Fight or Flight in Relationship ConflictBy Dr. Margaret Paul
December 31, 2006
Conflict does not get resolved when the stress response takes over. Learn how to heal the fear that activates your fight or flight response.
The fight or flight response is a natural response to danger. Our bodies are created to fight or flee when danger is upon us, such as being attacked by a mountain lion. When faced with this kind of danger, the stress hormones pour into our body, causing some blood to leave our brains and organs and go into our arms and legs. This is vital to us if we are actually being attacked by a mountain lion or a mugger. The problem is that this same response occurs when we become afraid in other situations, such as conflict with a partner.
When in conflict with a partner, we need to have the full capacity of our minds to deal rationally and lovingly with the situation. Yet the moment we become afraid, some of the blood leaves our brain, we cannot think as well, and we automatically go into fight, flight or freeze. That is when partners tend to fight or withdraw, neither of which leads to conflict resolution.
Obviously, fighting, fleeing or freezing are not the best ways of dealing with conflict. Yet when fears are triggered - fears of losing the other through rejection or abandonment, or of losing yourself and being controlled by your partner - the stress fight or flight response is automatically activated and you find yourself fighting or shutting down. No matter how much you tell yourself that next time you will respond differently, the moment fear is activated you automatically attack, defend, yell, blame or shut down through compliance or withdrawal.
What can you do about this?
There are two solutions to this dilemma.
- The moment there is tense energy between you and your partner, it is best for both of you to walk away from the conflict for at least 15 minutes. During this time, you can calm down and do an Inner Bonding process. As the stress response leaves your body, you can think better. This allows you to open to learning about your end of the conflict. Once you are clear about what you are doing that is causing the problem and what you need to do differently, you can reconnect with your partner and talk it out. Sometimes there is not even anything to talk out, because the conflict was about the fight or flight reactions rather than about a specific issue. More often than not, it is the stress response itself that is the issue. When you take the time to calm down, you might be able to apologize for your anger, blame, defensiveness or withdrawal, and the conflict is over.
- The second solution is a longer-term solution. This is about doing enough inner work with Inner Bonding so that your fears of rejection, abandonment and engulfment gradually diminish. The more you learn to value yourself, rather than expect your partner to define your worth and lovability, the less fear you have of rejection. The more you learn to take loving care of your own feelings and needs, the less dependent you are upon your partner. When your fear of rejection diminishes, so does your fear of engulfment. People give themselves up and allow themselves to be controlled and consumed by their partner as a way of avoiding rejection. When rejection is no longer so frightening, you will find that your fear of being controlled diminishes.
The less fear you have, the less you will be triggered into the stress response of fight or flight. The more secure you feel within, due to learning to value yourself and learning to take loving care of yourself, the less fear you will feel in the face of conflict. This is when you stop being so reactive and are able to remain open and caring in the face of conflict, and this is what opens the door to conflict resolution.
There is no point in continuing a conflict when one or both of you are coming from fear. Continuing a conflict when the fight or flight response is activated will only erode your relationship. Until you can stay openhearted in a conflict, it is best to continue to follow through on the first solution - taking a time-out until you feel openhearted.
Join Dr. Margaret Paul for her 30-Day at-home Relationships Course: "Loving Relationships: A 30-Day Experience with Dr. Margaret Paul - For people who are partnered and people who want to be partnered."
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Photo by Tim Marshall
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Today, notice what you do when pain comes up - especially the pain of loneliness and heartache when someone is being unloving with you. Do you get irritated, angry or judgmental? Do you resist or withdraw? Do you people-please and give yourself up? Do you numb out with food or other substances, or with activities such as TV? Notice the ways you might be avoiding your feelings rather than compassionately attending to them.
By Dr. Margaret Paul