Fight? Or Flight?
Posted: October 21, 2016
After an argument with your partner, do you find yourself wondering why you said some of the things you did? You may even start this second-guessing as soon as the words leave your mouth. Yet, the next time conflict arises do you follow the same reactive pattern? I can only ask these questions because of the normalcy of these types of patterns, so don't blame yourself. You're actually being driven by a biological imperative that's hardwired for self-preservation. We probably know the "fight or flight" response as being associated with physical threats, but it definitely kicks in during times of emotional fear as well. A Biological Response to an Emotional Situation When we are involved in a heightened situation, like a heated argument with our partner, our brain naturally reacts to the noticed stressor and starts releasing stress hormones (cortisol), which has the effect of raising our blood sugar and blood pressure as if to help us escape from the perceived threat. Unfortunately, this visceral reaction leaves us ill-equipped to make rational decisions. On the surface, disagreements between couples appear to be triggered by behaviors, such as spending too much time with friends or avoiding sex. However, experience has shown that conflicts are actually rooted in deeper-seated fears and insecurities, which is the work we try to get to in Emotionally-Focused Therapy. I often see that disagreements in relationships generally revolve around fear: you may be afraid of being abandoned by your partner, or you might be afraid you will disappoint them. Even though we might not be consciously aware of this process, our brain reacts instinctively, initiating the fight-or-flight response. Pressing the “pause” button We can agree to walk away for 10 to 15 minutes when we start feeling tension building. This simple action lets your body dial back on the fight-or-flight response, allowing us to think about the disagreement with a clearer mind and look deeper for the underlying cause. However, this is really challenging for those who tend towards the “fight response” and naturally much easier for those in the “flight” category! In our work, I will often encourage escalated relationships to be able to identify their “cycle” as it’s happening, and not seeing their partner as the danger, but rather this thing (the cycle that goes around and around without end) that has entered into the relationship. Remember that it is normal for us to have fights. It is not the sign of an unhealthy relationship, by any stretch of the imagination. On the contrary, I find it often indicates that there is a passion there and a desire to matter to the other person. Keeping this in mind can help the repair work after a fight: the time when we want to try to understand what our responses actually were saying about us, and to our partner.