Posts

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.

Priorities Matter: Focus on what’s important

What is most important to you? The closest people in your life may not be able to guess what it is most important to you, but may be able to tell you what seems to be your highest priority by viewing your actions. The couples and individuals that come see me in my office all appear to have similar priorities at the beginning of therapy. Consider your own priorities and what is important to you?

Priorities matter because they dictate what you will spend most of your time doing. Also, the thing you spend most of your time doing will become the major influence on all your other priorities by limiting time for other priorities and effecting who you are as a person. By effecting who you are as a person, the top priority also effects how all other priorities play out in your life.

Many individuals that come to my office tend to place general priorities in the following order:

  1. Work
  2. Children
  3. Marriage
  4. Spirituality

There are variations to this order, but my question to most of them is: “What do you think the order should be?” Most of them would change the order to something that seems more logical, especially placing children at the top of the order. The desired order of priorities tends to change based on beliefs and background. However, I believe that priorities matter because the order will help improve every piece of your life. Notice that the individual themselves are usually left out of this order of priorities. I think that actually is significant, and healthy, only if the order of priorities are placed in the “right” way to create the maximum effectiveness.

So what is the “right” way? Without stating this as an absolute, I believe that the “right” order of priorities for anybody should be as follows:

  1. Spirituality/Relationship with God
  2. Marriage
  3. Children
  4. Work

Once again, I leave out the individual self as a priority or important entity to attend to due to how having this version of order of priorities decreases the need for focus on “taking care of the self.” Let’s look at why this specific version of order of priorities is superior to other priorities.

First, let’s explore what happens when a person puts their relationship with God and spirituality first. By doing this, the person likely will read more Scripture, pray more, meditate on Biblical verses, decrease influences or interest that do not match the teachings of the Scripture and they will hopefully become overall, “better” people. I believe becoming “better” and more loving is the result of putting spirituality first because a person gains a sense of morality, humility and integrity.

Second, if a person becomes “better” and more loving through placing spirituality as their number 1 priority, then it makes since that that person would be a better spouse. Why? Because the Bible teaches love, humility, integrity, servanthood, sacrifice and more concepts that a spouse would need to have if they would be considered a great spouse. If both spouses have this same order of operations and thus have a great marriage then they portray behaviors that will help a child learn and become a healthy, successful adult. They also work better as a team and thus are better able to create effective structure and relationships with their children.

Third, focus on the children then becomes secondary to marriage, because the priority of marriage actually can be protective and developmentally healthy for children to witness. If at that point, children thrive, it is evident that because a parent is a better person due to their improved relationship with God and then their spouse shows why order of priorities is important.

Fourth, if everything above work is running well, then would has to worry about anything else but impacting the world the best way they know how, through their work. If a person’s relationship with God makes them a better person, then that means the top priority not only effects their marriage and their parenting, but also, their work performance. However, because children and marriage are so important to hold all this together, then work comes last. Because as has been said, “If momma isn’t happy, nobody is happy.” I know that is cliché, but can anyone focus on their work as well as they need to and make an impact if things are not going well at home (in parenting or marriage).

Finally, the priority to take care of yourself is completed through keeping this order of priorities in place. If I feel good about my spirituality, marriage, parenting capabilities and my job, then I am in a good place. It seems that the only time I need to use coping skills is if things are not going well. So, by using this order of priorities, we can indirectly improve every aspect of our lives.

I have a motto when working with people in my office: “You are what makes you happy.” Choices matter and thus whatever you choose to work on matters. Prioritize your choices and efforts in life so that you your life feels better because you are better. How many times do we look back and see we focus on the wrong thing. Change your heart and change your focus. It’s all about what you focus on and what you make most important in your life.