More communication tools for new parents - Take a Break!

 In our last installments, we discussed the most common places in which couples with new babies get stuck in communication. We discussed Gottman's “Four Horsemen”, the four most toxic interactive styles that might show up in conflict, and we discussed the “softened start-up,” the process of initiating conflict conversations in a respectful and open manner. In this installment, we will discuss DPA and tools for managing individual upset.

When we get into a heated discussion with our partner, our heart rates will often become elevated and our IQ seems to drop by about 20 points. John Gottman refers to this experience as diffuse physiological arousal, or DPA. Otherwise known as “fight or flight”, it is the process by which our ancestors were able to survive in the wild. Heart rate increases, adrenaline pumps, our senses sharpen, all preparing us to withstand or flee an attack. This worked great when we lived in the bushes and had to be sure to not be a hungry tiger's next meal, but now it can get in our way and make conflict resolution nearly impossible.

When we combine the difficulties inherent in communicating while under the influence of DPA with the demands and realities of a new baby, many couples will slip into a self propagating cycle of withdrawal and avoidance which leads to further disconnection and loneliness.

One effective solution to taming DPA, is to become more adept at noticing when you or your partner are being “carried away” by your over-arousal and develop an agreement as to how to call for and implement a break. Agree on a word or phrase that can be initiated by either partner, like “time out” or “Broncos”. When either partner recognizes they are flooded, they can utter this phrase, and the couple agrees to take a break from the discussion and from each other. Gottman recommends no less than 30 minutes, (the minimum amount of time that the body needs to clear out the stress related hormones associated with DPA), and no less than one day. Any longer than a day and the time out practice can be used to avoid the discussion altogether. If you must wait longer than a day due to the usual constraints of life, schedule a time to complete the discussion.

During your time apart, instead of mulling over how your partner wronged you or is inconsiderate, take some time to reflect on their humanity, their positive intentions, and the role you may be playing in deepening the conflict. Take some time to self-soothe by walking, taking deep breathes, reading, or doing anything else that will help your nervous system settle.

A couple that can reengage in the discussion of difficult topics from a calmer place will be more flexible, kinder, and more open to compromise than the couple caught in the throws of their runaway nervous system.

If you and your partner are having problems communicating and would like to speak with a professional counselor please call 303-815-8538 or visit us at