There's only one rule and it will save your love life.
So I'm having a conversation the other day with a lovely human being. She and I are in her car, blithely arguing about systems theory or flash mobs. I'm almost certain that I'm right and she's wrong, as is so often the case between us.
Thanks to my interest in neuroscience, I happened to know that my autonomic nervous system was doing it’s thing, via my sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems which were regulating my cardiac and vasomotor activity, balancing my cortisol levels, and integrating input from my limbic system. In a nutshell, keeping it real.
Suddenly, this lovely human accuses me of getting defensive.
I was doing no such thing, so I might have snapped back and told her that the British woman inside the GPS system was better attuned to me than she was, and that her ability to be wrong so many times in a row was as impressive as it was sad.
I guess she didn't take that as a compliment, because the skin around her eyes tightened, her fingers stiffened around the steering wheel and her voice began to rise, drowning out the sound of one of my favorite Demi Lovato songs (which P.S., is all of them).
At this point, I was daydreaming about none other than Demi Lovato, wondering if we could be friends in real life or if our friendship would be eclipsed by her celebrity... Anyway, the last thing I remember was black smoke shooting out of the lovely human, and greenish vomit spewing from her mouth onto my horrified face, as I mouthed the lyrics to "Unbroken."
By now, you might have guessed that she and I had gone into our respective trauma responses as a result of getting triggered. She was in a (quite obvious) state of fight, and I'd gone into flight, in the form of a mild dissociative state.
Have you ever asked yourself: Why do I want to kill my partner right now?
Our brain is wired for connection but it's primarily wired for survival. If we perceive that our survival is threatened by said connection, till death do us part, turns into kill or be killed. We become trigger-happy, shooting first and asking questions later.
When this occurs, our date turns into a predator; "No, you're the cutest," becomes "No, you're an asshole," and the man of your dreams transforms into a blood-thirsty wolverine who's trying to trap you into a relationship that's quite frankly, suffocating you.
Love may be a many-splendored thing but it's actually more of a battlefield.
When we pick up on a threat, real or imagined, the primitive parts of our brain get activated and we go into Fight or Flight. This is a fundamental physiological reaction in which our body's primitive, automatic, and inborn response system prepares us to fight or flee from a perceived attacker (in other words, from your Carebear, Doodle bug, or Handsome Mr. Baby-Boo).
It makes the urge to maim and murder our partner seem like a great idea, since we’d merely be acting in self-defense.
Physical signs that you are in Fight or Flight:
- Your pupils dilate, heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, awareness intensifies, your senses sharpen.
Other signals to tip you off:
- Throwing your boyfriend's belongings out the window.
- Lighting anything at all on fire.
- Creating a fake Facebook account so you can friend your partner's ex and see if she's prettier than you.
- You keep telling people "I'm fine, OK?"
We all know how to pick a fight. That’s actually a pretty good thing - fighting (fairly) is a necessary and healthy part of any relationship. The trouble is that few of us know how and when to stop a fight that’s no longer productive or intimacy building.
I know you just don't talk about Fight Club. But everybody should be talking about Fight or Flight Club.
When we learn how to handle our triggers, we become able respond to our environment in a healthy way and get ourselves back to a resting state, from which we can negotiate conflict. Most importantly, we can give our intimate relationships a fighting chance at survival.
There's only one rule of Fight or Flight Club: It is never, EVER a good idea to keep fighting when you're triggered.
In my work with couples, I help partners put neuroscience to good use, learning to identify their triggers and how to tend to them appropriately. If you’re constantly bracing for impact, your fights will be unproductive and even dangerous. The cumulative effect of stress hormones isn’t good for your relationship, or for you. (Think: IBS, migraine headaches, hormonal or immune system disorders, the list goes on).
You can be a wildcat in a sack, but not at the dinner table.
Here’s how to give your heart (and your nervous system) a break, with a useful acronym from Ms. Lovato herself:
DEMI: (discover - empathize - make contact - initiate)
Discover your triggers: Learn what they look like for you and for your partner. If you're getting seriously triggered, say so and take a time out.
Empathize with the trigger: Pay attention to it. Ask it what it needs. Take 10 deeps breaths, go for a walk, do a crossword puzzle, call a friend. If you bulldoze over this step, you’ll get into trouble. (And then when you’re ready… )
Make contact with your partner, signaling that you're ready to have a dialogue. (and finally...)
Initiate intimacy-building behaviors: Things like making physical contact with your partner, sitting next to them while you talk, or using soothing voices and soft tones, all serve to calm your nervous system and make it easier to talk.
Lonely Forever? No way.