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.