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The biggest obstacle getting in the way of your communication
Many believe communication is the key to a good relationship. However, there is one big issue that must be tackled before good communication can take place. Learn what that issue is and how to solve it to improve your relationship. - photo by Anastasia Pollock, MA, LCMHC
Disagreeing, arguing and having differences of opinion all are a normal part of any relationship. One of the biggest complaints couples talk about when they seek therapy is they are having trouble talking to each other.

Often, neither party feels heard or validated by the other, which has resulted in any number of relationship problems. When a couple comes to therapy, many times they want to work on communicating better, and specifically learning better skills to do so.

Communication skills are great. They are useful, and they can work as long as the conditions are right. However, when the conditions are wrong, they are not helpful and can leave both partners feeling frustrated and discouraged.

Stephen Porges has done a great deal of research on states of arousal, specifically how the vagus nerve impacts arousal, and many others have written about it as well. Essentially, humans have three states of arousal: hyperarousal, hypoarousal, and the window of affect tolerance.

Hyperarousal occurs when the sympathetic nervous system comes online, and we go into a fight or flight mode. In an argument, this can look like one or both partners becoming flustered, anxious, panicky, defensive and loud.

Hypoarousal occurs as a kind of off switch. When someone goes into hypoarousal, it can look as though they are shut down, numb, staring off into space, or void of emotion. It is not uncommon for one or both partners to enter into one or both of these zones during an argument. In either state, it is impossible to engage socially and solve problems in a relationship.

The Dangerous Dance

When a couple comes in for therapy, it is not uncommon to find there is a dance of sorts they have been doing for much of their relationship. If one or both partners are hyperaroused, they may say and do things they later regret, feelings get hurt and damage is done to the relationship. Usually, in this scenario, the argument does not end peacefully and can escalate.

If hypoaroused, one or both partners is shutting down which halts communication. If both are hypoaroused, it may appear that the argument is over, but what has really happened is that both partners have disconnected from the relationship. Sometimes difficulties may never be fully addressed, especially if the issue is never again discussed. If hypoarousal occurs every time something difficult is discussed, nothing ever gets solved, and the number of elephants in the room and the relationship multiply. In this scenario, a relationship can get pretty crowded after a while.

Then there is the dance where one partner tends to become hyperaroused and the other then goes into a hypoaroused state, shutting down. This then angers the other partner, increasing their hyperarousal, which, in turn, causes the other partner to shut down more. This situation can happen in the reverse as well. But either way, it all ends up the same: no effective communication, hurt feelings and damage to the relationship. Its a lose-lose situation all the way around.

The Window

The term window of tolerance refers to a state in which we can feel a full range of emotions, but can also tolerate those emotions and any stressors around us. When we are in the window, we are in control. We have power over what we say and do. We can see clearly, hear well and stay present. This is the key to having good communication in a relationship. When one is in the window, he or she will notice that vision and hearing are clear, heart rate is fairly normal and breathing is not shallow or fast. He or she will feel emotions but not feel overwhelmed by them. Thoughts will be clear and easy to follow.


It is perfectly normal for us to go out of our window of tolerance. Doing so does not indicate that something is wrong. The key is to notice where you are at any given time, particularly when you are trying to communicate with another person. If you can notice you are not in your window, you can call a time out to a discussion. Signs that you may be out of your window include, but are not limited to: feeling overwhelmed; changes in vision; changes in hearing; racing thoughts; faster than normal heart rate; difficulty paying attention; feeling sleepy or disconnected from what is happening in the moment; and muscle tension. The sooner you can notice you are out of the window the better.

Take Time

Once you notice you are out of the window, its time to take a moment or more to get yourself back into your window. The time it will take will vary from person to person. Having an agreement with your partner about taking time when you notice you are in hypoarousal or hyperarousal before any serious discussions take place will be extremely helpful if one or both partners notice they need some time.

The Skills

Depending on where you notice you are, use a skill that either calms you or brings your attention back to the moment. If you are in hyperarousal, helpful skills may be slowing and deepening breathing, focusing on an object, noticing body sensations without changing anything you notice, or using imagery to imagine being in a calm place. If you are in hypoarousal, walking around, focusing on your feet on the floor, looking at an object across the room and trying to make your vision sharper and clearer, and smelling something that catches your attention.

Practice Makes Perfect

It is not uncommon for couples to have to take a timeout frequently in the beginning of noticing they are out of the window during discussions. Every time you or your partner notices, it is a good thing and progress in the right direction. Dont be discouraged if it takes more time to solve an issue than you would like. The goal here is to actually solve the issue instead of rehashing the same things over and over, or burying them and creating more resentment and problems in your relationship.