I hear stories all the time about how couples have lost it in an argument.
One of them hears something that triggers their emotions and they lash out with criticism. Their partner doesn’t like what they are hearing and they fire back a few choice words. The argument escalates until, finally, someone shuts down and walks away.
Does this sound familiar?
I have to confess, this has happened to me. I hear something I don’t like and I’m triggered into responding. Afterwards, I’m usually not very proud of my behavior.
OK, I think all of us can relate to this. We’ve all been there. So, what do we do about it? Yes! Here’s how to have self control during an argument.
Thoughts Influence Emotions and Behavior
In Proverbs 25:28 it says, “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.”
That about says it. Sometimes it feels as if my wall of restraint has been breached and I react. The New English Translation says “a person who cannot control his temper.”
In Romans 12 it says to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
It says in 2 Corinthians 10 to “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ.”
I’ve long been aware of those passages. The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to be aware of our thoughts and beliefs. Our thoughts influence how we feel and how we behave. This is the key to how we have self control.
I am a big fan of Dr. Caroline Leaf. She has been researching the science of thought and mind-body connection as it relates to thinking, learning, emotions and renewing the mind from a Christian perspective.
Her research reiterates the bible’s teaching on the mind-body connection. Our thoughts literally wire our brain to react in certain ways. When we are reacting poorly, it helps to examine our core beliefs that influence our response.
So, how does that help me in my fights with my wife? How does that help me to be a better marriage mentor?
Dr. Leaf outlines four discomfort zones that act as an alarm in our bodies to let us know that we are about to act poorly.
How to Have Self Control: Zone 1 — Just Aware
The first discomfort zone she calls Just Aware. When you are triggered, you start to become aware that something is happening inside of you. Maybe you’re not quite sure what it is, but you feel uncomfortable.
You start to feel that you are not going to be responding with the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control).
My first response to this thought is that this is a bad thing. I don’t want to lose control. Dr. Leaf describes this feeling as an early warning system.
Something is happening and you can choose how to respond.
How to Have Self Control: Zone 2 — Adrenaline-Pumping and Heart-Pounding
Next we move into the Adrenaline-Pumping and Heart-Pounding zone.
Our body starts to respond. Our heart rate increases. Adrenaline starts to flow. Cortisol is released and it sharpens your cognition. Psychologists call this emotional flooding. Our bodies can respond with a fight or flight reaction.
Dr. Leaf says that this isn’t all bad, if we recognize it as a God-given response to stress. If we can channel this extra energy into caring for others, we can respond with love instead of attacking.
How to Have Self Control: Zone 3 — Attitude
Discomfort zone three is established attitudes, which are long-term memories that include their related emotions.
When we think something over and over again, eventually they become attitudes or beliefs. Sometimes, these can become deeply engrained inside of us. For example, if deep inside yourself you believe that your partner is out to get you, you will respond accordingly. If you believe that your partner has good intentions, you’ll respond in a different way.
The good news is that you can change your negative attitudes and beliefs. This is “renewing the mind” in action. God can and will help you to recognize your harmful patterns of thinking.
How to Have Self Control: Zone 4 — About to Choose
The forth discomfort zone is About to Choose. Based upon your body’s reaction, you start to choose your response. You can choose to react in a way that is harmful or in a way that is helpful.
We can become better at thinking about our thinking. Are there thoughts that we need to take captive? Are there better ways to respond?
Making it Real
In reality, I have found it difficult to retrain my own reactions. Understanding the above process has helped me to come more aware of what’s happening inside of me.
Do I always respond well?
No. I react much better if I recognize what is happening inside of me and then pause. The pause allows me a chance to think through what would be a better response. For some, it would be better to take a thirty minute time out to allow themselves a chance to cool down.
When we are mentoring couples, we often use this as a way to analyze a fight in the past.
We’ll ask, what do you think triggered you at the time? What were you feeling? What’s under the anger? Is there a thought under that emotion?
This can take some work to understand. When we ask couples about this, they often have to think about it a great deal. When they do figure it out, it becomes a huge realization that helps them in the future.
I’ve had people tell me that they finally understood what made them blow up. When they understand their emotional trigger, they are able to respond more appropriately.
My wife, Michelle, tells the story about how she never felt that she measured up when it came to cleaning. Once I asked her innocently if she was going to do the dishes. She blew up. What she heard was that she was a rotten housekeeper and not someone that I wanted as a wife.
My comment triggered a false belief. It was a filter that interpreted my words as a personal attack. We talked about this event for several days. Once she was able to identify what triggered her, we were able to deal with it.
I honestly didn’t think she was a poor housekeeper. I was just curious about the dishes and I was about to offer to wash them. This wasn’t an attack. Once I understood her filter, I was able to say things in a way that didn’t trigger her. If it did, I had more compassion for her.
Michelle was also able to understand what was happening inside of her. She realized that I wasn’t calling her a terrible housekeeper. She was able to disarm this buried landmine.
When we’ve helped other couples to understand their own emotional triggers, they are much more able to react with compassion and empathy.