When we experience a conflict in the relationship with our partner, we usually feel negative emotions such as frustration, anger, fear, sadness and resentment.
The couple does not seem to be a safe place in these moments and, as human beings, we tend to react to “dangerous situations” with our survival mechanisms.
This means that we deal with conflicts with our partner with the same set of tools we use to react to any other dangerous situations we face: the flight or flee response.
So, when there is a conflict with our partner, we tend to react using the so called reptilian brain – as we share this part of the brain with all animals. The reptilian brain is where all the automatic and unconscious responses are located – from breathing and heartbeat to survival instincts.
Therefore, if you don’t feel “safe” in the relationship, because for example you are arguing and you feel attacked, you will automatically react with one of the five survival reactions, that we can see as the basic survival skills for couple.
1. Fight. Within the couple you can fight through verbal or physical aggression. Verbal aggression – such as raising voices, swearing or blaming – can cause the relationship to deteriorate and it can bring to an escalation of incomprehension and resentment. Couples often say things they don’t even think, just to hurt or prove their point.
2. Flee. People who flee would leave the situation to avoid the conflict and they would usually take shelter into work, sports, walks or in talking to a friend. Alcohol and drug abuse and binge eating can also represent a way to avoid the conflict by becoming numb.
3. Freeze/play dead. It is possible that during a fight people would stare through their partners, frozen. They usually experience anxiety, sometimes even panic attacks, and they just don’t know what to say or what to do in front of a conflictual situation.
4. Submit. A typical sentence said to their partners by those who are submitting would be “Okay, whatever you want, just stop the nagging!”. In order to avoid conflicts, people would accept the partner’s point of view without thinking and even if this would usually make them feel sad.
5. Hide. Some people would try to get away from a conflict by going to another room, hoping that by hiding behind a door the partner would leave them alone.
We all learn our way/ways of reaction to conflicts during childhood and we still use the same behaviours in the relationship with our partner. Raising awareness on these behaviours is the first step in order to change and deal with conflicts in a different, more constructive way.
Couple therapy as well as individual therapy can help you understand not just how you react to conflicts, but also how you can change the instinctive and automatic reactions into reflective ones. Through therapy you will learn how to use more evolved parts of your brain, so not to be guided by the reptilian brain every time you have an argument with your partner. You will be able to create emotional safety within the couple and feel more connected to your partner.