Imagine walking alone in the hills. Out of the corner of your eye you catch a glimpse brown-gray, ‘S’ elongated in the foxtails. You’re stomach catches. You freeze. Your heart is thudding in your chest. Then relief registers, washing through you. You exhale with a detectable laugh. A piece of rope. Not a snake. You continue walking, enjoying the unexpected calm. Yet you can’t help remaining alert for potential snakes. Prior to glimpsing the rope you weren’t even thinking of snakes. But in a transactional millisecond the amygdala (that the part of our brain that governs fight or flight), reacted as if there was a snake, all before your prefrontal cortex recognized, “Ah, it’s just a piece of rope”. This is because, while we’re not consciously screening for potential danger, our amygdala is. Even after a potential danger turns out to be a perceptual mistake, it’s a mistake that could have ensured our survival. After all, it’s better to be alerted to a piece of rope than surprised by a snake.
Whether it’s a snake or a disagreement with a partner, the amygdala works the same way, constantly scanning for perceived threats and dangers. Big picture, while relationships are determined by series of interactions, the state of a relationship is determined at a micro level by series of meta communications. Many of a couple’s established responses are unconscious, but are nevertheless initially filtered through the amygdala. Although the amygdala imprints past experiences to more quickly identify and react to threats, its function however, isn’t predicated on immediate accuracy. So, unfortunately, perceived threats between partners also operate from a ‘better safe than sorry’ protocol. Additionally, the brain is continually being shaped by experiences, and constantly creating and re-creating existing neural pathways to incorporate these experiences. The strength and the number of these pathways are determined and given preference by their importance. In this case of couples, because conflict involves threats to attachment, and thus survival, it takes far less stimuli to engage these pathways when a threat is perceived.
To make matters worse, even if a couple’s conflict is verbally resolved, it may not be experientially resolved, but sustained by mistakenly associating the presense of threat with their communication, rather than recognizing the ways in which the amygdala influences and contributes to their responses.
Imagine a couple is rushing to get out of the house on a weekend. In the midst of this the husband sees his wife watering the plants. Without thinking he says, “Can’t that wait?” Automatically she wrinkles her face at him. “It’ll only take an extra minute.” On the surface, both statements are reasonable, but an underlying tension arises. Although their prefrontal cortexes offer little to identify this tension, their amygdala’s set off alarm bells. The husband lets out a sharp breath, “You had all morning.” Now the wife rolls her eyes, “Well, I just thought of it now.” He clasps his hands around his waist and drops his head, muttering, “Of course!” She deliberately continues watering. “What? Do you want them to die? I’d never hear the end of how much they cost if they did.” He lifts his head and considers her. His lips are compressed, holding in his aggravation. He looks away. “Fine. I’ll just wait in the car.”
Again, their interaction might appear understandable, given the context. He’s annoyed that, after rushing to get out of the house, she wasn’t, so now he’ll have to wait for her. She’s annoyed that rather than appreciate her watering the plants he’s criticizing her for it. While both know that in reality it isn’t a big deal—just a rope, so to speak, yet their amygdalas are now alerted to threat; and both recoil to strike back, either defending against or attacking the other. She interprets his impatience as criticism of her, and disregard for her efforts to maintain a nice home. He experiences her wrinkling her face as disgust, and her disregard for his efforts to get them both out of the house on time. “You had all morning,” is a striking-back comment. “Well, I just thought of it now,” while defending, also dismisses his point. With both feeling threatened, their communication turns adversarial, the object becomes countering and thus nullifying the other’s stance in order that the self prevails, or remains intact. Dropping his head, and intentionally compressing his lips to hold back his aggravation, coveys the pointlessness he feels in continuing trying to interact with her. This not only devalues her point of view, but also intentionally separates himself from her. She responds with a more overt attack, “Do you want them to die?”, challenging the mutuality of their efforts, and projecting he’d complain about the money they’d spent; his tendency to criticize.
While announcing he’ll “just wait in the car” is intended to conclude on his point of view, it doesn’t actually achieve this. Leaving, and essentially withdrawing, only takes the possibility of resolving the conflict off the table, and with it, the chance to recognize what’s actually causing their reactivity. Once he’s out that door, both will not only remain in their heightened awareness of threat, but will continue reacting to it by devising ways to ensure their survival. From a communication standpoint, protection or survival might mean closing down from the other, gathering evidence based on the past, or verbal jabs. Chances are good when she finally joins him in the car, it will be a pretty crappy ride.
Couples, like individuals, typically don’t want to draw attention to their vulnerabilities, especially given it often seems like it’s the little things that bring them out: a particular facial expression, body language, or the way of phrasing things. The fear of revealing vulnerabilities is that their partner will think they are being nit-picky, high maintenance, ridiculous, or tell them, “Well you do it too…,” or worse, “Let it go.” How can someone let it go, when they aren’t entirely in control of it or their reactions to it in the first place? When someone realizes they saw a piece of rope and not a snake, they can let go of their immediate reaction. But their awareness of it still lingers, only until continued counter-experiences assures them they’re safe. Few would fault anyone for reacting to a snake. With couples though, it’s rare that it’s solely an individual’s reaction that causes conflict, but both. One can’t always help making a face in response to something they perceive as hurtful anymore than their partner can. Even those well-practiced in communication are under the influence of their amygdala, and are liable to react. Not only can’t each control the reactions of their amygdales, they can’t control the other’s–or the nuances of their interaction. Even supposing one’s response is neutral doesn’t presuppose the other’s reaction to it will be. A partner may react negatively to a neutral response. By the same token, one could just as easily personalize that reaction, be it mistaken or otherwise, as a threat and return with an attack. Just as one’s fight or flight mechanism will respond to a rope as if it were a snake (until informed differently), so will an individual personalizing a reaction from their partner. The willingness, and thus the ability to “Let it go,” can’t really happen without being assured that it’s safe to do so.
With this couple, the potential conflict was triggered after the husband, stressing to rush out of the house, had a reaction to his wife watering the plants. If he wasn’t consciously aware of the implications this held for him, his amygdala was. Their conflict, however, became overt with his comment, “Can’t that wait?” followed by her reaction, wrinkling up her face. Because her reaction didn’t match nuanced intentions behind his comment, he interpreted it as an attack, and in turn reacted, further defending his position. To better appreciate this couple, a little background is helpful. He tends to be anxious about time in general, especially around transitions, and historically has either been the one to push their being on time, consequentially, often having to wait for her and feeling put off, and disregarded, as a result. She is quite a bit more easygoing, doesn’t engage in his anxiety particularly, or attend to time. Historically she has either felt rushed by him, criticized, or that he’s imposed his anxieties onto her, leaving her feeling angry, and less likely to comply as a means of maintaining her integrity. Their interactions have potential snakes.
To develop the ability to temper the fight or flight response, couples can start by recognizing that neither are individually in control, and that to gain control they need to develop it collaboratively. This means each getting familiar with the physical responses involved when their amygdala is getting triggered—first how it particularly affects you. Identify particular physical effects, symptoms, the ways it affects your thinking and beliefs in the moment, or how it taps into past experiences, and share this with your partner. Inform you partner of the particular triggers: facial expressions, body language, how they phrase things, and how those expressions are typically interpreted by you. Allow your partner to do the same. Most importantly, agree to initially experiment with potentially difficult interactions. Perhaps come up with a word or phrase to help isolate and identify each other’s triggers. Have an agreement in place that both will stop and attend to these before re-engaging with the difficult interaction.
Considering implementing “time outs.” If things get too tense, walk away until the flood of cortisol subsides—just be sure to have a plan. For example, prior to any argument, discuss how much time each individual feels they potentially need, agree to this, and experiment. If one person said they need 20 minutes, but after that still feels too upset, include in the agreement that they will let the other person know how much more time they need. This way, “avoiders” are providing accountability for those who are anxious to resolve and re-connect. Remember, you’re always experimenting. Any plan or agreement should be flexible, and re-negotiable. The intention is to create mutual safety against the threats that cause a majority of the difficulties in communication. The idea is, we’re all friends here. I want to make this safe for you, so it will be safe for me. We’re working together to help ensure we’ll work together.
“Healthy communication” is a fine ideal, but it’s not the other’s words that spark conflict, but what accompanies them—a wrinkled up face, a sharp exhalation, a drop of the head. Each project meaning, provoking opposing reactions which typically distort meaning and…. meanwhile, the amygdala is getting alerted, producing an emotional state disproportionate to the situation. Tempering the amygdala depends on monitoring yourself honestly, and your partner compassionately, remaining aware that both of your amygdales are constantly scanning for threats. Like all species, humans are designed to survive. We react to a disagreement with our partner in the same way as an attack by a saber tooth tiger; our physical bodies haven’t evolved to the extent of our present conditions. Although we still depend on many of these survival mechanisms, their instinctive influence isn’t actually necessary And can be counterproductive in certain situations.
Realizing that we’re at the mercy of our survival instincts can be a relief. Interactions with our partners may not be as difficult or as threatening as our instincts lead us to believe. In fact, those instincts were designed for much greater dangers than are typically experienced in relationships.