Counselling Articles Sex and Relationship Advice

Soothing the Beast – A simple practice for de-escalating fight or flight reactivity in couples conflict

[I recently did a Facebook Live on this topic. The video is embedded on this page, or you can click here to watch it on my facebook page. This article is written to accompany the video.]

Good conflict and bad conflict in relationships

Conflict can be necessary and valuable in relationships when it helps a couple identify differences, develop appropriate boundaries, and facilitate constructive negotiation and agreements. But there’s a particular type of conflict that only leaves couples feeling frustrated and stuck. It’s agonizing because it repeats and repeats but it never leads anywhere, accomplishes anything, or satisfies the underlying hopes or needs of the individuals involved: To feel safe, to feel understood, to feel the possibility of moving forward.

Ten years of helping couples worldwide has taught me that if you experience this kind of “conflict loop” in your relationship you are in very good company! People don’t always talk about it, but most of us have experienced this at some point.

Because this type of conflict is a result of survival mechanisms getting activated in the nervous system, I call it “fight or flight” conflict.

Fight or flight conflict almost never delivers any positive results. Over time it erodes goodwill and turns potential allies into enemies. After we look at how to identify it, I’m going to walk you through a simple practice (I call it “soothing the beast”) for de-escalating the fight or flight responses that characterize this kind of conflict.

Identifying fight or flight conflict

Fight or flight conflict can be identified by a set of observable characteristics. Once you able to identify that this is what is happening, you can apply the practice I explain below.

Characteristics of fight or flight conflict –

  • Each of you feels “triggered”, and these triggers pass back and forth between you, escalating until you can’t think clearly.
  • Fights repeat in eerily familiar patterns, but the issue is never resolved because you can’t address it without getting triggered and reactive.
  • It feels like the worst in each of you comes out.
  • Your partner feels like an enemy, not an ally.
  • You have a visceral (body) response, during or after the conflict, ie – shaking, sobbing, numbing or freezing, feeling sick to your stomach, headaches etc.

Human beings have three distinct “operating systems”

To put this kind of conflict into context, we can think of human beings as having three distinct “operating systems.” Each of these three operating systems has their own strengths and weaknesses, and their own particular scope of concern. They are all three working in the background at any time, but usually one or another is operating in the foreground and defining your current experience.

Three human operating systems –

  1. Rational
  2. Emotional
  3. Survival

The rational OS is associated with the forebrain and is responsible for ideas and concepts, language, a sense of time, and everything we think of as “rational”.

The emotional OS is associated with the mid-brain (mammalian brain) and is responsible for forming and managing emotional bonds with others.

The survival OS is associated with the brain stem (reptilian brain) and is responsible for basic life functions and also for automatic survival reactions (fight, flight etc).

(I describe the differences in more detail with a classroom analogy in the video.)

When we can engage in conflict while still being able to retain some access to our rational and emotional operating systems we might successfully reconcile the differences or issues that are making trouble in the relationship. This is never easy to do, but the hard work can pay off. This is “good” conflict.

When the survival OS gets activated we lose access to the other two systems, and so we can not effectively consider other perspectives. We become highly reactive; a sideways glance or tone of voice can push us over the edge. We become hyper-vigilant and aggressive (or withdrawn), and our reactions are disproportionate for the situation (in hindsight). We don’t make progress in our relationship when we descend into survival mode, so we can probably agree that this is “bad” conflict.

Here’s my “soothing the beast” practice for calming the nervous system arousal that comes with the survival OS, and bringing your rational and emotional self back “online”.

Soothing the beast – A four-step practice for de-escalating fight or flight conflict

  1. One person calls “Code red” (or whatever other cue you two choose). When code red is called you both stop talking.
  2. Facing each other, take ten breaths together. This calms the nervous system and begins to build a bridge of coherence between you and your partner.
  3. Whoever called code red reports on one sensation in their body, ie: “My stomach feels tight”.
  4. The other person listens and acknowledges – “I hear your stomach feels tight” – then reports on a sensation in their own body, ie: “My face feels hot.” Repeat back and forth until your two nervous systems calm down and you can access your rational and emotional self.

Questions or comments? Leave them below.

Struggling to change conflict patterns in your relationship? Check out my book The Re-Connection Handbook for Couples (download a free sample chapter here).

Follow me on social media for sex and relationship tips, tools, and insights – Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

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You’ll love my book.
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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber

Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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Events and Workshops

Conflict Resolution for Couples – Campbell River Workshop

Conflict Resolution for Couples - Campbell River Workshop

When: September 17, 1-4pm.
Where: Ocean Mountain Yoga Studio1121 Cedar Street (Above Healthy Way Foods, Campbell River, BC)
Cost: $49/person.

To register:
Or call Ocean Mountain Yoga at (250) 914-5435.

Relationship conflict is frustrating and painful, but it can also hold the key to its own transformation if we recognize what it is asking of us.

In this 3-hour workshop we will explore refreshing new perspectives on couples’ conflict and the growth opportunities it holds.

Join us and discover –

~ Why relationship conflict persists despite our best efforts
~ How to identify and effectively address the two primary types of conflict
~ The invisible underlying conditions that feed conflict
~ Tools for getting out of our conflict “loops” or patterns

About the presenter –
Justice Schanfarber is a Certified Hakomi Therapist and educator specializing in marriage, sex, and relationships. Author of The Re-connection Handbook for Couples, Justice’s writing has been read in over two hundred countries and translated into six languages. For this workshop Justice distills insights from his clinical experience helping client couples all over the world navigate marriage difficulties and relationship conflict.

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Counselling Articles

Relationship triggers – How to take care of yourself without abandoning your partner when sh*t blows up

Relationship triggers

You’ve been invited to listen in on a marriage counselling session. They’re starting…

Susan: I get anxious and triggered then I want re-assurance about our relationship. All sorts of stories start up in my head about how he doesn’t love me enough, or if he really loved me he’d do this or that. It’s like torture, and I want help, so I ask him to tell me what I want to hear, but then he gets triggered and withdraws. For some reason he can’t say what I need to hear when I need it most. Then all my triggers are activated and I get even more desperate.

Marcus: It’s true. I feel her anxiety growing and I feel myself shutting down. Then she needs me to say the right thing, but it’s literally impossible for me. I don’t know how to explain it. I think it’s because old feelings of being controlled or manipulated come up for me. I withdraw, which is the opposite of what she needs, and it makes it worse for her, but I just can’t do the thing she wants. I can’t jump through the hoops. We crash and burn again and again. How do we fix this?

Take a moment and reflect on this story. How would you fix this problem? Where do you think the burden lies? Do you relate to Susan or to Marcus, or to both?

I have heard a hundred different versions of this same story from clients. It’s a perennial relationship quandary. Usually couples who present this issue come to me wanting a communication tool or technique that will let them finally get through to their partner, finally be understood, finally get their needs met.

But they’re in for a surprise. I have to tell them that I doubt there’s a communication technique that will help. I go on to explain that what they are dealing with is not a communication problem, at least not in the ordinary sense. They each feel misunderstood, but the misunderstanding isn’t about what is being said between them; the misunderstanding is about the very nature of their conflict.

Here’s how I explain it in my book The Re-connection Handbook for Couples (click here to download a free sample chapter)

Underneath all our words and our conscious intentions, our primary relationship follows the twists and turns of two highly attuned nervous systems. Your nervous system and your partner’s nervous system are in constant, silent communication. Beneath the radar of awareness, these two parts of self are setting the mood, raising the stakes, making peace, or waging war. This is happening under the surface of normal consciousness, despite whatever agreements you might be making and whatever “communication tools” you might be employing.

Nervous system arousal is like an invisible hand directing your relationship. The felt experience of nervous system arousal is called anxiety. This anxiety is, perhaps surprisingly, highly contagious.

Anxiety moves back and forth between spouses in predictable ways. We all try, mostly unconsciously, to offload our anxious feelings onto our partner. Think of a hot potato being tossed back and forth. No one wants to hold it, and so we quickly pass it along.

Many of our requests, agreements and interactions – and especially our conflicts – are unconscious attempts to find relief from our nervous system arousal.

As an experiment, let’s look back on Susan and Marcus’s revelations at the top of the page, but we’ll strip away the content, strip away the words, and instead simply imagine two nervous systems interacting.

Susan’s nervous system gets activated for some reason (any reason – for our purposes it doesn’t really matter). It sends a wordless message to Marcus’s nervous system, “Alert! Danger!” Now both nervous systems are activated.

These two nervous systems continue to activate each other, creating significant mental and emotional anguish. Both people want relief, and they want it desperately. They use the tools they know, they try to talk it through. But nervous systems that are on high alert do not respond well to words or reasoning, and so relief doesn’t come. With no relief, anxiety escalates, turning into panic, frustration, rage, or withdrawal (any history of trauma will exacerbate the situation, and should be addressed specifically).

Susan gets anxious, and she turns to Marcus for soothing. (Marcus’s anxiety may have come first, who knows. It’s a chicken and egg situation.) Marcus instinctively withdraws. Perhaps it’s his nervous system saying “Get me out of here! This shit’s contagious!” Susan feels his withdrawal, and she takes it as evidence of her worst fears, He doesn’t really love me.” Her anxiety spikes, and Marcus’s nervous system responds in kind. He retreats even further.

Here we see the classic spiral… the stuck relationship and hopelessness… the repeating conflict loop. We usually assume that these loops are related to something we are saying, and so we search desperately for the right thing to say, some better way to say it, some escape from the tortuous deja-vu we’re stuck in.

We turn to the tool we use for virtually everything… reason, intellect. We try to think our way through, and we share our thoughts verbally. The trouble is, when our nervous system is all fired up, we have limited access to our thought and speech centres. But we don’t know what else to do, and we desperately want relief from the uncomfortable anxiety we’re experiencing, so we keep trying, and, like Susan and Marcus we dig ourselves deeper into the hole.

Relationship triggers and de-escalation.

It feels agonizingly counter-intuitive for most of us, but rather than trying to express ourselves more clearly, or even to understand or empathize with our partner, we need to first turn our attention inward and attend directly to our own poor, suffering, anxious nervous system.

This isn’t an intellectual or communication task, it’s physical and internal. Most of us assume that anxiety is mental, but our nervous system resides more in our body than in our mind, and so it’s our body that holds the key. Not thinking, not talking, but attending to the body, your body, directly.

As much as we are tempted to seek relief outwardly, from our partner, through attempted communication, negotiation, empathy, or understanding, this is usually a case of putting the cart before the horse. It can be much more effective to turn inwards first, moderating our own nervous system. You can read my simple 3-step system for soothing an activated nervous system by clicking here.

Here we’re faced with the paradoxical, delicate and oftentimes confusing dance between self-care and other-care, between being an autonomous individual and being connected through relationship. The fact is, neither of these states are absolute or entirely exclusive; we are simultaneously distinct AND connected.

We live in an age of utility, and my client couples often expect practical tools and solutions that they can apply immediately. The advice I give is this: Practice attending to your own nervous system arousal, turn inward, as you simultaneously remain present and connected with your partner. Easy in theory, but not in practice.

I will sometimes have them practice this in our sessions. In family systems theory this experience of feeling ourselves as distinct and autonomous, while simultaneously connected, is known as differentiation. Think of it this way – Your ability to defuse your own triggers in relationship while also caring for your partner is determined by your level of differentiation. This practice of becoming differentiated begins with a conceptual understanding (hopefully this article helps; for more support have a look at my book), and then becomes a life-long practice of moderating your own nervous system and soothing your own anxiety.

Only by developing this kind of deeply personal relationship with our own inner workings can we manage to stay grounded solidly in ourselves even in the face of our partner’s and our own anxiety and emotional triggers. As we become more skilled at this, we may uncover unresolved issues – resentment, hurt, trauma – that do want attention, and then a focus on communication, conversation, discussion can be fruitful, but without first attaining a sufficient level of self-management and differentiation we end up stuck in the same old mess of hair-trigger nervous system activation. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s required if we want to have mature, satisfying relationships.

Like what you’re reading here?
You’ll love my new book.
Read the first 10 pages free.

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Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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Counselling Articles

Contradiction and paradox in relationships – The difficult work of holding opposites

Contradiction asks much of us. On the one hand, there might be an opportunity to create greater congruence in your life by confronting the contradictions embodied in your own speech and actions. On the other hand, it takes great capacity to hold opposing points of view and disparate experiences without rejecting one or the other or both. I call this “holding opposites.”

The possibility for re-connection in our marriage or relationship is related to how we handle the contradictions we inevitably encounter; how we hold opposites. Our ability to tolerate, and as we’ll see, transform, our experience of contradiction into something more powerful requires a certain kind of personal capacity.

“Capacity” is an important concept in couples work. When I talk about capacity, imagine a cup. When the cup gets full, it overflows. In relationships, our cup gets full from anxious feelings that come from, amongst other things, an inability to tolerate the contradiction all around us.

When the cup overflows, these anxious feelings are expressed as rage, withdrawal, criticism, blame, denial, exasperation etc. We can try to iron out the contradictions we see in ourself, in our partner, in our life, in the world… or we can work on making our cup bigger. The advantage to making our cup bigger is that it holds not just the anxious feelings of contradiction, but ALL the complicated feelings that give life its richness and depth.

We may wish for simpler times in our relationship, a time when things were more black and white, but re-connection doesn’t want that. Re-connection wants you to grow your cup, to expand your capacity for holding the complexity that comes with a deeper, maturing relationship.

Some people habitually sniff out the contradictions in others and feel obligated to point them out. They believe it is their job to iron out the wrinkles they see in their partner. This includes playing “devil’s advocate.” If this is your tendency, please consider that this kills eroticism, dampens desire and attraction, breeds resentment, and makes re-connection difficult. Your first task in re-connecting with your loved one is to catch yourself in the act of using contradiction against yourself or others. I’m not asking you to ignore the contradictions you observe. On the contrary, please continue noticing them. I’m asking you to orient around contradiction differently, to change your relationship to contradiction. Stop treating it exclusively as a problem to be solved. If you will practice accepting contradiction as a normal aspect of life, you will be preparing the ground for re-connection in your relationship.

Much conflict and disconnection between lovers and spouses is due to a misunderstanding about contradiction. Contradiction is normal and healthy. It’s inevitable. If we see our partner’s inherent contradictions as a flaw or weakness, we essentially take a stand against their basic human-ness, and that is the real disaster. We also very likely take the same stand against our own human-ness. We remain apart, separate, because we have rejected a real part of being human.


Paul watched his wife Marilyn eating pie for dinner after they both came home late from a frantic day at work. Just yesterday she had confided to him that she wanted to eat more healthfully. Now as he watched her hungrily annihilate two pieces, he pointed out how her actions were in complete contradiction with what she had said yesterday. When the three of us talked about this in session, Paul maintained that he was trying to support her. Marilyn erupted in frustration. She felt anything but supported. This was an ongoing dynamic that was becoming a major obstacle and source of disconnection in their relationship.


When we are feeling combative, it’s easy to point out contradictions in the other as evidence of their shortcomings, implicitly making them “wrong” or “bad.” This reveals a narrow view of contradiction and it misses the deeper gifts and insights that working with contradiction can provide. If we believe, even unconsciously, that we should do away with contradictions, we have become too perfectionistic and are likely to find ourselves frustrated and lonely; disconnected.

We can judge ourselves and others based on the contradictions we observe, or we can inquire into these same contradictions with a curious mind and open heart. We might ask ourselves “What are the various parts of this person that are trying to have a voice?” We might try assuming that both sides of any contradiction hold an important truth, and rather than pitting them against each other, we might experiment with “backing up” until our perspective is broad enough to include both sides. This type of inquiry asks us to soften our focus.

We’re accustomed in this culture to seek answers, facts, quantitative data, to narrow our focus until we’ve solved the problem. It’s a reductionist way of seeing each other and the world, and it keeps us from finding solace in the mystery; it keeps us from experiencing the sweet surrender and easy humility of simply not knowing. “Simply not knowing” is a wonderful state of being. Have you practiced it? When we allow ourselves to be washed over by waves of contradiction, and we stop insisting on sorting out each one, we might find ourselves on new unfamiliar ground, a place where fresh experiences and re-connection become possible.

With some practice allowing contradiction, it begins to transform. Contradiction that is allowed, that is honored, can begin to mature into its wise relative: paradox.

Contradiction is that annoying know-it-all brother in law who seems oblivious to the way he rubs everyone the wrong way. Paradox, on the other hand, is that enigmatic uncle, mysterious and calm, whom you feel good around, even if he’s strange and maybe a little bit crazy. Contradiction is two dimensional, black and white. Paradox is multi-dimensional, full of colour. Contradiction is blunt, a dead-end, right and wrong, end of story, a door closing. Paradox is a door opening. As much as contradiction is confusing and deadening, paradox is illuminating and enlivening. Contradiction cuts us off. Paradox connects us. Contradiction is an annoying problem of logic. Paradox, like love, is mysterious and awe inspiring, unsolvable. When we see only the contradictions in our partner, we are looking at them like problems to be solved, like broken machines. When we are able to look at our partner and see the deep paradox underneath the contradictions, we begin to see them in their fuller mystery. We view them with our heart’s intelligence, not just our reasoning mind.

You don’t need to figure this out entirely to work with it. It’s ultimately not any technique, but rather plumbing your own depth and growing your own capacity that turns contradiction into paradox and enriches your life and relationship. If you will simply allow contradiction in your life, in the world, in your partner, rather than fighting against it, you will have begun this practice.

(This is an excerpt from “The Re-Connection Handbook For Couples” by Justice Schanfarber. Read a sample chapter or buy your full digital copy at

Follow me on social media for sex and relationship tips, tools, and insights – Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Like what you’re reading here?
You’ll love my book.
Read the first 10 pages free.

The Re-connection handbook for couples - by Justice Schanfarber - web box2

Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

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Counselling Articles

The surprising role of conflict in relationships – How the arguments that tear us apart also hold us together (Part 3)

Conflict in relationships

Over the past two weeks we’ve looked at how two couples, Chris and Stephanie, Leila and Franz, reflexively use “conflict loops” to cover up deeper issues and temporarily provide functionality to relationships that threaten to collapse.

Today we look at what is risked and what is asked of us as we grow through these patterns.

I take the position that we are brilliantly complex and resourceful creatures who grow and strategize with and without the benefit of conscious awareness. In other words, our conflict loops can be a kind of training ground where we build resourcefulness and capacity for facing the truth of our lives. The conflict loop in a relationship continues, below awareness, until we’re ready to see it and to face the task that it asks of us.

Imagine building a scaffold for years in your unconscious. This scaffold is made to support the weight of an as yet unknown truth about your life, about who you are or who you are meant to become. Eventually this scaffold reaches up and out of your unconscious and into the light of day. You look down with amazement at this incredible support you’ve “unknowingly” been building for yourself. Our relationships, including the challenges, are part of this.

Here’s the crucial part to understand –

Recognizing our role in the relationship system, and then changing it, is inherently risky. It is likely to break the relationship, at least temporarily, and there is no guarantee it will be put together again. We feel the risk of this at some level even if we don’t quite acknowledge it, and so we continue the cycle until until we’ve built enough depth of character, enough resilience, enough maturity to risk breakage.

Until we’re ready to confront our own dark fears (and desires) in relationship, we will continue to feel “stuck” in our own particular conflict loops.

People may come to counselling when they are ready to risk breaking the relationship… “I’m at the end of my rope. I’ve tried everything.” As Anais Nin puts it “…the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”  What Anais Nin doesn’t say is that we can not know what blossoming will look like until we have risked breaking.

The breaking that we risk likely goes far deeper than the hot-button issue we face in our relationship. We end up facing patterns of avoidance, bullying tendencies, self-esteem issues or whichever life themes we’ve grown up with. Breaking our relationship system is one way to bring us to the heart of the most definitive themes in our lives. This is why the tension we feel as we simultaneously grow toward blossoming and feel the pain of breakage is so significant. Much is at stake.

In some cases entire life strategies may be crumbling. In this regard we face an initiation, a new beginning born from an impending ending. No wonder we remain stuck for so long – A huge amount of ripening and preparation is going on beneath the surface.

Even as you work to support your own awareness and insight through reading, self study, therapy etc, consider that this ripening has a life and intelligence of its own. Supporting our own ripening means being present to the tension without necessarily struggling to resolve it. Pushing for resolution too quickly can easily dig us more deeply into more conflict, more confusion. The insights we seek often reveal themselves to us only after we have exhausted ourselves. Part of our exhaustion comes from seeking answers, part comes from defending the position we’ve come to depend on. This is yet another face of that tension between blossoming and breaking.

This is difficult territory to navigate. In this short series we’ve looked through the lens of relationship systems, getting some insight into the functions that conflict provides. Let the stories of the couples in these articles sit with you. See if you can feel the tension these couples feel. Notice what the tension of your own blossoming and breaking feels like. Is there any sense of initiation in the feelings? What have you been protecting? What have you been unwilling to risk? Honesty? Feeling too much? Loss? Being wrong? Desire? Grief?

What wants to blossom –
Responsibility? Truth? Integrity? Surrender? Something else?

Like what you’re reading here?
You’ll love my new book.
Read the first 10 pages free.

The Re-connection handbook for couples - by Justice Schanfarber - web box2

Campbell River Marriage Counselling Justice Schanfarber Trying to grow, fix, change, understand or save your marriage? I provide couples therapy, marriage counselling, coaching and mentoring to individuals and couples on the issues that make or break relationships – Sessions by telephone/skype worldwide. Email to request a client info package.

Like Justice Schanfarber on Facebook

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