It doesn’t seem to make sense: You used to be best friends, but now you can’t go a day without fighting. Your partner says something that triggers you - you feel attacked or devalued - and you react: Maybe you yell, slam the door and walk out, or you shut down and refuse to continue the conversation. Looking back, it may be hard to tell how you even got into the argument in the first place. It might have been something very subtle that made you see red: a smirk, rolled eyes, a certain body posture, or tone of voice. In a split-second you picked up on a message, and you simply reacted. Unfortunately, your own signature response to the threat you perceive coming from your partner is likely to be the exact thing that drives him or her crazy, whether you say something hurtful, or flee the battlefield and leave your partner feeling abandoned. It’s a vicious cycle.
What’s going on? While we are social beings and want close relationships, we are also hard-wired for survival. Biologically speaking, when we feel threatened, we usually resort to one of 3 reflex-like reactions in order to protect ourselves from more hurt: fight, flight, and freeze. Depending on the situation, our brains try to determine the most likely outcome of a conflict and assess if there is enough time to escape, sufficient strength to fight/win, or if “playing dead” is the best strategy in order to survive.
These responses are not rationally chosen. Rather, they are triggered by external stimuli which cause your brain to fire almost instantly. Many of us have had experiences in the past where such a response was necessary for physical or emotional survival, and the brain has been shaped in ways to optimize these self-defense responses. The trouble is, while our reactions were probably shaped by a legitimate threat in the past, it may now be exaggerated in terms of the threat we now perceive from our partner when discussing an uncomfortable subject.
But there is hope: It takes a lot of time, practice, and more often than not professional guidance to teach your brain new ways of responding, but your brain can be rewired. Brain scientists call this process neuro-plasticity. Therapy can teach you to share things that bother you with your partner effectively, as well as how to listen to your partner while staying close, curious, and connected. The goal is getting to know him or her better in light of their history so you can change the vicious cycle of your interactions together. Your natural reactions, such as immediately wanting to fix a problem, withdrawing, or becoming emotionally reactive, can be un-learned.
While it is challenging, a couples therapist can provide you with the tools and practice to learn to speak your minds without escalating the situation. When listening to your partner’s reality, you can learn to tolerate your own anxiety, calm yourself, and not lose sight of what is true from your perspective. If you and your partner practice that kind of sharing and listening, not only will your conflicts likely decrease, your intimacy will increase, too, leading to you both feeling more satisfied in your relationship.