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Whoa. Your fiancé just totally crossed the line. Pissed you off. You can feel your anger (rage?) coursing through your bloodstream. Your heart races. Your face heats up. Your limbs stiffen. Your vocal chords get tight, twisty-turny, shrill. You are officially seeing red.
Couples fight. It happens in every relationship. But before going nuclear and telling him just how much of an idiot, how clueless and wrong he is, it helps to know whats going on in your brain during knockdowns and dragouts. In Wired for Love, Stan Tatkin, PsyD explains how knowing a bit about the structure of your and your fiancé’s brains can help prevent Armageddon in your relationship, so those cruel and hurtful words that you cant take back never slip out in the first place. Tatkin calls it “smart fighting.”
When you and your fiancé fight, both of your amygdalae pick up on the threat (his nasty tone, your eye roll). Then both of your hypothalami direct your pituitary and adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. Flooded by stress hormones, your brains go into fight-flight-or-freeze mode. They’re working at partial capacity. This is when nasty, brutal things can get said.
Want to avoid that and fight smart? First: breathe. Take a few big, long breaths. Especially focusing on a long exhalation. This will slow your cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and calm you down. Second, get your orbitofrontal cortex the moral and empathic center of your brain — to turn back on. Under stress, it goes offline, leaving you both unable to appreciate anything beyond [your] own ideas and feelings, writes Tatkin. It’s hard to empathize with your guy when hes truly pissed you off. But you need it to work, so it can rein in the amygdala and hypothalamus so you can try to understand the situation from your fiancé’s perspective. And he yours.
Easy? Nope. In the heat of the moment, its tough to wrestle yourself out of wanting to be right, to win, to prove him wrong. But its important. Because if you stay at this heart-racing, angry impassé for too long, this extreme unpleasantness will move from your short-term to your long-term memories. You’ll both remember this fight as a painful doosie, not just a bump in the relationship road.
Allison Moir-Smith, MA, is a bridal counselor, creator of How Brides-To-Be REALLY Feel videos, and author of Emotionally Engaged: A Bride’s Guide to Surviving the “Happiest” Time of Her Life.