Most of us enter into marriage with a certain expectation about how it will be. We don’t expect it to be easy, but I don’t think any of us are prepared for just how challenging it can be, particularly in the first few years. The couples I work with (and I can also speak from personal experience) tell me that dealing with conflict is one of the most challenging aspects of their relationship.
They tell me that when they argue with their partners their perception of their partner and their relationship does a 180. Suddenly, they cannot access feelings of love that they usually can. They can feel strong feelings of anger, bitterness, resentment and disappointment in the place of love and compassion, and they can start to see their partner quite literally as the enemy. They also see a different side to their partner, an angry and critical side, or a cold and distant side. Repeated arguments and conflict can have a significant impact on the relationship long term.
The couples I work with reason that surely if they’re arguing so much they can’t be right for each other? They feel that their partner cannot possibly love them, and that maybe they don’t love their partner in return? Why can’t my partner look me in the eye when I need him to? Why can’t he just give me a hug when I need him to? Why can’t I access the positive feelings I have for him when we’re arguing?
Let’s have a look at what happens underneath the surface, within our nervous systems, that might help us to make sense of our feelings and responses during conflict.
The Autonomic nervous system (ANS) and its 3 systems
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is like our bodys personal surveillance system. It is always working away in the background, surveilling our environment to check that everything is safe and well. Why does it do this? Well its job is to keep us safe and alive. If we think back to our caveman days when there were lots of life-threatening emergencies, when we had to fight or run from predators all around us, when a rustling bush could be a lion or something else trying to eat us, our ANS needed to be really good at detecting danger, and getting our body ready to deal with the threat at hand.
And our nervous systems haven’t changed a whole lot, even though the kinds of threats/dangers that we face have. We no longer need to run from predators, instead, the threats we have are things like giving a presentation, meeting a deadline at work, and yes!relationship conflict! These situations aren’t truly dangerous, but they trigger our stress response and our body reacts in the same way as if it were faced with a saber tooth tiger…The nervous system helps us to deal with threats by moving us in and out of these 3 states. Let’s get to know them.
The nervous system helps us to deal with threats by moving us in and out of these 3 states.Let’s get to know them.
- Safe & Social
When danger is detected (be it a predator or be it conflict with our partner), our bodieshave been designed to move us into fight/flight to deal with “the threat”. When this systemis activated, we experience a rush of adrenalin, and an immediate surge of anger and/oranxiety. The brain and body gets the message ‘I am under attack’ and we get ready to attack or to flee the situation. Our heart rate speeds up, breath is short and shallow, our muscles tense, and all the physical changes that occur provide the body with a burst of energy, so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.
Our perceptions and thoughts also change. We see the world as a dangerous place, and we need to if we’re going to protect ourselves from harm. We also see the source of the threat as the enemy.
In our relationships, we are fight when we shout and scream at our partners, become critical and attacking, and we are in flight, when we feel the urge to flee and escape from the situation
When our nervous system perceives that we are not able to escape “the threat”. In conflict this might be when we’ve been shouting and screaming but feel we are not being heard or we haven’t been able to resolve the argument. Our nervous system switches us into freeze,when our attempts at dealing with threat under fight/flight (by shouting or leaving) have not been successful. In freeze, we submit, we “give up”. We shut down. We might feel numb, withdrawn and completely disconnected from our partners…and even ourselves.
Safe & Social
Now, let’s say we managed to somehow connect with our partners either during conflict,and somehow resolve the argument. When our nervous system senses that we are safe (e.g.no longer in conflict), the nervous system switches into its safe and social system to restore the mind and body to a relaxed state. Here, we feel that we are no longer under threat, andare able to feel happy & peaceful. Our heart is regulated, we breathe deeply & we can tune into the faces of friends/our partner.
These three systems worked together to keep our ancestors alive, and these are the same systems that we have within us to deal with threats in the present day. Relationship conflict isn’t usually truly dangerous, but it triggers our stress response, and our body reacts in the same way as if it were faced with a saber tooth tiger…
Relationship conflict example scenario & the ANS
Let’s observe how the ANS and 3 systems play out in the following scenario. Let’s imagine that you and your partner are getting on relatively well one morning. You’re feeling relaxed, enjoying spending time together. Everything feels good. You’re both in your safe & social system.
A little later you start discussing something and you realise that you have a difference of opinion. It’s about your son…your husband thinks that your son’s outbursts are normal for his age, whereas you feel that there is something going on that needs to be explored
further. You start arguing and then raising your voices. The arguing continues and your ANS (which had been surveilling this situation the whole time) suddenly judges the environment as unsafe. And that’s it- it sends the threat signal out and a cascade of changes happen within your body.
Without you being aware, your ANS shifts us out of connection (safe & social system) and into protection (flight/flight). You get that surge of adrenalin, you have strong feelings of anger. The brain and body get the message ‘I am under attack’ , and suddenly your feelings towards your partner change. Your physiology does not allow you to be open-hearted, compassionate, or to have feelings of love, instead you become armoured & concerned with self-protection. The source of threat, in this case your husband, becomes the enemy.
At the same time, your husband’s ANS has done the same. It’s got his fight/flight system activated. So there you are, the two of you in flight/flight mode, suddenly unable to access any feelings of love or connectedness that you felt for each other that same morning. You continue the exchange, and become more and more angry until you have a huge fight and struggle to connect for days afterwards.
Changing the course of conflict
This kind of scenario occurs all the time for couples, where a relatively minor difference of opinion can lead to conflict that can last for days. How can the above understanding about our nervous system and flight/flight help to shed light on why this occurs, and importantly, how we can change its course?
Firstly, this new understanding allows you to make sense of your and your partners behaviour in a new way. You realise that your feelings toward each other and your responses are all as a result of your nervous system switching into flight/flight we say that your nervous system becomes dysregulated when this happens). You realise that your nervous systems are reacting to one another..
Now if you can bring this understanding to mind during an argument, it has the potential to be transformational- instead of saying to yourself “ I feel so much anger towards this man, I must really hate him” or “my partner is being so horrible, he doesn’t love me anymore” (which will only perpetuate the conflict)..you now know differently, and you can say to yourself “Ah! My fight/flight system is being triggered right now, and my physiology is not allowing me to feel love, openness, empathy right now. How I feel towards him doesn’t mean I don’t love him.”
And then we take things a step further…what action do we take if we realise that this is all about nervous system dysregulation? Well- we take action to regulate our nervous system. We take ourselves away from the situation and calm our nervous systems down, because we now understand that before we can have any kind of helpful or open conversation, we have to be out of fight/flight mode.
How can we regulate our nervous system?
You can learn to regulate our nervous systems over time by recognising those actions that help your nervous system to come back into regulation (i.e. your safe & social system). Some examples include slowing you breathing down, meditating, texting/calling someone
who makes you feel safe, consciously relaxing your facial muscles, neck & shoulders, placing your hands on your heart and face, telling yourself it’s ok, going for a walk in nature, yoga, stretching, writing out your feelings etc. The important thing is that we start to practice regulating our systems in other areas of life when we feel stressed at work or in other relationships etc. The more we practice, the easier it will be to activate our body’s relaxation system when we need to.
Another thing we can do is to learn to identify our triggers. Triggers are the things that move us into fight flight. Getting to know these allows us to take some ownership over what’s happening within our body. As we get to know our triggers we can share them with our partner. If when your husband says ‘I’m leaving now’, you notice that it triggers your system into fight/flight. He could come up with a different set of words to tell you that he needs time-out like “I need a break”, which your nervous system may be able to handle much better.
Nervous system regulation in practice
When my husband and I get into a disagreement, there comes a point where he stops looking at me directly and avoids eye contact. This really gets to me and in the past I would go into fight/flight almost immediately. I’d feel a rush of anger and think ‘he is purposely punishing me disengaging, what a horrible person, how dare he’ etc and I would get caught up in this story. Both our nervous systems would end up in fight/flight, and you can guess the rest…
So, here’s what happens on the days that I’m able to self-regulate:
- When I see him avoiding eye contact I say ‘right..his nervous systems entered into fight/flight. His biology is not allowing him to look at me/connect with me..he’s not doing this on purpose.’
- I tune into what’s happening within me. Is my own nervous system moving into fight/flight? Ah yes here are the signs. Heart beating faster, lump in the back of the throat, tension in neck, shoulders, face.. Intense anger. Head is swimming with angry thoughts. But ‘don’t buy into these thoughts, you don’t really hate him, these thoughts are just a by-product of your nervous system shifting into threat mode’..
- Tuning in and pausing allows me to track what’s happening & gives me a chance to regulate. I ask myself-‘ what do I need right now to signal to my nervous system that I’m safe, so I can come out of fight flight?
- I remind myself of my resource list: noticing my breathing, doing simran internally, texting someone who makes me feel safe, consciously relaxing my facial muscles etc.
- By doing these things, not only am I sending a message to my nervous system that I’m safe, I am signalling to my husband’s nervous system that I’m not a threat..helping us both shift out of fight flight, re-connect, have a more open and productive discussion
The process of developing nervous system regulation is a life-long one but you can start now. Start tuning into your body, recognise shifts in your nervous system, notice the triggers, and discover the things that help to calm your system down.