3 simple techniques when conflict makes you want to shut down or shut up

All too often, couples come into therapy feeling as though their arguments escalate so quickly that the intensity of the conflict makes one or both of them shut down or shut up. 

The Gottman Institute, specializing in couples therapy, calls this “flooding”; Dr. Dan Siegel, specializing in children’s therapy, calls it “flipping your lid.” But whatever you call it, it can happen often, and it can lead to challenging dynamics in relationships. 

People can “shut down” emotionally or physically.

When someone physically shuts down, it would look like leaving a room or hanging up the phone in the middle of a conflict. 

When someone emotionally shuts down, it may be less apparent, but it could be anything that would detach the person from the conflict. He may go completely silent. She may begin staring out the window or turn on the TV. He may pull out his phone and begin reading emails or zone out on a game or social media. 

Over time, shutting down can create negative patterns in relationships, such as...

  • avoiding the topic that led to a previous shut down,
  • pressuring a person to stay in the conflict even when his entire mind/body is urging him to escape,
  • pretending like it never even happened,
  • or even avoiding each other altogether. 

There are many beneficial techniques to address this, but at The Gottman Institute, they determined that couples can restabilize after just 20 minutes. 

The strategy they recommend is for the individuals to do something that is self-soothing (and NOT ruminating on the conflict) for at least 20 minutes and no more than 24hrs

Now, there are seemingly thousands of stress-reducing strategies out there; one of my personal favorites is grounding. It appears that most grounding techniques can fit into one of 3 categories: 

  1. Mental: focusing your mind
  2. Physical: focusing your body
  3. Soothing: talking to yourself kindly/self-compassion

Once you read through a few of the strategies, you & your partner may find that one may be more beneficial to you than another, or you may find you like all three!


Mental Grounding: Focusing your mind

  • Describe your environment in detail
  • Describe an activity in detail
  • Use a safety statement: “My name is ____. I am safe right now. I am in the present not the past. I am located in _____. The date is ____. ”

Physical Grounding: Focusing your senses

  • Run cool water over your hands
  • Grab tightly onto your chair as hard as you can
  • Touch different objects around you and notice the different textures
  • Dig your heels into the floor
  • Carry a grounding object in your pocket (a rock, piece of cloth, a string of beads)
  • Stretch

Soothing Grounding: Talking to yourself kindly

  • Say kind statements to yourself
  • Think of favorites or something to look forward to next week
  • Picture people you care about
  • Remember a safe place
  • Say a coping statement: “I can handle this. This feeling will pass.”
Adapted from Simple Stress Solutions Handout, C.L. Franklin, S.A. Corrigan, S.A. Repansky, K.E. Thompson, M. Uddo, and J.L. Walton 2006