You and your partner get into a spectacular fight. And let us guess… it’s his fault. Or hers. Definitely not yours.
As couples therapists we see this often. Each partner wants to believe the other is ultimately at fault. We blame our partner for our emotional reactions, which means we end up feeling distressed and then also alone because we’ve pushed our loved one away.
So what if we take blame out of it?
Neuroscience offers us a different way to look at couples conflict. It starts with the understanding that the human species has survived for millennia with the basic instinct to not be killed… and this instinct is wired in our brains.
Whether we realize it or not, we are always assessing a sense of safety within and around ourselves. The brain can basically create two distinct states of mind: a reactive state, or a receptive state. When we feel threatened, or unsafe in any way, we instinctively shift into a closed reactive state. When we feel safe and secure, we find ourselves in an open receptive state. These are basic primal states that we don’t choose or have rational control over.
When the brain and nervous system are reactive, we are actually in fight-flight-or-freeze mode, which is as primal as it gets. We’re like all other mammals in that way of reacting to threat. And when we are in that state it is not possible to connect with another person. Our pre-frontal cortex – the rational problem-solving part of the brain – shuts down. We are physiologically unable to be rational or reasonable.
In that self-defensive reactive state, we cannot open ourselves up to hearing our partner’s words accurately, no matter what we do! In fact, our reactive brains can even turn neutral comments from our partners into fighting words. We are literally, biologically, poised to fight…or run away, shut down, and escape.
Fortunately we are also wired to be receptive and open when we feel safe or soothed or secure. A different part of the brain is activated and it causes our facial muscles and vocal cords to relax, blood pressure and heart rate to normalize again. We feel open and can actually hear what our partners are saying. We are able to connect.
Couples often find themselves triggering reactive states in each other, which can evoke strong, self-protective reactions like shouting, swearing, running away, pushing the other away, or shutting down completely. Then guess what happens? Yep, your partner reacts the same way, either fighting or fleeing…and that increases your own sense of threat and you really start to react like you are fighting or fleeing for your life. And that further threatens your partner who reacts even more…and so on and so on. Oh how easy it is to get caught in that reactive cycle!
So what can we do?
(1) Become aware of what it feels like when you are in reactive mode. What sensations happen in your body? Does your heart beat faster? Does your chest or jaw feel tight? Do your shoulders rise up to your ears? What are your signs that you are becoming reactive?
(2) Learn how to read your partner’s signs that he or she is becoming reactive. Does their voice get louder? Does their vocal tone change? Do they appear to stiffen up? Are they holding their breath?
(3) Ask for a break when you notice these sensations in yourself. When you recognize you are slipping into reactive mode, call for a “time-out” so you can each calm your brain activity and come back into receptive mode.
(4) If you notice your partner shifting into reactive mode, you can also step in and reassure him or her. Recognize your partner is feeling threatened and soothe him or her with your words and gentle touch.
(5) Remember your relationship is a 2-person system. If one of you is distressed, it affects the other. The goal is not to “win” a battle between the two of you, which leaves half of your system in distress…and ultimately affects you. The goal is to stay connected by caring for the relationship as a whole. Think of your relationship as a three-legged race. You can only get ahead when you work together and pay attention to what is happening to one another.
(6) Encourage connection and receptive states by making eye contact when you talk. Also pay attention to transitions – saying goodbye and greeting one another and going to sleep and waking up. Get into a habit of embracing before and after transitions. Before doing anything else, hold one another close, bellies touching, until you both feel the other relax. It means starting your conversation from a place of receptivity instead of being geared to fight.