their optimal Arousal Zone where they are able to tolerate emotion and are able to think and feel (Fisher 2017). This is a state where we are seeking to get something from another person and we want our partners to respond to us. If we get the desired response then we can settle down. This is an “other soothing strategy”. In this Hyper-arousal state we are often taking risks (around the words we say, the behaviours we engage in) and can be impulsive.  In these instances, these partners have more than enough thoughts and conclusions about what is going on around them and are capable of expression.

Active volcano in eruption.

When Emotions Get Hot!

There are many whom, instead of becoming hyper-aroused, become hypo-aroused and these partners turtle into themselves and disable their defensive responses. Dr. Fischer also says those who have a hypo-arousal response can present with flat affect, feeling numb and experience pre-occupation with shame or despair.

For the hypo-aroused partner, the flow of thoughts and feelings can be overwhelming because it is all happening so quickly. They need time and space to sort it all out. John Gottman uses the word “flooded” to describe a partner who is overwhelmed by emotions.

“These emotionally de-regulated responses are learned. Our families may have modeled them or, according to Dr. Janina Fisher, they can be the result of traumatic experiences.”

These emotionally de-regulated responses are learned. Our families may have modeled them or, according to Dr. Janina Fisher, they can be the result of traumatic experiences. She suggests that couples can create a pattern where they trigger the other, shifting them out of the Optimal Arousal Zone. It may be helpful to think about where each of you first learned to respond this way.  Recognizing that these responses originated earlier in our life and are often part of our emotional muscle memory is important, because it means that new responses can be learned.

Jeannine's Signature

Fisher, Janina. (2017) Beyond words: Somatic Interventions for Couples Therapy, Couples Conference. Los Angelas, CA.
Gottman, J., Silver, N. (1999) Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. John Wiley and Sons Inc.

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