Emotions that function to defend or fight against a perceived threat sabotage productive communication.
Ever had the experience of being in the middle of a fight with your partner, hearing the strong words coming out of your mouth, and suddenly not recognizing yourself? Or have you taken a look at your partner and wondered where the person you married went?
Behind the reactive behavior that causes many a fight is likely a part of your brain called the amygdala. That’s right: the fight culprit isn’t your partner, but how our brains are wired.
Thankfully, that brain wiring is normal—and changeable.
Simply put, there are two relevant brain players that emerge during a fight. The amygdala is part of what some people refer to as the “lower brain” (part of the limbic system), whose responsibility it is to process emotion. This is the part of your brain that reacts to a perceived threat—physical or emotional—by producing knee-jerk, automatic responses based on past events.
This part of the brain is great when we’re physically threatened. We don’t stand around deciding what to do when a car is coming too fast at us; we run, and are therefore kept safe by our quick-acting lower brain. But when the threat is emotional versus physical in nature and our lower brain takes over to protect us, the overreaction can be very harmful to our relationship.
In contrast, the “high brain” (part of the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex) is slow moving. It handles conscious processing, reasoning, reflection, language, and empathy, allowing us to better choose coping strategies and options. This part is activated when there is no perceived threat—you know, the communication that seems sane and stimulating, where you really consider things, weigh the pros and cons, hear out all sides, and come out understanding more about a situation.
When you’re upset due to a relational trigger (i.e., your partner talks to you in that tone, or makes that face, or says that thing), your amygdala in the low brain rings like an alarm clock and overrides the high brain. In other words, the low brain turns on and hijacks the more reasoned and slower high brain. As your low brain switches to emergency mode, you go into fight, flight, or freeze mode.
When you’re in any of these modes, your low brain rules, and you will say and/or do things that are unfiltered and reactionary. Usually one partner’s reactionary responses trigger the other partner’s reactionary responses and…around and around you go. It doesn’t matter if it started over what toothpaste to buy—if your low brain response is turned on, the fight can turn deadly.
Emotions that function to defend or fight against a perceived threat sabotage productive communication. The same response that helped you speed away from the out-of-control car now threatens your relationship stability.
Remember, these reactive behaviors are changeable. It’s not that couples stop fighting, but the disagreement shifts from a repetitive, unproductive, and hurtful cycle to a safe, productive one.
In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), change begins by explaining behavior and emotion in a way that allows for emotional safety. As you start to internalize this way of thinking, you and your partner’s reactive behaviors begin to make more sense—you still see that they don’t work, but they become understandable and, therefore, less upsetting. After identifying the reactive emotional cycle—aka the real fight culprit—we can begin to find resolutions for the specific reactive emotional cycles you and your partner are caught in. Some of these solutions you might even be aware of but have been unable to implement (for example, the “right” way to listen).
But knowing doesn’t always make the difference. We practice the resolutions best suited for each of you until you can do them in the moments that count: in the midst of a fight outside of the therapy room.
Shana Ree Gann, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who is especially passionate about helping couples be happier. She helps couples overcome stressful situations—from communication problems, affair recovery, stepfamily issues, separations, and everything in between. Her approach incorporates elements of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, somatic psychology, and mindfulness strategies she’s learned in over 20 years of study.