When conflict occurs in an intimate relationship, something is triggered in each partner. To some, it may feel like a slow boil, a tingle or a buzz that grows stronger with each word that you interpret as insulting, disrespectful, or mean. To others, it is like flipping a switch. One moment you are calm and collected in your thoughts while talking to your partner, and the next, you are full throttle trying to protect yourself from a perceived threat.
No matter the length of your fuse, when it comes down to it, conflict becomes harmful when we feel threatened. Anytime we perceive a threat, whether a life-threatening snake on the ground or an upset romantic partner, a part of our brain called the amygdala is activated. The amygdala developed to protect us by initiating a fight or flight response fueled by the instinctual drive to survive. The amygdala does not have the power to differentiate the validity of a threat; it just knows to start pumping the adrenaline when any sort of threat is perceived.
A problem occurs when a primitive part of our brain starts to control our actions in the present. Usually, conflict with our partners is not a life or death situation, and treating it like one leads us to say things we do not mean, to exaggerate the bad and undervalue the good, and it prevents us from being fully self-aware of what underlying vulnerability feels threatened.
To provide the opportunity for healthy and constructive conflict in your relationship, you must learn to overcome your instinctual drive to fight or flee the situation and teach yourself the skills that allow you to better control your response in the moment.
The skills to help you master your amygdala response include:
- Identify your vulnerabilities.
Everybody has specific vulnerabilities that are more sensitive to perceived social threats. Common vulnerabilities include: I feel worthless, I am not good enough, I am unlovable, I am not sexy, or I am not manly enough. A complaint about leaving a dirty dish on the table is perceived as a partner calling you worthless when in reality, your partner wanted nothing more than for you to put the dish away.
By identifying your sensitivities when you feel calm, you will be better able to identify them when you feel escalated or upset. Part of your role in reducing the harmful effects of conflict is differentiating between a perceived threat and the message your partner is intending to send. Take accountability of your vulnerabilities and the role they play in conversations.
- Identify your fight or flight strategies.
When an underlying vulnerability is exposed during conflict, it triggers the amygdala to send a loud message of fight or flight. Understanding your conflict patterns is the first step in changing them. Are you one to point fingers and try to get the attention off of your partner’s complaint? Or are you the type that just wants to leave the room?
Think back to your more recent conflicts and focus on how you responded to your perceived threats. This exercise is not an excuse to ruminate on your partner’s behavior that heightened the conflict sequence. The point is to increase your self-awareness of the habits you need to break by understanding your instinctual response.
- Consider alternative solutions.
Now that you have a better idea of your vulnerabilities and how they trigger your behavior during conflict, try to brainstorm ways you can improve this sequence regardless of how your partner responds. Change will only occur if you are motivated to change yourself (and vice versa for your partner). It is natural for us to pay more attention to what our partners do wrong or things they need to change, but persist in focusing on your actions.
Open communication does require feeling safe, and this is where you need to use your higher functioning brain to calm your amygdala response. Just because a threat is perceived does not mean it is there. Part of your alternative solution must address your ability to calm the instinctual drive to flee or fight by having faith in yourself and your partner to work together to do things differently.
- Share your insight with your partner.
By working with your partner to change your shared conflict pattern, you greatly increase the likelihood of fostering lasting change. Spend time apart to do the first three steps of this exercise, then come together to share your insight and see if you can help each other in identifying other vulnerabilities or adaptive solutions that could lessen the harmful effects of relationship conflict.
Be mindful that it requires a great deal of courage to share an underlying vulnerability. Doing so asks us to expose a part of ourselves that we often try to shelter and may not be particularly proud of. Reassure your partner that this is not an exercise to acquire further fuel to throw on the flames of conflict, and overtly express appreciation for your partner’s willingness to share this part of him- or herself with you.
Overcoming the instinctive drive of the amygdala requires persistence and patience. You will not be perfect at inhibiting the harmful conflict patterns you have because you are human, and making mistakes is a part of being human. Creating greater self-awareness of your conflict style offers you a better chance at spotting its activation sooner and preventing further damage to the relationship. Concurrently, heightened awareness of each other’s vulnerabilities allows you to be more empathic and mindful in how you repair following conflict.
Conflict is always going to occur in healthy relationships. Managing differences is how we enhance each other’s lives. Take these steps to start down the path of making your conflict be a constructive rather than destructive aspect of your romantic relationship.