We’ve all experienced it - the first major “fight” with our partner. It’s always memorable because it’s the first time we’ve had a negative thought about this person who has, up until that point, been perfect. Gone now are the beginning stages of love when everything they do from chewing too loud to not organizing their closets are (in your dopamine-soaked mind), adorable quirks. But now time has passed, and the relationship has taken on a more even leveled endorphin pace, and those little quirks have started looking less adorable and more irritating or even inconsiderate.
Eventually, and with enough time and familiarity we develop expectations of our partners. Sometimes those expectations are based on how we have been trained by our partners, and other times those expectations are based on our belief systems that were formed many years before we even met our partner.
Where ever the “unrealistic” or “unfulfilled” expectations come from, the result is typically the same. We become angry, disappointed, resentful… the list is as long as you need it to be. But ultimately, and one way or the other, these unfulfilled expectations will eventually lead us to a conflict that won’t go unspoken. Eventually we have the “fight”.
Interestingly enough, it isn’t the first or the 100th conflict that is the culprit of the most agonizing part of the fight. The actual reason one of us was “upset” by the other typically is very easily remedied and forgotten. As a matter of fact, the expression “I don’t even know what we are fighting about” comes to our minds more often than not when we are in conflict with someone we love. Because by the time we have gotten to the point of intensely heightened emotions, the actual reason one of us was originally upset pales in comparison to what brought us to this heightened emotional reaction.
Fight, Flight, Freeze!
Lets take a step back. It’s important to understand that humans, much like animals, have a survival instinct referred to as the 3 F’s - fight, flight or freeze. This is our bodies natural response to danger. We are designed to freeze, fight or run when we believe danger is eminent. Consider being a human living in the wild... a large black bear is threatening you, your body immediately reacts before you have a moment to think about the situation. The amygdala, the area of the brain that controls our decision-making and emotional responses, processes fear and evaluates threat based on information conveyed to us by our senses, such as our eyes and ears. This area of the brain is like a command center that communicates with the rest of the body, activating the sympathetic nervous system in a situation we perceive as dangerous. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the 3-F response before we consciously make any decision on how to act. Many things happen very fast. First the hormones adrenaline and nor-adrenaline are released into our system. We notice the effects: Rapid pulse and respiration increase oxygen intake for fast action. Blood pressure goes up and extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Blood sugar (glucose) and fats from energy stores are released into the bloodstream to give us the extra power we need. This physical reaction is vital to us if we are actually being attacked by a large black bear or perhaps even a mugger.
Unnecessary 3-F Response!
The problem is that this same response occurs when we become afraid in other situations, such as fear of abandonment or fear of humiliation etc. As a matter of fact, our minds alone can make this response happen even when there is no real danger around. Imagine for example you are charged with giving a speech to 500 of your work colleagues. When you are about to take the stage your heart starts racing, your mind shuts down, and all you want to do is run or worse, you freeze and forget everything you have memorized and otherwise would know so easily. In such a case freeze and then flight tend to be our instinct if we are convinced the audience is hostile or that we will make a fool out of ourselves in front of 500 people. Our MINDS convince us there is eminent danger and the 3-F instinct is set into motion.
It makes sense then, that when having a conflict inside our most important relationships, we tend to assign quite a bit of imagined danger to the situation. The conflict seems to be about something rather trivial or petty like not doing the dishes when promised or forgetting an anniversary of significance. Yet, we can become so enraged and upset with our partners, seeming to be totally unable to control our hurtful words or irrational reactions. This is because we have been launched into the 3-F reaction and don’t know why. Why would anyone get so upset about dishes not being washed that they would launch into a survival instinct?
Because the cause of our reaction isn’t always the thing that we think triggered the reaction. Rarely do we realize we aren’t actually responding to the dishes not being done, but in fact are reacting to a much deeper and more profound fear. It is possible that your rage over the dishes not being done is more about your belief that your partner doesn’t love or respect you because they didn’t do such a simple task that you’ve asked them to do numerous times. Your belief that this infraction is an indication of not being loved by someone so important to you triggers the survival instinct throwing you into the 3-F response. Once in that survival mindset you aren’t thinking clearly enough to realize you are over reacting and simply believe you are insanely angry about the dishes. The 3-F mindset happens so automatically and so rapidly that we just assume our feelings about the situation are valid and reasonable. Yet, the deeper culprit, that of fear, is very elusive when we are in the 3-F mind set because we aren’t thinking clearly at all, we are reacting.
A Simple Example
Have you ever had an argument with your life partner over something like not doing the dishes? It wasn’t once or twice that you mentioned that they are supposed to do dishes on week nights. It isn’t the first time you’ve mentioned that you work all day too, that you also cook the dinner and do the grocery shopping. You’ve mentioned many times that all you ask of your partner is to clean up the dishes after dinner to contribute to the domestic work load. Of course, you are justified in blowing up and screaming at your partner that they are an inconsiderate ass who clearly doesn’t give a damn about you. Of course, you feel justified in letting them know every other thing they have fallen short of doing over the years and all the other times they have disappointed you and let you down. How else are they going to finally see that their lack of participation in the domestic chores is completely unacceptable and that you have in fact been the only one being a grown up in the relationship!
Is Your Reaction Justified?
Of course you feel justified in all these thoughts and expressing them with anger. But… are you? We know you FEEL justified, but are these statements true? Does your partner really not give a damn about you just because they haven’t remembered to do the dishes a number of times? Is it true they are an inconsiderate ass because they fell short of an expectation you had? Of course, you have reason to be disappointed that your partner failed to do something they agreed to do for you. And of course, that disappointment needs to be expressed so the two of you can discuss the situation and come up with a way both of you are happy with the agreement. But blowing up at your partner isn’t a reasonable reaction to the situation. It’s a triggered reaction. To your triggered mind, the person you are yelling at, the person who has committed such an egregious act of not doing the dishes has earned themselves a good tongue lashing. But the leap from a minor infraction like not doing dishes to the major reaction of accusing your partner of not caring about you is rather extreme if you were able to think about it. The problem isn’t that they didn’t do the dishes, the problem is that you interpret their behavior as a direct reflection of how much they care about you. Their behavior triggered a fear of not being loved or respected or whatever your fear might be and you are reacting to that fear.
And fear is what sets off our 3-F reaction. Fear makes our heart beat fast and our minds get a bit foggy or shut down, and we react to the situation as if it were dire. In this case you went directly to fight! Your mind created a story that says you are in danger because the person you love hasn’t done the dishes therefore, they don’t love you. Of course, if your partner understood that you were fearful that they don’t love you they would probably be compassionate and tell you they do love you and that they were sorry they didn’t do the dishes. You two would be able to discuss the situation and share your thoughts on the matter clearly and with love and respect for each other.
Triggering Them When You Are Triggered
But, typically, that’s not how it goes. Typically, when we go into fight mode, we trigger the person we are reacting to and they go into the 3-F mode as well. They feel attacked and become triggered and immediately either freeze and get very quiet, fight back with their own harsh words and accusations or walk away stating they don’t want to deal with your crazy behavior.
Of course, their reaction to your reaction makes you even more angry and you double down on your position. Then they double down on theirs and with enough exchanges you have forgotten entirely about the dishes and are yelling about, well, everything. It’s a vicious circle. Eventually you end the fight how ever you end the fight. You might get to the point of exhaustion, one of you might simply give up, you might walk away from each other and sulk for hours ignoring each other. Really there are many possibilities here. If you are lucky, once the 3-F response settles back to normal and you are no longer triggered, you might get to the point of apologizing to each other and just let the whole fight go.
Of course, you haven’t accomplished anything with this scenario. All you’ve done is exchange horrible comments about each other that you don’t really mean. You haven’t discussed the reason you were triggered, nor have you discussed the actual problem of the dishes not getting done. The problem goes up on the proverbial shelf, waiting to be addressed the next time it happens because there was no resolution to the situation and avoiding the triggered emotional reactions has become the priority.
How Do We Avoid This Situation?
While it’s a pretty good bet that we can’t avoid conflict with our partners forever, we can agree that how we handle the conflict is at the heart of the matter. How can we avoid these insane over reactions and avoid escalating the situation when we are so very upset that our survival instincts have taken over our reason? In a word… AWARENESS. Being aware of this instinctive reaction to fear and knowing how to take ourselves out of this survival reaction will allow us to calmly and lovingly address the conflict without attacking.
Here are a few tips for navigating the 3-F reaction…
1. Be aware of your physical body when you are upset. When something happens that you don’t like or approve of, pay attention to your heart rate. Be aware if your heart rate increases exponentially, your mind is signaling your body that you are in some sort of danger and your body is reacting with the 3-F response. Before you say anything to your partner about what is upsetting you, bring your heart rate down, take several deep breaths and think about what you want to express to your partner before you just blurt out your emotional reaction.
2. Ask yourself if you believe your partner doesn’t really love you or respect you. if the answer is yes, you probably have a much larger problem than them not doing the dishes as promised. But typically, if you ask yourself that question, you’ll find the answer is “of course I know they love me”. If you know they love you and that their behavior isn’t a direct reflection of wanting to hurt you, you’ll be more apt to address your disappointment with more thought and less accusation.
3. Address the situation by starting with a positive statement. For example, you might say… “I know you have been really tired after work and I appreciate everything you do for me. I would like to talk with you about the dishes not being done because it’s happened a few times and I am building some resentment around that.”
4. Don’t be afraid to share your vulnerability with your partner. Tell them when they don’t do the dishes it triggers your insecurities that they don’t love you. Let them know you need some reassurance at this juncture that they do love you and that their behavior isn’t a reflection of them not loving you. This openness gives your partner the chance to understand why you get upset when they don’t do the dishes. And allows you to talk about the dishes in a more rational way when you remove the emotional trigger of not feeling loved.
5. Ask why. Often times when our partner is or isn’t doing something that upsets us, they don’t even realize they are upsetting us and have their own reasons why they are or aren’t doing something. It is helpful to ask them if there is a reason why they are or aren’t doing something. Explore the idea that maybe they have their own reasons for their behavior that have nothing to do with you. In that exploration, you might be able to come up with alternative ways to accomplish what you want without them feeling overlooked.
Whether its your first fight or your 100th, its critical to recognize your bodies indicators regarding the 3-F response. When you feel tension with your partner, step back, step away and bring your heart rate back to normal. Make sure you have thought through your reaction and when you are ready to talk with your partner without the emotional trigger leading the charge, address the situation with generosity of spirit knowing this person loves you and wants the best for both of you. Figuring out how to arrive at that place is much easier when you are clear minded and open. Save the 3-F response for when a bear is actually chasing you through the woods and rein in your emotional reactions so you are able to talk with your partner effectively.