If you’re wondering why you and your partner are having trouble breaking a negative cycle in your relationship that often leads to conflict, chances are you’re triggering each other’s sympathetic nervous system. What first appears to be you fighting over who does the dishes is actually a situation where our brain is signalling to us potential danger — and your loving partner is now your “enemy.”
Sarah Melancon, a sociologist and clinical sexologist, says our response derives from our genetic makeup that harks back to prehistoric times when our nervous system developed in a world where lions, tigers, bears, and warring tribes were common threats.
“One of the main functions of the autonomic nervous system is to keep us safe,” Melancon explains. “Through a subconscious process called neuroception, our nervous system constantly scans the environment, looking out for signs of safety or danger. In addition, through a process called co-regulation, our nervous system picks up on the state of the nervous system of others nearby. Without conscious awareness, our nervous system will attune to others’ systems.”
For example, a known, friendly face, signals our social engagement system and helps us relax; on the other hand, a hostile face from a stranger signals potential danger, and activates our sympathetic fight-or-flight system to help us escape or fight if needed.
In relationships, Melancon says we are constantly co-regulating with our partner.
“Generally, our nervous systems want to be in the same state at the same time, which helps us feel close and connected. This can work both for us and against us. It means when our partner is happy, we’re more likely to feel happy. But when they’re upset, it’s easier for us to get upset, as well. Unfortunately, this can be extra challenging when conflict arises and can lead to unnecessary drama.”
For instance, one partner has a boundary that was unintentionally crossed. As a result, “they would rightly feel anger, often activating the ‘fight’ mode of the sympathetic nervous system,” Melancon says. “Let’s say the other partner comes home from work, finding their loved one angry, their system could easily perceive that as threatening (even while their partner’s anger is warranted). Within seconds, both partners may be defensive and at each other’s throats — simply because of how our nervous systems are wired to perceive safety and danger.”
How our nervous system affects our relationships
Our nervous system is intricate to who we are, so it indelibly plays out in our relationships. Unfortunately, according to Dr. David Helfand, a licensed psychologist specializing in couples therapy, neurofeedback, and brain mapping, our nervous systems have not evolved to handle the kind of stress we experience in our modern world.
“Our nervous system is designed to handle life or death situations while at all other times contributing to the healthy function of our body. It was not designed for emotional relationship stress, jealousy, deadlines from work, or complicated family dynamics,” Helfand says. “Therefore, our nervous system responds to all relationship stress as if it’s life or death. This response is heightened even further for those with anxiety or PTSD. Learning how to activate your relaxation response is one of the best ways to combat an otherwise primitive system that is due for a serious update.”
Know whether you fight, flight, freeze, fawn, tend, or befriend
When it comes to encountering a stressful situation within our relationship, how we will respond to that stress is dictated by our sympathetic nervous system.
“Our sympathetic nervous system’s stress response includes fight, flight, freeze, fawn, tend, and befriend,” Helfand says. “Fight means you are taking on the threat and fighting back. Flight would be running away hopefully to safety. Freeze is when you are stunned and just can’t move or react. Fawn is when you give in to the attacker and let them take over. Tend means that in the face of a threat, you take care of your loved ones, generally meaning children. And befriend means to use community resources and friends to help battle the threat.”
An example of a “flight” response would be if your partner raises their voice during a disagreement, you might shut down your emotions, and walk away to avoid the conversation. If your response is “fight,” you would yell back and escalate the conflict. If your response is “fawn,” you would submit to your partner and say and do whatever you can to help calm them down. “Tending” might mean you check in with your children first to see how they’ve been affected by the argument before you respond to your partner. If you have a “befriend” response, you might call your partner’s mother to help ease the situation.
According to Helfand, the response style of a person is generally based on a combination of their genetics, modelled behaviours from parents and family, and their lived experience. “If they learned early on that fawning was the proper response when their parents were yelling, they might decide later that it’s time to fight back. It takes considerable effort to undo your base wiring though from childhood, and that is where therapy or other forms of self insight and practices are extremely helpful.”
How to use this knowledge to improve your relationship
“Your brain will reinforce the state you put it in. So if you tend to respond with a fight response, that will become more ingrained in you over time,” Helfand says. “So, if you want to change your response, you have to gradually rewire your brain. The first step is awareness. You have to realise what your style is. The next step is motivation. Understand how your response style hurts the relationship, and then you must authentically desire to change it. Making incremental behavioural changes is the next step.”
Helfand suggests starting by taking a break if you notice your old response is about to express itself. “Then identify how you want to respond, and make one small change that will set you on that path. Most people want radical and fast change, but the science shows us that small changes over time are more sustainable.”
Sometimes how you respond to conflict isn’t so much the problem but it’s the way you repair afterward that is significant, Helfand says. “Regardless of your default style, it’s important to make the time to reconnect and process the experience so that you can repair the emotional damage caused by the fight.”
And to better understand each other’s nervous system’s response style, Helfand recommends that couples talk about the experiences in their body.
“As soon as you label an emotion or experience, you have intellectualized it in some way,” he says. “If you say ‘During our last argument, I felt my shoulders stiffen, my jaw felt like a rock, and I noticed my knees buckle.’ That is such an emotional depiction of your fawn response and it can help create intimacy since you are letting the other person really see and experience your nervous system’s reaction to the conversation.”
Co-regulating your nervous system with your partner can help both of you to deactivate your stress response and become closer.
“Every brain has a system of mirror neurons. These neurons attempt to mimic the emotional and physical state of the persons we interact with. This is known as empathy. We feel what they feel. This is also a powerful tool to help couples co-regulate with each other,” Helfand says. “There is some great research on couples that co-breathe, for example. When we sync our breathing with a loved one, that creates a sense of connection, empathy, and other ineffable characteristics that generally cause a deeper love between two people. Syncing your nervous system with your partner, and regulating your own are two of the most powerful ways to move towards a lifetime of fulfillment together.”