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Thriving in Marriage Rather than Just Surviving: Beyond Fight or Flight

We’re all familiar with the idea of fight or flight. It’s the instinctual reaction humans have to any form of threat or distress. But how has fight or flight become part of our relationships?

In my work as a couples therapist, I have seen many couples for whom fight or flight has become their default setting. When conflict arises, they either start yelling or they retreat to their separate corners—or perhaps a little of both. But what if there was something else? Another reaction that was a little deeper and a little less all-or-nothing?

Something that distinguishes happy couples from struggling couples is their ability to confront their differences with curiosity. Rather than resorting to fight or flight, happy couples can stay present and engaged with each other while wondering together what they are going to do about this problem that is facing them. In this way, couples are able to address the conflict and move through it, without creating more damage by attacking each other or prolonging it by fleeing from each other. When we are able to stay in a place of openness and curiosity, conflict actually ends up becoming a vehicle for closeness! Moving through a problem as a team can leave partners feeling more trusting and intimate.

But how? How can we resist the urge to slip in to fight or flight? This topic is so vital that I have devoted a large part of my upcoming book to it, but for our purposes here, I’ll highlight three communication tools I find really helpful.

  • “I” Statements: One way I help couples stay emotionally engaged with each other in conflict is to practice using “I” statements during the early stages of the flight. Rather than saying “You did this or you did that,” which increases defensiveness in the other person and the desire for either fight or flight, “I” statements that address your own feelings, such as “I felt hurt when you said that,” keep defensiveness low and intimacy high.
  • Avoid “Shoulding” All Over the Place: It is important to avoid the language of “should.” Cognitive-behavioral therapists teach that the “shoulds” are evidence of cognitive distortions, meaning that our thinkin’ is getting in the way of our lovin’. Instead of telling your partner that she “should” do this or she “shouldn’t” do that, instead try talking about the effect of the person’s behavior on you, such as “when you did X, I felt Y.” Words like “should/shouldn’t” and “always/never” often lead to emotional “flooding” which if often the first step to fight or flight.
  • Speak the Unmet Need: Nothing prevents fight or flight like good old fashioned vulnerability. If you can figure out what the need, the longing, the hurt is that’s hiding out behind all of your blustery anger, talk about THAT. It’s really hard to go all-or-nothing against our beloveds when they are taking the risk to expose the tender underbelly of vulnerability. If there’s one thing we all have in common, it’s that tender underbelly. Instead of pointing fingers, ask for what you need, and watch the walls come down.

New communication tools are never easy at the start, but they can help you move from just surviving in your romantic relationship to thriving in it.