Police Interview Newsletter - Call a Marital Time Out

Volume 2, Issue 5
May, 2003

In the March '03 issue of Police Interview (Marital Distress), I listed some possible early warning signs of marital problems. I encouraged readers to do a personal inventory for the purposes of: (1) assessing the quality of your marital relationship and (2) addressing areas of your marriage that may need some attention.

Last month's newsletter focused on the importance of “Listening To Differences.” The “Talk-Listen” exercise developed by Maggie Scarf was offered as one very effective way for couples to begin to better appreciate their individual differences, while experiencing a clearer sense of self-identity and interpersonal security. If you missed this discussion, please take a moment to read the April issue of “Police Interview” in the archives section of my web site at http://www.LawEnforcementCoaching.com.

This issue and the next couple issues of Police Interview Newsletter will focus on teaching skills, attitudes, and behaviors that can strengthen your marital relationship, improve problem solving, and help you to manage conflicts more constructively.


Conflict Happens

When people have contact with each other, day in and day out, tension and conflict is inevitable. It's just life. This is true with coworkers, in friendships, and certainly with marriage partners. As a psychologist and psychotherapist, I see some dysfunctional couples who struggle mightily to keep peace at any cost. They seem to fear disagreement and to think that any significant differences in their thoughts and feelings signal trouble - and must be suppressed. I worry about these couples and try my best to help them see that some conflict and disagreement are not only acceptable, but also necessary for the relationship's long-term success.

In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, John Gottman, Ph.D. emphatically states that one of the keys to marital success is not whether or not you argue with your spouse but “how you argue - whether your style escalates tension or leads to a feeling of resolution” (p.173).

Gottman goes on to say that it is more important to “deal with the emotions” that get stirred up during a disagreement than to actually solve the immediate problem at hand. In working with couples, his major goal is to “break the cycle of negativity and give whatever natural repair mechanisms you already have in your repertoire a chance to work” (p. 175).

In the course of marital conversation hot topics or sharp disagreements are bound to arise. One or both of the partners may become so overwhelmed or “flooded” by the strong emotions that get stirred up that any further discussion becomes non-productive, even hurtful to the relationship. We've all been there haven't we? Something is said, the other takes it poorly, tensions increases, adrenaline surges, heart rates soar, and a full-fledged argument ensues. Or equally troublesome, the husband (men tend to have shorter fuses and to be more vulnerable to stress, Gottman p. 145)) feels so overwhelmed by his emotions that he can no longer listen or effectively process information and withdraws completely - maybe for days. As men (or women) get caught up in this pattern of physiological over-arousal and withdrawal during the course of marital discussions, they can slip into a pattern of “stonewalling” - simply refusing to engage their spouses in any meaningful communication. This stonewalling, though intended to protect a man from stress, results in tremendous distress for his wife - who is desperately trying to connect with her husband.

Police officers, who are trained and well-equipped to handle all kinds of conflict situations on the street, are every bit as likely to experience this phenomenon of emotional flooding in their marital relationships. The same policeman, who calmly barks out directives to an unruly crowd or manages a DUI arrest with full possession of his faculties, may become so rattled and reactive when his wife speaks to him that he can't think straight or control his emotions.


Gottman Strategy #1: Calm Down: Monitor Your heart rate by taking your pulse during difficult discussions

So, what helps? What can marital partners do when they are feeling hurt, angry, and upset? This researcher/clinician has discovered that it is critically important that couples learn four basic strategies that will help them to “break the cycle of negativity.” The first key to improving your marriage is to CALM DOWN when emotional flooding threatens to block your communication.

In his research with hundreds of couples over the course of more than 20 years, Dr. John Gottman has discovered that marital discussions fall apart very quickly as soon as one spouse's heart rate becomes significantly elevated.

“Because physical responses are such an accurate barometer of your ability to communicate at a particular moment, tracking your arousal level during intense conversation will keep your discussions on track as well. Learning to calm down helps prevent unproductive fighting or running away from discussions you need to have” (p.176).

Gottman recommends the following steps in his CALM DOWN procedure:

1. Take your pulse every five minutes during difficult discussions with your partner. This is a good way to monitor your physiological arousal level.

•Check pulse at wrist or carotid artery with right index and middle fingers

•Calculate baseline heart rate (count the number of pulse beats you feel in 15 seconds and multiply by four)

•Call a “Time Out” (20 minutes) from the discussion if your heart rate climbs to 10 percent above your normal resting rate

Gottman offers this chart:

Baseline Heart Rate _______
10 Percent of Baseline _______
Sum of the above _______ (Your heart rate during
discussions should not exceed this.)

2. Use the 20 minutes to Calm Down with those methods that work for you.

• Go for a walk
• Play with the dog
• Listen to music
• Take a bath
• Call a friend
• Exercise
• Practice a favorite relaxation technique

3. During your time out, focus on replacing your hurtful and negative thoughts with soothing and validating ones. Gottman's suggestions:

“Calm down. Take some deep breaths.”
“No need to take this personally.”
“This really isn't about me.”
“I'm upset now, but I love him (her).”
“There are lots of things I admire about her (him).”
“Right now I'm upset, but this is basically a good

4. Once your pulse rate has returned to normal range, approach your spouse and resume your discussion. Repeat steps 1 to 4 as needed.

Please Note: Important discussions need to be completed. So, don't use the “time out” as a way to avoid communicating with your spouse.

Learning to take “Calming Breaks” when you are in danger of being overwhelmed emotionally is an important first step to improving your marriage. Take time to practice this strategy. I think you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Next Month: Strategy #2 - Speak Non-defensively



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Email: MacHart@PoliceInterview.com

Malcolm M. Hart, Ph.D.
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Richmond, VA. 23230

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