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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).

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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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