Lakeridge Counselling & Consulting Services

Empathic Listening and Emotion Regulation Strategies for Couples Experiencing Frequent Arguing


When couples argue, usually, the heated exchange is due to their interrupted ability to listen to one another and hear what is really being said.

When stress or anxiety is present in the partners’ daily lives (which is common reality for the average couple, these days) one partner’s opposing view or action is automatically (out of our immediate awareness) interpreted by the other as an attack on their integrity, freedom, self-esteem, well-being etc.…, so they start perceiving the situation as threatening and their instincts for self-preservation kick in. This increases the partners’ physiological response to the perceived threatening situation and puts their bodies in a self-protective mode: tensed up, agitated, ready to fight, flee or freeze in order to ensure self-preservation.
Emotional arousal spreads easily from one person to another, usually if one partner shows escalating emotions – the other will soon be propelled to perceive the rising tension and agitation as a sign of danger, which would naturally put them in self-protective mode: tensed up, agitated, ready to fight, flee or freeze in order to ensure self-preservation.
Now, that both bodies are mobilized and ready to fight, the “war” can easily start. 

This physical and emotional state is most certainly not a state in which we can discuss differences rationally, peacefully and logically, or problem solve. So, to avoid irrational, idle, and non-productive arguing, give yourself a check and try to regulate your emotional experience, as well as cognitive and behavioral responses.

Here a few steps to bring your selves to a more functional emotional state: 

1. Notice you are becoming agitated – pause!

2. Remind yourself that emotional arousal is a natural reaction of the body and mind to respond to threats in your environment and it is largely related to pain, fear and instincts for self-preservation.

3. Give yourself a check: what do you feel threatened about? If there’s no realistic danger, i.e. you and your partner are having opposing views, but there’s no physical or verbal violence, then continuing with this stress response to a non-threatening situation would be pointless (like wearing a rain poncho on a perfectly sunny day). You can get out of this protective mode, by grounding yourself and bringing the emotional change down.

4. Use grounding techniques such as deep breathing, which will focus your attention on your breathing, increase the oxygen intake and release the level of agitation.

5. Now, hear what your partner is saying without, correcting, interrupting, or trying to sneak your point across.

6. Show that you are listening, by summarizing what your partner is saying, or inviting them to say more and recognizing their feelings.

7. Assure your partner that you are still their partner, i.e., you may have a different view or experience, but you are not seeking to hurt them, you are inviting them to problem-solve together as a couple.

8. Once you have leveled emotionally and you are both aware that there are no enemies here, but just two partners who accept, appreciate and respect each other, you can begin to problem solve and examine the particular situation that started the conversation, in the beginning.

9. Don’t forget the power of a gentle touch, a friendly smile, a kiss and of course the “L” word. Don’t be afraid to tell each other “I love you”; it is simple, to the point and immediately lets the other person know that you are not trying to destroy them or be mean to them.

General listening rules:

1. Don’t change the subject or move in a new direction.

2. Don’t rehearse in your own head.

3. Don’t give advice.

4. Don’t criticize the person. Criticizing your partner’s personality will only increase their stress response.

5. Don’t discount feelings. Be aware of your own feelings and accept the feelings of your partner, show your interest in their emotional state.

6. Do not assume your worst thoughts are true, hear what your partner is saying, instead of hearing what you think you already know.

7. Don’t look down on your partner. If you flag your superiority around, the partnership may be lost. Look for solutions together.

8. Don’t look for someone to blame. Think what you can do to better the situation.

9. Don’t recall old misunderstandings. Rehashing past negative experiences is highly unlikely to bring current or future positive outcomes. Focus on the here and now.

10. Remember there is another point of view.

11. Do reflect back to your partner what you understand and how you think she/he feels.