Couples often come to counseling with emotions running high.
She complains that “He just doesn’t listen.” He counteracts with the statement that “She just doesn’t understand.” Each person is appealing to the therapist to ‘fix their partner’ on the basis that their version of the problem is the correct version.
Ideally it might be perfect to have an adjudicator, whose wisdom would surely come down on ‘my’ side. This, of course, would ensure that my partner not only knows they are wrong but also follows my directions to ‘fix themselves,’ and therefore fix the relationship up!
As a couples therapist, I have never come across a relationship where it is as black and white as ‘he is right and she is wrong’ or vice versa. “How is that possible?” you ask, “when I have done all I can to change and all my attempts to fix the problem have failed?” The answer lies within our brain and how it functions when we are in the “fight-flight-freeze” mode. Let me explain.
The “fight-flight-freeze” mode is activated in circumstances where you may feel criticized, unsafe or under threat, as a survival response. In this mode you may experience anxiety, panic, hyperactivity, an exaggerated startle response, restlessness, an inability to relax, hyper-vigilance, digestive problems, emotional flooding, chronic pain, sleeplessness, hostility and rage.
When this happens, there is a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is left out of the loop. The hippocampus is a contextualizer. It places events literally in terms of location, and also places them in context. It sequences events and holds short-term memory long enough to move into long-term memory.
Have you noticed that when you experience “fight-flight-freeze” that your brain has difficulty processing information? You are unable to sequence the events in and around the crisis, because the part of the brain that would’ve been able to encode this information is not there. Even attempting to contextualize the narrative surrounding the crisis will be frustrating.
Both people will think their partner is lying or simply disconnected from reality because they’re both certain that what they saw was real. This creates an escalating conflict that threatens to boil over with words of incrimination, blame, name-calling and even physical acts of violence. We’re not interested in what happened anymore, because there’s no ability to report it accurately. There’s only the ability to get upset about it in trying to report it properly.
How then do you establish the truth and deal with your relationship issues if you cannot rely on your brain to process information accurately?
Your first task is an individual one. It is to take responsibility to calm yourself. When stuck in the “fight-flight-freeze” response, you are completely vulnerable to suggestions of threat, which then trigger and heighten symptoms that reinforce your present conflictual experience. When you learn to calm yourself, your nervous system settles again and you are less reactive.
Your second task is to be mindful of what your partner needs to feel calm. This is counterintuitive to what you ‘feel like’ doing when you feel hurt, frustrated and angry. However, when you are mindful that your words and actions communicate respect and safety toward your partner, they no longer feel under threat and their nervous system settles, allowing opportunity for more effective communication.
Creating a calm environment is the first step toward relationship repair. Having a conversation about what calms you might be a different, but valuable, conversation to have.
Having talked about it, you have a shared responsibility to create the environment you each need to communicate differently. Where conflict has escalated, this may not be achievable without the support of a couples counselor whose expertise can guide and support your relationship throughout this transition.