Fight Or Flight

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Life is full of ironies. For me one that sits at the top of the list is that the times in our romantic relationships when we would be best served by calm, objective, rational thought and openness towards understanding our partners are the times when we are most emotionally volatile and ready to protect our own interests at all costs.

Conflict is difficult under any circumstances and it probably doesn’t help that we let our guards down around the people with whom we are most intimately attached, sometimes showing the worst versions of ourselves instead of the best. Our natural physiology can be our greatest enemy. When we experience a threat of any kind we are programmed to respond with what is commonly called the fight or flight response. Adrenaline kicks in and starts racing through our bodies. Our pupils dilate to be able to hone in on the object that threatens us. Our hearts start beating faster to pump oxygen to all the parts of our bodies that will need it for the hostile encounter. Muscle tension increases to give the body extra strength and speed. We start sweating profusely to prevent overheating. All of this is fantastic if we are facing a grizzly bear or a dangerous intruder, but what about when we are facing our romantic partners?

The part of your brain that mediates fight or flight doesn’t really differentiate between perceived and real threats or the type of threat encountered, and the physiological arousal outlined above makes effective communication with your loved one basically impossible. It can lead to some really damaging emotional and psychological consequences. It’s hard to form a coherent sentence when you are in fight or flight, let alone be receptive to all of the complicated mechanisms that go into conflict between romantic partners. As simple as it sounds, one of the best ways to improve the quality of your relationship is to refuse to engage in conversation when one or both of you reaches the fight or flight state of physiological arousal.

Couples I have worked with have had a lot of success coming up with a safe word that they agree can be invoked any time one or both reaches this physiological threshold. The word acts as a cue for them to go off to separate areas in order to soothe themselves, bringing their heart rates and blood pressure back down to reasonable levels. There can be no judgment or scorning of the other for invoking the word. Mindfulness training is the best way I know to learn to bring your physiology back under your control quickly. It usually takes about ten to fifteen minutes to get back to normal levels but with practice you can get results much more quickly. It’s important to agree as a couple that the safe word does not signify the end of the discussion but only a short break from it. After time has elapsed you reconvene to continue your conversation.

If you are really committed to this strategy you can buy watches for yourselves that measure your heart rates, setting them to start beeping when they reach around 100 beats a minute. The psychologist John Gottman, who has studied thousands of couples, has found that 100 beats is around the time where DPA, or Diffuse Physiological Arousal, sets in and rational, reflective thought goes out the window.

There are clearly times in your life where the fight or flight response is necessary and can even save your life, but conflict in your romantic relationship is definitely not one of them. There is simply no way for you to really hear what your partner is saying, or express what you really want to say, when your body is in survival mode. You will have much more productive encounters and save yourselves a lot of hurt feelings if you can avoid arguing in the state of fight or flight.