Every couple has arguments from time to time and sometimes these arguments get stuck in what John Gottman calls ‘the nasty box’. This is the place where the argument seems to take on a life of its own and no matter what is said by either partner, they don’t seem to be able to get out of the argument. It’s a bit like in the song Hotel California by the Eagles, ‘you can check in any time you like but you can never leave’.
When in the nasty box some couples torture each other with very vocal attacks, while others avoid direct conflict but will stew and remain silent for days or weeks. When asked about this the couples will tell you they feel terrible about these arguments but they don’t know how to stop and resolve things. In Gottman’s research he says that there are typically 2 main reasons for this inability to stop – flooding and failed repair attempts.
Flooding is the term used for a physical response more commonly associated with high level stress. Increased heart rate, high blood pressure, tensed muscles and shallow breathing are what we feel when highly scared or anxious and it is exactly the response that one partner in the couples nasty box can often experience. Flooding in this case is another way to describe the fight and flight response and it is deadly for couples if it happens a lot because it shuts down the ability to be rational, to listen, solve problems or understand our partner’s emotions. So typically a flooded person will either attack (fight) or shut down and refuse to communicate (freeze or run). Gottman calls this stonewalling.
The second reason for staying in the nasty box is failed repair attempts. It is often connected to flooding because when one partner floods they lose the ability to make a successful repair attempt which could calm things down. Often, even if the one who isn’t flooded attempts to soothe their flooded partner, this repair attempt fails. So they might attempt a repair by using humour but if the other partner is flooded they will not respond to the humour but rather remain shut off and turn away. This is how trust is eroded between a couple.
What is so often lacking is a failure of attunement within the relationship. That is, the ability to really understand and respect each other’s inner world and to communicate this understanding in a way that each other can actually hear. I’ll talk more about attunement in another post.
But if you are reading this right now and you realise that this scenario describes what is going on between you and your partner, you might want to take the warning sign seriously. When we get stuck in the nasty box more times than not then our relationship is in danger of further eroding of trust. It might be time to consider seeking some couples counselling before the nasty box becomes the norm.