Understanding Emotion Dysregulation in Couple Conflict
(Applying Mindfulness in Relationship: Moving from Problem to Solution)
In this blog, you will find discussion of several key points from Alan Fruzzetti’s chapter on “Understanding Emotion in Relationship” from The High Conflict Couple: A dialectical behavior therapy guide to finding peace, intimacy, and validation.
Core Problem is Dysregulated Emotion:
Highly aroused, negative emotions lead to harmful behaviors during conflict…leading to unsupportive relating and increased misery among partners
Potential Solution starts with Skills:
We can learn skills to effectively, mindfully, & nonjudgmentally monitor and then manage negative emotions which leads to more accurate expression which allows increased understanding and validation…leading to more supportive relating that can eventually transform conflict into increased closeness (decreased suffering) among partners
The transactional model describes how the problem occurs inside, outside and between each person and partner. Understanding the problem in context can be used to identify the individual/couple strengths, resources and skills needed to move toward solutions, our values and goals, and the relationship intimacy that is indeed possible.
Fruzzetti offers this transactional model (see handout) as a contextual way of viewing those relationship problems that can cause so much pain and suffering; this model invites a mindful approach of greater understanding, compassion, as well as less blame than linear models.
“Alternative models do exist in which the individual’s problematic responses are not artificially disaggregated from the interpersonal or family context in which they develop and function currently. For example, if a person is sad, we may define the 'problem' as inside the person (e.g., she “is not producing enough serotonin” or has “maladaptive cognitions” or is not “active enough”) or outside the person (e.g., “the environment is very punishing” or “she was abused” or “her partner is consistently critical of her”). However, to achieve a more comprehensive conceptualization, we may describe the situation, problem, or transaction to include both parts (e.g., “in situation x [which focuses on the present, especially on interpersonal contingencies such as how a spouse or partner or parent responds to her disclosure of emotion, wants, thoughts], she has these particular thoughts, desires, urges, engages in these particular behaviors, and feels sad”). For both theoretical and empirical reasons, we think there is a lot of utility in trying to understand many problems…as transactional.” (cf. Fruzzetti, 1996).
Emotions are complex processes more than a thing. With practice, we can more accurately (less reactively) describe the elements of the emotional process we are experiencing, that is, our memories, images, thoughts, sensations, urges, and actions. We can become more mindful of how we (mis)label them, how we express them and how others respond in turn to us.
The point at which our attention orients to escape is when emotion dysregulation and mood-dependent behavior begins according to Fruzzetti. In this way, “being dysregulated is NOT the same as being upset when we can still make effective decisions.” When we become so emotionally aroused that we are less able to: 1) inhibit emotion-driven, problematic behavior, 2) soothe our intense feelings and body sensations, 3) redirect and broaden our attention, 4) move toward our valued, goal-directed actions, that is when we can recognize we are in the “red zone.”
Factors that make us vulnerable to high negative emotional arousal and the “red zone” of emotion dysregulation, include: sensitivity (situation, bio-social history, vulnerabilities), reactivity (how loud, rapid or intense is the wave of emotion), duration (how long until we can return to baseline equilibrium). See the Bio-Social Self Survey to better appreciate and validate the factors that contribute to your and your loved ones' emotional vulnerability.
Patterns of Responding to Disagreements are on a continuum from constructive engagement on one end to critical, hostile, or avoidant behaviors at the other end. We apply our skills toward increasingly more constructive engagement and mindfully identify when and how we find ourselves reacting in the three problematic patterns.
Constructive Engagement. Partners can tolerate the disagreement, regulate their own emotion, assume a curious and nonjudgmental stance, listen and respond with validation, and still enjoy each other.
Mutual Avoidance. Partners mutually trigger dysregulation; they tend to avoid the conflict which brings temporary relief, while closeness fades.
Destructive Engagement. Conversations eventually trigger dysregulation and both partners express hostility, invalidating words and ineffective behaviors.
Engage-Distance. Partners are moving in opposite directions that eventually triggers intense negative emotions, defensiveness, blame, and hopelessness.
Practice. You may want to use the Red Zone Worksheet to help you monitor the particular emotions that tend to become dysregulated and then prompt those behaviors that interfere with the effective communication and closeness you want with your partner.
Fruzzetti, A. E. (2006). The high conflict couple: A dialectical behavior therapy guide to finding peace, intimacy, and validation. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Press.
Fruzzetti, A. E. & Iverson, K. M. (2004). Mindfulness, acceptance, validation and “individual” psychopathology in couples. In S. C. Hayes, V. M. Follette, & M. M. Linehan (Eds.), Mindfulness and acceptance: Expanding the cognitive-behavioral tradition (pp. 168- 191). New York: Guilford Press.