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Why Your Communication Skills Don't Work During Big Fights, From A Couples' Therapist

Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist By Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, is a Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist, certified Gottman therapist, and director and therapist at A Better Life Therapy. She received her master's in couples and and family therapy from Thomas Jefferson University.
I'm A Couples' Therapist & This Is Why Your Communication Skills Aren't Working
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Three things are certain in life: death, taxes, and the fact that couples argue.

As such, learning how to argue well is an important part of a healthy relationship. Developing skills like speaking, active listening, repair, and compromise can lead couples toward harmonious disagreement where they ultimately come to win/win outcomes. However, there are two types of difficult conversations: first, the type where we are able to access our "communication skills" even if we feel a bit frustrated or upset and, second, the type where our nervous system is hijacking our cognitive system and all the skills we might usually know to use. 

Recognizing "hot conversations."

When couples are able to use their communication skills, they can access their ability to be "relational." Relational functioning requires being able to behave in ways during conflict that make the other person feel safe. Some of these behaviors might be:

  • Using and responding to humor
  • Apologizing
  • Problem solving
  • Using curiosity
  • Offering and accepting affection
  • Tapping into empathy

However, there are moments when those communication skills don't work, when you just can't seem to access the skills you know you are supposed to use. For example, you know you are supposed to listen to your partner, but you feel so taken over by anger, anxiety, or overwhelm that you just can't stop talking. Or, you know you shouldn't push your partner away, but you are so upset that you keep shutting them down and telling them to just leave you alone

In my book I Want This To Work, I call these types of conversations "Hot Conversations." They are the types of conversations that take us "offline" and make it hard for us to access our relational skills. These types of conversations tend to be in response to conversations that feel relationally threatening. Relationally threatening conversations might be disagreements where there is:

  • Relational threat (Forget this! I am getting a divorce!)
  • A past pain point or trauma that is triggered
  • A sense you are trapped in a never-ending conversation
  • Feelings of shame or embarrassment
  • Perceiving you are being punished, accused, or misunderstood

In the field of neurobiology, this all makes sense. As our brain detects threats, our prefrontal cortex gets blocked. When this happens, we no longer have access to important relational skills like problem-solving, decision-making, empathy, affection, or humor. In these types of disagreements our focus is on self-preservation rather than relational wellness. The response to this might be to fight, freeze, or walk away

This conflict cycle is fueled by pain, fear, and our hijacked nervous systems. You'll know you are in a hot conversation when:

  • You seem to be seeking a winner and a loser in your arguments.
  • You see your partner as opposition rather than as an ally and partner.
  • You get caught up in minutiae—overviewing whose facts are "right" or "wrong."
  • You bring up past, often unrelated issues with each other.
  • You threaten to take connection away ("We aren't going on our date anymore!" or "Let's break up!")
  • The conversation is cyclic: It goes in circles with no clear endpoint or resolution.

These types of conversations don't tend to come from nowhere—there are often underlying issues that influence an inability to tap into healthy communication. For example, you might notice you've been disconnected recently, or you might be holding on to past resentments or hurts. On top of that, you then have a threatened nervous system. This makes it difficult to do the things I mentioned earlier that are necessary in disagreement—the types of things that make people feel safe, like humor and affection.

In these types of conversations, couples do not move from feelings of tension to growth, connection, and harmony. In fact, they tend to say things they don't mean, do things they can't take back, and harm their relationship in unforgettable ways. 

So what do we do?

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The 4 "HARD" conversation skills.

We need to learn to have a different set of conversation skills, the type that focus on calming our nervous systems more than focusing on resolving the problem. These "HARD" conversation skills include:

  1. Halting the conversation
  2. Attending to safety needs
  3. Repairing
  4. Debriefing

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Whereas at other times we want to encourage taking time to listen, understand, and problem solve, these types of conversations take a different route: to calm the nervous system so you can return to your relational capacities. 

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1. Halt

When your nervous system is overwhelmed and you don't have a lot of reserve of goodwill toward your partner in the emotional bank account, you might need to take a step back to calm down before continuing a conversation. Learn to take breaks, even when it is hard so that your nervous system can take time to cool down. 

2. Attend

Even though you need to take a break, it's your responsibility to also make sure your partner feels safe within the relationship. Further relational threat will only make things worse. So if you need to go for a 20-minute break rather than storming out, say something (even if it's brief) to let your partner know you'll be back. You might say something like "I need to get some air. I love you and will be back soon." This is attending to attachment and security needs within your relationship.

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3. Repair

Once you're ready to come back, don't just jump into the conversation. Take time to repair. You might apologize to each other, offer a hug, make a joke, and let the other person know how much you love them. 

4. Debrief

After you take a break, attend to each other's attachment needs, and repair any immediate hurts, it will be time to debrief. Again, don't jump back into whatever you were talking about. Take time to explore what happened between the two of you. That might sound like, "When you and I were talking about what to do with our financial situation, I felt so overwhelmed and upset. I remember just wanting to push you away. I know that whenever money issues come up, this is hard for me. I really need to have notice and ability to plan before we dive into those conversations."

As you can see in this example, the person is not talking about the finance issue but rather the way in which they talked about the finance issue. Taking time to debrief helps you to better understand what happened that wasn't working well so you can continue to grow, change, and improve your communication.

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It takes time.

Each time you take time to go through the HARD conversations model, you and your partner will learn to trust each other more deeply and to feel safer with each other within your partnership. This trust and safety will then allow you to revisit your disagreements using all of the other communication skills you know to use—speaking, listening, offering empathy, and compromises—so you can ultimately connect and get to a resolution.

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