Friday, November 20, 2009

"Fight or Flight" in Relationships

John Gottman, a psychologist specializing in couple relationships outlines four factors that he sees as predicting the end of a relationship. These include “harsh start-up”, criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and emotional flooding. All of these “reactions” indicate that a person’s “fight or flight” system has been activated. Many couples as well as people in conflict generally, either ignore or aren’t aware that their “fight or flight” system has been engaged and continue with the upsetting conversation. This often has disastrous and catastrophic consequences. Most people aren’t aware of the physiological aspects of the stress (fight or flight response) and how it impacts our ability to respond to difficult situations skillfully. Essentially, the fight or flight response pumps our bodies with hormones that are designed to help us flee a threatening situation or fight. Our rational capabilities are significantly compromised. This is why continuing an upsetting discussion is not a wise decision.

Emotional intelligence is the skill which helps us to recognize that we are getting emotionally activated or upset and that we need to get curious about that perceived injury and self soothe. Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, self-control and the ability to manage relationships successfully. A wise or “emotionally intelligent” response is to pull away from the upsetting or offending conversation and take care of ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we walk away from unfinished conversations. It means that “taking a break” from the conversation and making a plan to come back to it at a later time might be more productive as well as less destructive to the relationship. Taking a break can mean going for a walk, meditating, listening to music or exercising- anything that helps you shift gears and not continue to ruminate about that conversation. The goal here is to calm yourself down and allow yourself to feel that you are out of danger. This will trigger a relaxation response .Think of the way that you might help a child to self soothe after he or she falls a scrapes a knee or a friend has disappointed them. As adults we need to find ways to self soothe when our feelings have been hurt rather than trying to attack or strike back at the person who hurt us.

Later, from the vantage point of being more centered and relaxed, you may start to understand what precipitated your fight and flight response. In returning to the earlier conversation, you may decide to take an “I position” and talk to the other person about how you felt when he or she said or did “X”. Sometimes we want to request that others refrain from certain words or behaviours that are upsetting to us. At other times, it is important to look at our own “hot buttons” and get curious as to why these are hot buttons. Sometimes we can then use this as an opportunity to heal old wounds.

Becoming more aware of the times when we are emotionally triggered and learning to choose to self soothe around our real or perceived emotional injuries is crucial key step in improving our relationships. Like all skills; take small steps, learn from your mistakes, and remember to acknowledge your successes.

Warm regards,


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