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.
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 –
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
One person calls “Code red” (or whatever other cue you two choose). When code red is called you both stop talking.
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.
Whoever called code red reports on one sensation in their body, ie: “My stomach feels tight”.
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.
When faced with our partner’s difficult feelings, the reflexive response tends to be some version of this: “Stop feeling that.” We might dress up our response in language that sounds more caring or compassionate, but the essential meaning of our message – stop feeling that – rings loud and clear.
We want our partner to stop feeling what they are feeling because it makes us uncomfortable in a hundred ways. Until we examine the discomfort that their feelings activate in us, we will continue to respond with some version of “Stop feeling that.” The problem with this response is that it easily turns the partner’s feelings into a point of contention, defensiveness follows, and a familiar escalation of conflict is often not far behind.
Another possibility is to respond to our partner’s difficult feelings with some version of this: “Please tell me more.” The problem with this is that it conflicts with our true intentions and desires. “Please tell me more” is a nice idea, but the truth is that we don’t want our partner to tell us more; we want them to stop feeling that.
Who would we have to be in order to genuinely want our partner to tell us more about their difficult feelings?
“My partner doesn’t listen to me; they try to fix me or control me. I just want to be heard.”
Of course, the person saying this isn’t always telling the whole truth. Often there is a secret desire to have our partner rescue us, or there’s a not-so-secret attempt to pin our feelings on our partner, which makes it even harder for them to just “be with us” when we are suffering. There can also be an expectation that our partner demonstrate sufficient understanding, acknowledgement, or agreement when we reveal our feelings.
These dynamics can best be seen in the context of a “relationship system.” Thinking of relationship in terms of a system means acknowledging that relationship dynamics can’t be reduced to a simple cause and effect, but rather that there are multiple inputs that shape the system in complex ways, and that each person in the system has a part in either maintaining or changing it, no matter if they see themselves as the protagonist or the antagonist.
Trauma in relationships can be a bewildering and powerful force, and one that is not always immediately obvious. Recognizing when past traumas are showing up in you or your partner can make the difference between eventually healing a rift, and repeatedly tearing it open. Once we realize that we are dealing with a post-traumatic pattern, we can shift gears, change course, and attend much more effectively to the real matter at hand. Whether symptoms are officially diagnosed as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or not, it can be useful to have some understanding of how trauma in relationships can shape individual behaviours and couple’s dynamics.
Trauma and PTSD are infinitely complex issues, and this article is meant to be a relatively simple and accessible introduction to the topic of recognizing and managing trauma in relationships. This article is not meant to be a comprehensive or prescriptive view of trauma. Many excellent books and articles are available for further study and understanding.
What is trauma?
Trauma can perhaps be best understood as an experience of being intensely overwhelmed, physically and/or emotionally, to the point of terror. There’s a sense of annihilation, either literal or symbolic. The traumatized person’s ability for comprehending and responding to the terror inducing event is pushed beyond their capacity. They become powerless in the traumatizing moments.
War, assault, rape, and accidental injuries like motor vehicle accidents can all result in an experience of trauma. Childbirth, surgeries, school, even learning to swim can all be traumatic events. Trauma can be imprinted in a brief moment, but it can also develop over years of repeated experience. What is traumatic for one person isn’t necessarily traumatic for another. Trauma is essentially subjective and individual.
Trauma is partly defined and understood by the effect it has on the nervous system. Trauma changes how a person’s nervous system regulates itself and responds to stimuli. This change, often referred to as dysregulation, can persist long after the initial event is over. To use a mechanical metaphor, it’s like a circuit gets overloaded or “blown” and stops working in a predictable or functional manner.
“Trauma, including one-time, multiple, or long-lasting repetitive events, affects everyone differently. Some individuals may clearly display criteria associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many more individuals will exhibit resilient responses or brief subclinical symptoms or consequences that fall outside of diagnostic criteria. The impact of trauma can be subtle, insidious, or outright destructive. How an event affects an individual depends on many factors, including characteristics of the individual, the type and characteristics of the event(s), developmental processes, the meaning of the trauma, and sociocultural factors.”
~ Source: Understanding the Impact of Trauma – Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. NCBI.
PTSD and post-trauma states
Trauma can sometimes be quickly processed and left behind, or it may leave a lasting psychic/emotional/somatic imprint causing far reaching symptoms in the body and mind long after the original experience. Post-trauma symptoms reflect an unprocessed, un-integrated trauma experience. The nervous system experiences the event as “unfinished,” and the event can be suddenly, internally “re-lived” when certain conditions are present.
Because we’ve been unable to effectively respond to the trauma inducing incident at the time, something in the experience remains unfinished. This goes deeper than a cognitive experience of not understanding what has happened (although not understanding is certainly part of the picture). Below consciousness, our nervous system is impacted directly. Our nervous system is, in some way, changed. It no longer responds to the world in a way that is in proportion; a traumatized nervous system responds disproportionately to perceived threat, regardless of the real level of danger. A sudden sound or movement, a familiar object or scene, a particular tone of voice, or virtually any seemingly unrelated cue can trigger a post-traumatic response.
Trauma and the nervous system – fight/flight/freeze
When past trauma gets awakened in your relationship, it might have a lot to say… or it might say very little. Trauma is a nervous system response, and it often gets described in terms of fight, flight, or freeze.
When a trauma response is activated, the person might explode in rage (fight), withdraw (flight), or they might get very quiet, still, and internal, almost like they’ve “disappeared” (freeze).
[Note – The “freeze” response associated with trauma is sometimes called dissociation. Dissociation is a cognitive (mental) and/or somatic (physical) “distancing” from one’s experience. A person in a dissociative state may appear detached, numb, blank, checked out, or otherwise absent.]
Different nervous systems employ different survival tactics at different times, and make no mistake – these are survival tactics. When a trauma response is triggered, our primitive animal self is activated. The most basic survival instinct takes over. Language and cognitive abilities can disappear altogether.
This last part bears repeating – When a trauma response is activated, our nervous system becomes highly aroused and our language (speaking) and cognitive (thinking) abilities tend to collapse or become distorted. We may not speak or think clearly. This phenomenon is, I believe, much more common, and much more important, than we tend to fully acknowledge or understand.
In a post-traumatic response, we lose access to our higher “human” faculties. Trying to reason with someone who is in this state is not usually helpful. Trying to problem solve together is useless. The only thing to do at this point is to help soothe the nervous system so that the trauma response is de-escalated and the higher faculties can come back on-line.
One of the biggest errors that people make when dealing with trauma in relationships is to push their partner beyond capacity. During post-traumatic arousal there is little chance of producing effective solutions. More likely, when pushed, a person in a post-trauma state will lash out irrationally, withdraw, or freeze up. Pushing them for clarity or change at these times is only likely to increase resentment and conflict, and ultimately damage the relationship. In my counselling practice I see many couples who have unknowingly and repeatedly pushed each other beyond capacity during a post-traumatic episode, and they bear the emotional scars to prove it.
Trauma and the window of tolerance
I teach people how to watch for trauma in relationships and how to recognize each others capacity during periods of nervous system arousal. When flight/fight/freeze responses are triggered, our capacity for negotiation and understanding shrinks quickly and dramatically. Part of the art and science of relationship is to learn to recognize and respect this level of capability in ourselves and in our partner.
It’s useful to have a vocabulary to symbolize this fluctuating level of capability. I like to talk about it in terms of a “window of tolerance.” When our window of tolerance is wide open, we are relatively able to tolerate challenging ourselves with complex concepts, with new experiences, with differing opinions or even conflicts. We are able to hold opposing or contradictory points of view without becoming too rigid or defensive.
When our window of tolerance begins to close, we lose the capability for all of the above. We become increasingly anxious and contracted. If our window of tolerance slams shut, we’re likely to be in full blown reptilian brain. Nothing really gets in.
I teach my clients to recognize their own window of tolerance, and their partner’s, so that they can recognize when it’s a good time to try and discuss an issue, and when it’s better to just wait for the window to open. We can tell each other “I feel my window of tolerance closing!” and the most skillful response is to stop pushing whatever issue is on the table and focus instead on supporting or allowing the nervous system to calm down and the window to open again.
One of the benefits of using the window of tolerance concept is that it is impersonal and value-neutral. It is non-blaming. It gives us a language for simply noticing and naming the phenomenon of nervous system arousal.
Trauma in relationships – The impact
Trauma in relationships shows up in the form of seemingly disproportionate reactions –
Your partner raises their voice and you freeze in absolute terror. Nothing they say can penetrate your terror. You don’t even comprehend the words they say, you are just frozen.
You glare at your partner for a moment and they explode in rage.
You’re having a conversation and suddenly your partner just storms out.
A loud noise from outside sends you into a full blown panic attack. Your partner asks what is going on, but you can’t even speak.
It’s currently fashionable in popular culture to talk about being “triggered” by virtually any uncomfortable experience. The term might get overused and misused at times, but in relation to trauma and post-traumatic symptoms, the idea of triggers is real and apt. When post-traumatic experiences are triggered, nervous system arousal is immediate and extreme.
Post-trauma triggers can be virtually anything – a sudden noise or movement, a tone of voice, startling touch, a particular word, a familiar face or image, smell, music. Triggers can be unpredictable and subject to all sorts of factors, known and unknown; one day something is a trigger, the next day it’s not.
Trauma and triggers – Tools for de-escalation
It’s important to understand that the disproportionate reactions of a trauma-related trigger, whether in you or your partner, come directly from the body, from pure instinct. As such, they respond very poorly to reason or concepts. Trying to reason or explain yourself or your loved one out of extreme nervous system arousal is unlikely to be very effective.
So what do you do when a post-trauma response is triggered in your partner?
Don’t take it personally. It might not actually be about you.
Inquire about how open or closed their “window of tolerance” is. If they don’t know or won’t say, you can assume it’s closing. (Introduce the concept and discuss it together when you both have your faculties.)
Slow down. Speak slowly, if at all.
Soothe your own nervous system. Your calm nervous system will help calm your partner’s.
Emphasize safety. Your partner is on red alert. On some level, they are in fear for their life.
Be soothing in simple ways. Use simple phrases and simple touch, if it is welcome.
Stay present, in body and mind. If possible, do not leave. Use eye contact.
Resist the impulse to reason with your partner, try to fix them, or ask them questions about their experience while they’re in it. Just “be with them.”
These tips are for while your partner is in an active state of post-traumatic nervous system arousal. Once this state has passed, the two of you may want to debrief and strategize. Discuss the topic of trauma in relationships, and how it might be impacting yours. If you start to watch for the indicators of nervous system activation in your partner (and in yourself), and if you develop the ability to calibrate yourself accordingly, you will gain access to another level of relationship skill.
[Caveat – While it can be useful and generous to learn how to support a partner who has strong post-traumatic symptoms, it’s not reasonable to try and be your partner’s therapist or sole support in this regard. Outside help may be required.]