I believe conflict, if done right, has the potential to bring people closer together. However so many people either avoid conflict at all costs or bulldoze their way through conversations. Getting rid of negativity in a relationship requires a keen awareness of when our fight/flight/flee response is being triggered and we’ve moved into reactive or (as Dr. Julia Colwell calls it) dumb brain. We all bring our emotional baggage from family and previous partner relationships into our current relationships. This, combined with thinking traps, can get in the way of loving communication and problem solving. Our hearts start racing, our breathing becomes fast and shallow, our muscles tense and we feel stressed out or exhausted.
Being able to recognize this physical shift and self-sooth is essential for healthy conflict resolution and deeper connections. Dr. Gottman who has studied couples for decades finds that men whose partners complain of them shutting down or stonewalling are actually doing so in an attempt to lower their high physiological arousal or upset. They have essentially fled the scene. The problem is in this state they can’t hear what their partner needs nor can they express their own needs. This only intensifies the feeling of a lack of safety and decreases one’s trust in their partner to be there for them. Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of Emotion Focussed Couples Therapy, talks about the unhelpful patterns couples can become entrenched in as a result. For those who tend to go more into fight mode some of the following thoughts may taint their experience of reality: my partner is my enemy/competitor or aggressor; I’m better than my partner; my partner is to blame; my partner is weak or doesn’t care. In general our thoughts can become narrowly focussed and stuck. Feelings of inadequacy or scarcity can also be triggered in reactive mode. And to add insult to injury, the brain further works against us by drawing our attention to any past wrong doings or hurts by this person in an effort to keep us safe from the potential threat. As you can see, being in reactive brain is NOT the time to make big decisions, try to think through problems or create connections.
The good news is that with understanding comes the potential for change. Not only can negativity come from a desire to help but it can also be born out of a need for survival. When couples can grasp that these attacks or abandonments are not intentional acts to hurt but rather neurologically wired responses to what is perceived as threatening, they can bring down their guard and connect with one another’s vulnerability, shifting from enemies to allies. In my final blog I’ll give you some tips on how to sooth the reactive brain and create positive buffers in your relationship.
Here’s an old post to help you become more comfortable with conflict.
Nicole, May 2014