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Marriage communication resulting in fleeing or fighting.

How Fight or Flight Affects Marriage Communication

In my office, I see many couples that are dealing with conflict and communication concerns. In many of their stories, I pick up a similar theme. It goes a little like the following and may take similar, but somewhat different forms: A wife tries to talk to the husband about something that bothers her. The husband then begins to defend himself. Next the wife starts to attack the husband verbally because his defenses don’t help find a solution to her concerns. Finally, he shuts down and withdraws inwardly (becomes quiet and unresponsive) or outwardly (leaves).

Sound familiar? Almost every couple I encounter has told me a similar version of this in their lives. I, in fact, have seen this interaction play out in my own marriage and in many relationships close to me. This type of interaction is natural in all relationships. The unfortunate thing is that many of us don’t understand what is happening and never resolve the issue or find a more appropriate way to react to our spouse. Most of us think that their partner is the problem (finger pointing), but an underlying pattern that has been ingrained in us for years seems to be drive the interaction.

Fight or Flight?

Our ancestors from the time humans were created have always had instincts or innate reactions that serve a specific purpose. Most instincts serve a survival purpose. Fight and flight are two such instincts. When faced with danger in ancient history, people did not have the safety of houses, weapons or walls. So, they needed an inborn sense that told them how to survive by fleeing or attacking when faced with a dangerous situation. Fleeing meant to run as fast as one can from danger until a safe place is found. Attacking meant taking action to defeat the danger before it defeated them. I would call this the “element of surprise” instinct. Today, in the developed world at least, we do not face many immediate threats to survival. Yet, we still feel threatened.

Threats to relationships?

Threats can come in many forms. When a person loses something or perceives loss, they feel threatened. I have seen people scared of losing loved ones, money, houses, cars, lifestyles, and more. These are all legitimate threats, but not of the survival kind that were present long ago. These days fear appears to be more present in everyday concerns, especially in marriage conflicts. For example, when a wife brings up a problem to her husband, he may “fear” he is doing something wrong that might result in losing his status in the relationship, losing power, or “getting his pride hurt.” When a husband asks a wife to do something, she may take offense to his request due to her perceived “threat” of being a “servant” in a culture that has fought so hard for women’s rights. The threats we face in recent years seem to be more “perceived threats” than realistic threats, especially in relationships.

Perceived Threats and Fight or Flight

Even though we do not face survival threats much anymore, we still have our instinct for fight or flight. So, anytime we “perceive” a threat to the loss of anything we own, our identity or our relationship, this instinct arises. When we feel hurt or vulnerable, anger arises and then negative reactions such as, attacking, yelling, throwing things, slamming doors, or cursing, tend to be the result of fighting to feel better or keeping what is ours. When we are attacked verbally by someone else, we may “flee” by leaving the room or shutting down and becoming quiet. Any time a loved one or partner attempts to initiate a conversation about something that bothers them, we may have the urge to either flee or attack based on a possible perceived threat.

How Fight or Flight Affects our Relationships

Fight or flight is not usually helpful in relationships today, except when an actual survival risk is present, such as physical, sexual or verbal abuse. When a survival threat is not present, the perceived threat is usually not realistic. Therefore, when a person flees or attacks, they are overreacting to the threat. By overreacting they either push their partner away or they hurt their spouse. Usually, a person tends to lean towards one or the other instinct and thus creates a negative pattern in their relationship. This pattern is normally referred to as the Avoider/Pursuer pattern of relating. If this “negative” type of relationship pattern continues, it may result  in resentment that leads to the couple feeling disconnected. The longer this pattern exists in the relationship, the wider the separation in the couple’s connection. It becomes harder and harder for a couple to reconcile the longer the disconnect exists. So, the instinct in us that drives us to survive can result in harmful effects on the relationship if they go unchecked.

The Benefits of Fight or Flight in Relationships

However, fight or flight is not all bad for a relationship. These instincts can drive people to fight for the survival of the relationship. Humans desire to keep the things that are theirs. They don’t want to lose what they have worked hard for or sacrificed so much for. So, if a couple can recognize that all might be lost, then fighting may result in a reversal of the negative pattern that exists.  Fighting in this sense means to put a lot of effort into saving the marriage. Some people also flee to keep from making things worse, which is not a bad reason to leave. It’s not good to make things worse, but outright leaving may be too much.

So what do we do? Well, we find balance and make small successes in using the strengths of these instincts.

So stay tuned to find out more about fight or flight. Also, if you have any questions, need help with your relationship, or just want to set up and appointment, please call 706-955-0230 or email me.

Forgiving and Forgetting? A better way to heal relationships!

Have you ever been told by your spouse, “You need to forgive and forget.” I have lots of couples come in where one partner reports that the other partner broke their trust and they are not sure how to deal with it. They also say that when they are told they just need to forgive and forget, it does not help. If you have ever tried to forgive and forget, you know it’s hard, if not, impossible.

Trust can be broken in many different ways. A little white lie or major infidelity can destroy trust. The intensity of the hurt depends solely on the individual who is on the receiving end of that broken trust. So, can a person really “forgive and forget?” I believe that people can’t forget most hurtful events. The human brain is made to be able to retain information, especially information that has an impact on the person. Yes there are times where information is not retained, such as, when the brain is damaged through physical drama or may when the impacting event is so devastating that the brain cannot process the information produced by the event. Also, there can be other times when a person may not remember something. Also, different types of brain memory play a part in remembering information. Lets discuss this further.

Types of Memory

To better help understand how memory works lets look at what types of memory a human brain has. First, the human brain has what is called declarative memory (explicit memory). Declarative memory is simply when one is trying to remember something (ie, a name, a list of items, a phone number, etc). Also, the human brain has what is called non-declarative memory (implicit memory). Non-declarative memory involves an involuntary response to something because of what happened in the past. This type of memory happens without your awareness. For example, lets say when you were a child lighting struck your house and now as an adult you shake for no reason when a thunder storm comes. Your brain remembers that lightning strike even though you may have experience many thunder storms without lightning hitting your house since.

Declarative memory brakes down  into working memory (short term memory) and episodic memory (long term memory). Short term memory is reactionary memory where we remember something that just happened within 2 to 18 seconds after the event. Episodic memory helps a person to remember important events throughout ones life that forms beliefs and thoughts about the world. Also, there is Semantic memory that helps to remember details when something is memorized, such as, math or vocabulary.

Non-declarative memory brakes down into primal memory, procedural memory and classical conditioning. Primal memory is helps to remember how to respond to different past events and can make response quicker. Procedural memory is used to helping to learn to drive and do task well. For example, driving a car is tough at first, but after lots of practice, automatic memory takes over and the mechanics to driving help a person to do many of the things required for driving without thinking about it. Classical conditioning is memory that comes about as a person makes associations to other things, whether good or bad, so as to be able to make better choices.

So much more can be said about memory to help us understand that remembering or forgetting something may be very complex. Based on what we know so far about memory, many things can interrupt the declarative memory, but non-declarative memory is not well controlled. Is broken trust associated with non-declarative or declarative memory? Broken trust involves cognitive and emotional reactions. It can almost be traumatic, if only minimally. When an emotional reaction is part of the memory process, working memory last longer and episodic memory is triggered the more intense the emotional reaction. Non-declarative memory is not associated with memories of history, except to the point of how one might react the next time the same type of event happens.

Therefore, declarative memory, and even more, episodic memory takes over when trust is involved. So now we need to consider how or if a person can forget something.

Forgetfulness

There are several ways that people possibly forget things.  Short term memory, decay, displacement and interference can all three be ways someone can forget something. Decay is when a person does not go over information enough to retain it. Displacement is when new memories replace old memories which can be a very positive form of forgetting in hopes of replacing negative memories with positive memories. Interference happens when a person attempts to remember things that are very similar and because they are so similar they can become mixed up.

Long term memory appears to have no limit and possibly stores all information. Some theories believe that information lost, may still be stored in the brain, but may be inaccessible. It is still unclear how much someone can actually forget. It does seem clear that a person can forget information by decay and interference that comes from similar memories.

Forget or Move Forward?

As a marriage counselor I have found a better way to understand that “forgive and forget” debate. I am one to believe and it is confirmed by the information I have shared in the rest of this blog post, memories moments that have a major impact in our lives tend to stick with us. I believe they are hard to get rid of and triggers can bring back up that memory any time that trigger is presented. So, forgetting is not a very useful word when it comes to resolving issues of trust.

I have started telling couples to use the phrase, “Forgive and Move Forward.” Why? Well, forgetting is hard, if not impossible, as we have discussed. In the very least, it could take days, weeks, months and sometimes years to heal from a break of trust. Also, when told to “forgive and forget,” it can deepen the hurt of the victim because a tone of “not caring” is displayed in the betrayer, which further affirms that the betrayer broke trust.  Many of my clients have enjoyed using the phrase “moving forward.” It appears to give them empowerment to be able to make changes and heal. If you are moving forward, then the person is making progress and being pro-active. Moving forward can involve being intentional, but also helps to dispel the fact that the person will not just “get over” something. It is not and will never be that easy.

So, next time you think about telling your spouse to forgive and forget, please stop yourself. Instead, ask how you can help and what can you do as a couple to move forward to heal the relationship.