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Vulnerability to High Emotional Arousal

You’ve probably at one point or another said some ugly things to your partner. Things that you immediately regretted and wished you could take back. Many relationships have long-standing patterns that keep partners from feeling as close and connected to each other as they would like. My hope is that the information you will find here will lead you and your partner to more understanding, validation and collaboration in your relationship.

Every couple has a unique dance. What I mean by this, is that each couple has a unique pattern that they fall into which is often problematic for them. Conflicts are an inevitable part of life and thus part of relationships. Partners sometimes say or do hurtful things to one another which, without a doubt, can make situations worse.

Once emotional arousals have normalized, feelings such as guilt, regret, and hurt make themselves known. Maybe an apology is made and things turn around for the better. Sadly, it doesn’t end there though. The episode is likely to happen time and time again. This is the dance of many couples.

When we are emotionally aroused, it affects other things like our ability to think and act in ways that give us desirable outcomes. When we experience high levels of emotional arousal, our focus becomes narrow and our thinking and ability to creatively problem solve then becomes impaired. Some people are vulnerable to having high negative emotional arousal. Three factors can cause this vulnerability.

Sensitivity

Some people are more emotionally sensitive than others. I’m certain this isn’t new information to you and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s no different than a person having sensitivity to loud noises or certain food textures and tastes for example.

You can have sensitivity to things that are currently happening in the relationship or to things your partner has said or done in the past. Sensitivity can be about things that have happened several months or even years ago in the same relationship.

A person with low emotionally sensitivity may have a hard time understanding their partner’s needs or feelings. Other sensitivities may be due to experiences from prior relationships or even from childhood experiences. Understanding each other’s sensitivities can help you to communicate more effectively. Additionally, adjusting your own sensitivity can help your partner to feel more understood and validated. Recognizing that you and your partner may not share the same sensitivities can go a long way.

Reactivity

Because we have different sensitivities, our reactivity will also not look the same. Your reaction to your partner is based on the sensitivities you carry. Your level of reaction is tied to whatever you perceive as a stressful or negative event.

The degree of reactivity may either be high or low depending on how you interpret the emotional relevance of a given situation.

Higher levels of reactivity often are counterproductive because if often involves intense reactions such as getting upset easily or reacting too quickly before having all the information.

Lower levels of reactivity tend to be much more productive. It involves taking a pause before responding to allow time to understand the whole picture. Learning to regulate reactivity can help you and your partner to end negative conflict cycles.

Recovery Time

Everyone has a baseline level of emotional arousal otherwise known as emotional equilibrium. Some people need more time to recover and come back to their “normal” emotional state after a conflict or discussing a touchy subject matter. When arousal goes up, it takes some time to come back down to baseline. For some, it may be easier for them get back to baseline and therefore less time is needed. Understanding how much recovery time each partner needs can help couples decide how long of a break to take when discussing emotionally sensitive topics.

Here’s a simple step by step break down of how to manage a touchy subject that might lead to high emotional arousal.

First, validate your partner’s experience. If they tell you they are hurt about something you did, validate their feelings. After all, it is indeed their experience and not yours. Validation is an essential component of effective communication and lets your partner know that their feelings matter to you. It builds trust, safety and closeness in the relationship. Don’t underestimate the power of validation.

Once validation has been offered, this will likely lead to a decrease in your partner’s negative emotional arousal.

Once they’ve entered a lower state of emotional reactivity, they are better able to express themselves and even disclose more about what they are feeling.

This not only leads to your partner feeling more understood but also to your greater understanding of them. Beautiful things can happen in a relationship when both partners feel heard, understood, and validated. It strengthens the connection and bond between two people.

3 Comments

  1. Laura Martorano on September 21, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    I love that you stress the importance of validation! It takes someone out of a state of reacting defensively, feels more safe, and allows vulnerability to be shared in the relationship. Thanks for a great article!

    • Kerri-Anne Brown on September 25, 2017 at 9:50 am

      You are welcome Laura! It’s so easy to become defensive but it doesn’t get us what we want from our relationships.

  2. Jill Osborne on September 24, 2017 at 3:45 pm

    Nice tips on how to diffuse intense emotions or when approaching a difficult conversation.

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