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November 13, 2020

When we’re Triggered in Relationships: How to Respond instead of Fight or Flee.

My body is all lit up with the fear-juice of insecurity.

My mind is rich, or should I say poor, with fearful thoughts—“Are we growing apart? Do we have nothing to say to each other? Am I not interesting enough to him anymore?”

We are sitting in a gorgeous California redwood forest in what, to a casual observer, would look like the perfect couple in the perfect setting. Instead of saying, “I feel fear,” I ask him, “Is something wrong? You’re so quiet.” He reacts as if a substantial pinecone fell out of nowhere and hit him on the head.

“What are you talking about? Now there is. Why do you think something is wrong?” And off we go.

Both looking in our personal version of past, present, and future “reality” for that which could be wrong. We will certainly find something. Some comment this morning, some glance last night, or the absence of a response long ago that was noted but never expressed.

Now we are spiraling inside of our imaginations about the other’s inner life; my insecurity queuing his fear and defensiveness which further stimulates my suspicion that something is wrong and my increased agitation proving now to him that we are in danger territory. Truth be told, he might have been thinking about how to fix his bicycle or even write an article about our relationship. But that article idea is spoiled and is distant history by now. I put that in my quiver to use against myself later.

My mind gets busier—”Whoa, do we even have the relationship I thought we did? Are we about to break up? What was I even thinking when I opened my mouth.”

Like COVID-19, the uber-contagious aerosol virus of fear has now infected both of us—and in less than the time it takes to order a latte. At least with COVID, we’d have to be around each other for about 15 minutes for the virus to activate.

Right now, in these words we are speaking, in this reality we are co-creating, we are on the way to making or breaking our relationship. We are inside the National Bank and Trust of Relationships and are about to add to our joint emotional bank account or make a big ole fat withdrawal. If we go further down this path, we are going to be a little or a lot poorer. For sure we will be able to find something that is “a problem.” And what was all good five minutes ago, has the potential to become relationship hell.

In a moment of sanity, I take a breath. “Can we have a do-over?”

Relieved, he says “Yes.” We both know we need to slow way down.

We both breathe from our bellies and take a minute to let our monkey minds calm down. These hair-trigger reactions of ours have interpreted the present moment using neural networks long since laid down in what was surely a less emotionally inviting time. We have a commitment to be learning partners; it is times like this which we have come to recognize as pure gold. The moments in which we are gifted with the ability to go up to the emotional observation deck and see more clearly what is happening.

In these instances, we get to revisit the neural super-highways we created when we were children in order to redetermine the arc of our relationship.

We breathe and begin to notice and honor the feelings in our bodies. Ah, that’s familiar—the one of not being noticed; not mattering; my feelings not being taken seriously because feelings don’t matter in my family of origin. A family in which a dearth of conversation meant some emotional trouble was brewing. Someone was angry or sad and it would never, ever be spoken about even though everyone could feel the tension in the air as a vague and potentially serious danger—that was the anxious emotional climate of our family. “Something” was clearly wrong but it was impossible to tell what that might be or who was actually feeling the fear.

Because it was felt but never spoken about, my unsophisticated and self-centered child logic concluded it must be about me. I wasn’t good enough to make everyone happy. I must have done something to cause this. I need to be better or they will leave me behind somewhere, and on a primitive brain stem level, it quickly devolves into “I will die by myself.”

But it is 2020; decades beyond those early experiences. I slowly become aware that I am recreating this scene again right now. It’s Groundhog Day, and what I say and do next is going to cause him to say or do something next. It is not predetermined. He doesn’t move until I make a move, and my move will influence his idea of what is happening here. We will either use the clarity of our adult selves or our old unexamined mind maps to perceive and interpret what is happening. And the emotional climate of this day, and perhaps the future of our relationship, hinges on what we each decide.

The choices we make right now have implications for all our future interactions. We are taking away or adding to our account in the National Bank and Trust of Relationships. We are getting richer or going bankrupt, word by word.

Because this was supposed to be a fun way to get exercise, we are wearing fitness monitors and we both see our heart rates are over 100 bpm. This is the physiological proof we have entered a state of threat. And in this state, the choices are fight, flight, flee, or play dead. I’m a fleer. He’s a fighter. Neither are good options here and, if we speak now, we will be speaking from our survival brains, our lizard brains. We need the frontal cortex to bring higher-order thinking to understand what is happening here and to speak for our emotions rather than from them.

It takes us a full 20 minutes for our heart rates to get back down under 80. We know to wait.

I speak first. I tell him how silence triggers the emotional climate of anxiety I felt in my family. How everyone was in their own little bubble of feeling.

“In my family, it was silence that was dangerous. No one was hitting each other; no one was shouting. It was just a sense of everyone being in an impenetrable emotional bubble. And now, through no fault of yours, that same fear overwhelms me.”

He listens deeply and he relaxes with a deep sigh. “Thank you for telling me that. When you are not happy, I feel shame thinking I have disappointed you. It takes me back to the violence in my own family where everything was my father’s fault. Even such a simple question as ‘is something wrong’ is a warning signal that I’m going to be blamed for something. My body prepares to fight for my dignity and for my life.”

Tears of sadness and resonance flood over us. We are filled with empathy for the other when we can so clearly see the origin of our reactions. Of course, we are going to encounter these emotional minefields. There is actually no other way to heal them than to have these old neural pathways reignited by present-day interactions. We work backward from the pain we feel now to find an early instance of the feeling and observe it with our adult brains engaged and with the self-compassion we have cultivated.

Because we both know the work of emotional healing is the work of a lifetime, but at least we now have a specific mind-body key to unlock the past.

We continue our hike, with more trust and more intimacy and making a huge deposit into our emotional bank account. Both a little—or maybe a lot—more willing to do this the next time. It is so worth it to have the connection we long for.

If you are struggling in your relationship, doing mindfulness and family-of-origin work hits pay dirt. Our most distressing fights almost always have more to do with the past than with the present.

We will keep being the common denominator in our failed relationship cycles if we don’t become dedicated sleuths and write our own idiosyncratic operating manuals.


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Kay Vogt  |  Contribution: 7,660

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