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This Is Why You Always Cry When You Argue

Crying can happen to anyone. Here's how to regulate your emotions.

by Gretchen Brown
March 6, 2020 | Living

Ever found yourself trying to argue your point to your partner or friend and — ope — there come the tears?

In Western culture, we’re socialized to believe that it's wrong to cry around other people.

That stigma can be even stronger depending on your gender or race — it’s more socially acceptable for a white woman to cry than it is for a Black man, for instance, mostly due to ideals around masculinity.

Regardless, crying can happen to anyone. It’s science, a fight-or-flight system in our bodies called Diffuse Physiological Arousal, or DPA.

“DPA is our body’s built-in alarm system that alerts us to perceived threats or danger,” licensed marriage and family therapist Jessica Small said.

“While DPA has played a huge part in protecting our species over time, it does not always know how to differentiate between an actual threat to our life or an emotional experience.”

DPA makes your heart start pumping faster, and your body produce adrenaline. The researcher John Gottman calls this “emotional flooding.”

Its effects can be frustrating — mostly because it can get in the way of making your point. You might get a wave of anger, or have the urge to yell. With some folks — especially if you’re a Highly Sensitive Person, or HSP — you might tear up.

[ICYMI: 3 Tips to Succeed in an Open Office as a Highly Sensitive Person]

“When we are flooded we can't think rationally, so we don't communicate effectively and we don't listen very well,” relationship counselor Kari Rusnak said.

A photo of a tweet asking how lawyers can argue without crying. Someone replies that it's gets super close. Rewire PBS Living Cry Argue

Rusnak said it’s important to know that sharing your emotions with your partner is important, and crying isn’t actually a bad thing like we’re often taught.

“A few tears while you are speaking is pretty normal when you are having a conflict over something that is deeply meaningful to you,” she said.

But if it’s making you unable to even speak, and you’re gasping for air, you might want to look for ways you can alleviate that.

Self-soothe

It is possible to intercept the feelings, mid-argument.

Small recommends taking stock of how your body reacts when it is flooded. Once you know your own experience, you can identify when it’s happening and self-soothe to help you deal.

Self-soothing could be deep breathing (breathe in four counts, hold your breath for four, breathe out for four). It could be progressive muscle relaxation (tightening and releasing each muscle, from your toes all the way to your head).

A man and woman argue. REWIRE PBS Living Cry argue
Ultimately, your goal shouldn’t be squashing your feelings, or avoiding them altogether. You should be giving yourself options for dealing with those feelings.

It could be the “five, four, three, two, one method:” “acknowledge five things you see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.”

It could even be drinking a glass of cold water or stroking your hands. Small says most of these can even be done during a conversation, if you’re in a situation like work where you’re not able to take a break.

If you’re at home with your partner, and either of you are flooded, there’s nothing wrong with calling for a time out. That’s something Rusnak tells her clients.

“No need to explain why though, come up with a code word so you both know what you mean when you say it,” she said. “For example if one of you states ‘break time!’ you will both know that a time out has been initiated.”

Set a time limit for the break, like 20 or 30 minutes, and don’t use it to stew over the argument. Instead, do something relaxing or distracting, Rusnak said, and come back when the time limit is over — even if it’s just to say that you need more time.

“If you are calm and ready to talk don't engage right back where you left off,” she said.

“Start by telling each other how you are feeling and what you need from your partner.”

[Read: Do You Argue With Your Partner Too Much?]

Prepare before a tough convo

If you know in advance that a conversation is going to be an especially difficult one, whether that’s at work or at home, you might find it helpful to prep beforehand, and be clear with yourself on what you want to cover.

“If you are not sure what you want the outcome to be, you will be scattered during the conversation and easily distracted by high emotions,” said Jen Douglas, a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University School of Medicine and a licensed psychologist in San Francisco.

Douglas recommends writing down a bullet point script before you start the conversation.

Even if you never look at it, the process of writing it down will help organize your thoughts.

Going into the conversation, your stress level might be high. Do whatever you can to regulate it.

“Make sure you are not hungry or thirsty going into the argument,” Douglas said. “Try not to drink too much caffeine that day, and ideally get a full night’s sleep the night before.”

And afterward, take the time to decompress -- you’re training your brain that you can recover from a hard conversation. You’ll be better equipped to handle the next one.

Figure out what triggered you

You might also find it helpful after the argument to figure out what triggered the flooding in the first place — why your emotional intensity did not match the situation.

“Did you feel invalidated? Unworthy? Like you didn't matter?” psychologist Kelsey Latimer said.

“These are some of the common things that trigger deeper emotional reactions in us.


"Once we know our triggers, we can become more aware of situations that may bring them on and hence prepare ourselves for how to engage in those situations more effectively.”

Sometimes, memories from your past impact how you deal with future arguments, said professional counselor Brent Sweitzer.

“People may have painful memories of their parents in conflict growing up, and so learned that conflict had to be painful,” he said.

“They may have few if any models of people arguing in a mutually respectful way.”

These kinds of experiences can lead folks to avoid conflict. That makes it harder when they do, inevitably, have a conflict with someone.

Sweitzer recommends writing down the inner dialogue that pops up when you’re in an argument. Say those false beliefs out loud, such as, “arguing with someone means this relationship is going to end.”

Then, say out loud the more realistic belief, like “it is loving to hear my partner out and for them to hear me.”

“Practice asserting yourself and your needs in small ways,” he said.

“At the grocery store, the dry cleaners, etc. The more you practice having potentially uncomfortable interactions, the easier it will get.”

It’s OK to have feelings

Ultimately, your goal shouldn’t be squashing your feelings, or avoiding them altogether.

Rather, you should be giving yourself options for dealing with those feelings, psychologist Heather Z. Lyons said.

“If your priority is to stop feeling, that avoidance can become draining and leave you with less capacity to truly devote to your partner and the conversation,” she said.

“Give yourself permission to feel. Label the feeling, accept the feeling, and then internally make a decision about how you'd like to express those feelings.”

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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