What should you do when you or your spouse angrily snap at each other?
How can you prevent snapping from becoming a very bad day?
And can a pet cat beat a gator in head to head combat?
Julian had a very bad day. It started with a missed alarm clock, then a passive-aggressive comment from "that guy" playing the role of frenemy at work, and then the new account went completely sideways and all the work he had done for 2 weeks was lost. Finally, there was an accident on the route home turning a 20 minute commute into 50 minutes. He just wanted to get on some sweats, go for a run, and settle in to a screen for a bit of ESCAPE.
But that's not what happened. The first grader had a class project due tomorrow (why was this just told us us today?) and Julian's wife Sandra was at a women's group at their church. So 2 hours later he had successfully held it together for his mini-me first grader and the class project - the kids are in bed- though he never did get that run - he opened up his screen quietly on the couch. Ahhh!
Sandra comes home and says with a snarky voice
"Hey! What's with all the junk on the kitchen table? Seriously Julian!?" (SNAP!)
What would you say? You are tired, have been holding onto the last shred of self-control with workmates, projects, driving, kids and all without that wonderful jog.
Here's 5 tips on how to respond to snapping in a relationship
1. Cool slow alligators are nice, when you can
We can practice cool and slow responses to high-risk and tense situations. But it is very hard. The ancient gator-like animal parts of our human brains have developed to use quick, reactive, and sometimes aggressive, responses to high-stress situations. After all, for almost all of human history a very fast reaction to the spider, snake, alligator, or neighbor with a weapon helped keep our ancestors alive. And even today a quick defensive response while driving, running, or moving quickly can save our lives or the lives of others. Being able to quickly react is a human super-power.
That doesn't mean we have to just give in to the alligator brain inside of us, and snap at each other. We do have another part of our brain, the slower, cooler, more thoughtful part of the brain. The problem is that the slow-thoughtful part of our brain is much slower than the quick-reactive part of our brain.
2. Pay attention to alligators coming to the surface
When we have had a horrible day, like Julius had, it's like the animal brain starts to come to the surface. It gets ready to react and defend us against threats. If you know you have had a horrible day- it's time to pull out your "horrible day" grab bag.
We humans are smart and we can notice when our body is tense, our head is aching, our thoughts are negative, and our emotions are running away. We can use our own special set of skills to manage our stress. For example, some people pray or meditate, some use perspective-taking, or improve stress appraisal. You have the ability to live well in your brain.
3. Never swim alone
Social support and partner-soothing is a powerful tool in the face of a very bad day. Julius could go to Sandra and say "I will take care of that mess too, but I could really use a hug right now. It's been an awful day" Partners that find ways to request and give support and soothing for each other cope much better with stress in their lives.
Couples who soothe each other's anxieties and concerns regularly create an amazing two-brain feedback loop of stress management. As intimate partners your bodies are literally co-regulating and synced with each other biologically to manage stress and threat in your environment. That partner hug, or kind word, or smile is powerful in managing life stress. When you turn away from each other, or turn ON each other and break that bond, you are much more vulnerable.
4. Time-outs for Alligators
Snapping will happen in every relationship. Words are said. Grunts. Growls. The alligators have come to the surface and the co-regulating bond has been broken. Now what?
Time-out works. And it's not just for toddlers. Anyone feeling overwhelmed and stressed-out tend to search for a way to slow down, regroup, and let the alligators go back under water for a nice long nap. The Hope Focused approach to couple counseling has an educational worksheet on how to do an effective time out.
For most any couple, the goal would not be to stop snappy moments from happening. Those are so quick and reactive that it's very difficult to stop them completely. But instead you can work to do the next right thing after a snappy moment. Cool down, take a time-out, let the figurative angry gators go under the surface and the co-regulating positive bonds rise up again.
5. Be kind, We're only Alligators
Our life as humans is stressful, and full of unexpected needs to react quickly. Sometimes we use that skill well and sometimes we use it against our family members. We all need kindness, grace, and forgiveness from our spouse in this wild world. The couples that can easily let things go, understand that everyone has bad days enjoys a happier life together. And then get the relationship back on track as quickly as you can. Find your own ways to repair the relationship.
After all, we are only humans (with adorable, adaptive gators in the brain).
If you find this information helpful, consider signing up for the Hope Focused Couple Counseling program of couple counseling.
I (Jen Ripley) spent my early childhood in central Florida where the gators are plentiful and used to LOVE going to see gators as a kid. So to end this blog I found this hilarious video of a few cats that stared down the jaws of gators and won! Hope it makes you smile too as you consider angry snapping- and the power of a 10 pound fur-ball!