Caught in the Red Zone
My partner and I were on the last leg of a lengthy road trip. I was using Google Maps to navigate; he was driving. We were both weary from the long hours on the road. I was giving directions and he was following them when, suddenly, the GPS voice started saying “rerouting.”
It felt like a siren going off. We had missed a turn! I told him something was wrong; he fired back that I was the navigator. I replied, even more heatedly, that he should have known where we were going before we left. The conversation went downhill from there.
Yes, I have been a couples therapist for forty years, and I have taught numberless classes on communication. Yet there I was, a victim of my own lack of awareness, my own obliviousness of being in the Red Zone.
We’ve all been there. Everything seems easy and friendly and copacetic; then, wham, out of nowhere we are shut down, fired up, seeing the other person as the problem.
When we are calm, when our brains and bodies are resting comfortably, we can feel empathy, solve problems, and listen to significant others with curiosity and warmth rather than with judgmentalism and coldness.
But the moment we feel distressed, cortisol floods our bodies and brains, and our nervous system reacts to perceived danger. Empathy, creative problem solving, and rational discussion all go out the window. Sympathetic responses give way to defensive reactivity. I call this psychological state the Red Zone. When we’re caught in the Red Zone, love dives and fight-or-flight impulses thrive. We lose our ability to see the whole picture. Our alarm systems blare and our loving, connected partner becomes The Enemy, at least for the next few minutes.
In the Gottman Institute’s Love Lab, couples wear pulsimeters when they are having a discussion. If their pulse rate goes over 90, they stop talking about whatever they are talking about and take a twenty-minute break. That’s how long it takes for our system to calm down. (Of course, we don’t have the luxury to benefit from a twenty-minute timeout while doing things like driving. But in the personal example I gave above, if we had been mindful of what was going on, we could have slowed down and taken a few deep breaths before trying to figure out what to do next.)
We need to understand the Red Zone if we are to keep our relationships safe and loving. It’s the first thing I talk about in my Love Skills class. Two people may love one another enormously and have a lot going for them as a couple. But if they get locked into that Red Zone, they will often start to pull away from each other, just because they’re so exhausted from the ongoing arguments—arguments that are more about a physical state of alarm than any real danger.
Learning about and learning to monitor our Red Zone is one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves and to all of our relationships.