Marie and Rob (not their real names) are in my office describing a volatile argument they had just had on the way to their appointment. “Then she just went crazy,” Rob said, “just because I didn’t answer her question.”
“Of course I went crazy!” retorts Marie. “You shut down and ignored me!”
“And then what happened?” I ask.
“Well,” replies Rob, “after Marie started yelling and screaming, I finally lost it too and started yelling back.”
“And then what?” I ask.
They look at each other sheepishly. “Then we got here and pulled ourselves together.”
“How do you know that everything’s okay after an argument like that?”
“We don’t,” Marie mutters, and at this Rob looks surprised.
“Of course things are okay!” he says forcefully. “Just because we argue doesn’t mean that things aren’t okay!” Marie looks surprised by this.
During the heat of an argument, it can be hard to remember that our partner actually does have our back; that everything at a fundamental level actually is okay; that an argument, upsetting though it may be, does not usually signify the end of our relationship. This is because the amygdala – the part of our brain responsible for survival and self-protection – kicks in when we feel threatened and primes our bodies for fight or flight. As this happens, the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain involved in rational decision making, as well as collaboration and logic – exhibits significantly impaired functioning. No wonder it’s difficult to have constructive dialogue when we feel triggered by our partner – our amygdala is in charge! When our amygdala is in charge, it’s hard to be rational, it’s hard to be constructive, it’s hard to hear someone else’s point of view. When our amygdala is in charge, it’s about survival, not about trying to feel connected to the very threat that triggered us.
From this point of disconnection, it isn’t difficult to understand why Marie would think that things just aren’t okay – not just in terms of the recent fight, but in terms of the relationship. Yet Rob has experienced the same fight, the same disconnection. How does he fundamentally still feel connected, despite the yelling, despite his distancing?
This feeling of connection we do or don’t feel with our partner when conflict arises often goes way back to the feeling of connection we experienced with our primary caretaker. Did you have a lap to sit in when you were a child and in distress? Did someone comfort you and make you feel safe, at least most of the time? If your answers are “yes” to these questions, you are most likely securely attached, and are more likely to feel that your partner has your back – even when arguing.
If your feelings weren’t validated when you were young, if you weren’t allowed to be upset, if no one was there to comfort you consistently, then it may be difficult to trust that your partner will be there for you, that your partner is on your side even during conflict, that everything is actually okay even when you’re fighting. You might be triggered into survival mode at the mere hint of conflict – and although this quick instinct may have kept you safe as a child, now it may be keeping you disconnected from your partner. You might, like Marie, be muttering under your breath that you actually don’t feel that everything is okay after a fight, that you never have, and never will.
Does this mean that Marie is doomed to feeling unsafe in her relationship, just because she and her partner get upset with each other, just because they often escalate into anger, just because they are in essence human? And my answer to her, and to you, is no. Research by attachment expert Sue Johnson has shown that secure attachment can be nurtured in adulthood.
You might imagine that this isn’t easy – and my response is to say that yes, it does take intentionality and effort. In Marie and Rob’s case, I help them process their thoughts and beliefs, their emotions and behaviors, when they’re triggered. I coach them on how to embed signals into their fighting that all is actually okay, and on increasing intentionality around connection throughout the day. Over time, they gain insight on themselves and each other, feel safer when they fight, and generally feel more connected as a couple. There are times when Marie feels that things are not okay, but these times occur less frequently and with less intensity than before they started this work.
Do you sense that your partner has your back, even when you disagree? As important, does your partner sense that you have theirs? Talk about it as a couple. Be intentional around increased connection. Support your partner’s knowledge that you are there for them always.