Shouting into a black hole
Natasha raised her voice bar by bar: “I told you a hundred times already — I do not want to spend my holidays with your sisters again. They are toxic and I won’t waste my time on them anymore!” Michael stared out of the window — his face expressionless, his body rigid.
The couple had started couple therapy three months ago on the verge of ending their 10-year-old marriage once and for all. They were both worn out by their constant arguments that resolved nothing.
Most of the time when you are arguing with your partner you do so because you want to be connected, to be really understood and listened to. You are frustrated that your partner is not connecting with you, not taking on board your feelings and the impact your partner is having on you. Arguing is a way of protesting, of making yourself heard and understood. In Natasha’s case she expressed her frustration with Michael’s difficulty to understand that Natasha’s relationship with his sisters was not as positive as he wanted it to be.
Just shouting at Michael made no difference to Natasha. Her message was not received by Michael.
In order to be able to talk to each other effectively, i.e. to listen to the other and to be listened to, both partners need to be in a receptive rather than a reactive state. What does it take to be receptive though? Let’s do a quick detour looking at the way that our brains are wired.
The bit about the human brain
When our nervous system goes into a reactive mode our fight/flight/freeze responses get activated. In evolutionary terms this is the older part of our brain — all other mammals and reptiles share this part of our anatomy. It helps us to react in a split second when we are danger (or perceive to be in danger): We can run (flight), attack the person or thing that threatens us (attack) or play dead (freeze). The parts of the brain that get activated in this state are the brain stem and limbic system. The old brain is hardwired for automatic reactions that don’t require thinking therefore allowing us to just do get our body into motion. When we are in this survival state it is neurologically impossible for us to be able to positively connect with another person.
The newer part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, developed later in evolutionary terms with the appearance of primates. The frontal part of the cortex allows us to think about a situation and to moderate some of our instinctual reactions in our old brain. Our prefrontal cortex is what distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal world. The prefrontal cortex does not only enable us to think, analyse and evaluate it also allows to reflect, i.e. to have an awareness of our thoughts and feeling states.
Should I stay or should I go now?
While we are consciously aware to some extent of the workings of your cerebral cortex, most of the functioning of our old brain happens on an unconscious level. Our old brain evaluates external events in terms of whether we need to run away from someone, have sex with them, look after them, submit to them, attack them or whether we are be nurtured by them. These assessments are made within milliseconds.
If you feel that you may be attacked by another person, be it with fists or words, your old brain will go into a reactive state. It will tell you to fight back, run away or not do anything at all. You will notice your beating heart, your tense muscles or your increasing blood temperature. You are in a state of high alert.
So, coming back to Natasha and Michael, when Natasha is shouting at Michael he perceives himself in danger. All he can do is protect himself. Michael chose to freeze, to play dead and not respond as his best survival strategy.
In conflict situations where you don’t feel safe it is therefore not possible for you to be receptive to what is being said. Your thinking brain is not activated.
John Gottmann, renowned for his work on marital relationships, identified what he called the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” in relationships — behaviours that are destructive in the long run. All of these behaviours match the fight/flight/freeze response:
You are in fight mode when you do the following:
Criticising your partner with global character assassinations or generalised comments starting with “you always” as if there was something wrong with them as a person. Constant criticism is very undermining in the long run and particularly damaging to children.
Putting your partner down and taking the moral high ground; attacking either actively or in an underhand passive aggressive way: insulting, name calling, sarcastic remarks or gestures such as rolling your eyes or shaking your head.
You are in flight or freeze mode with these responses:
Being defensive and warding off the attack: showing rightful indignation or regarding yourself as the victim, responding to a criticism with a counter criticism, complaining that “it’s not fair” or repeating yourself without actually listening to what is being said.
Stonewalling your partner by withdrawing physically or emotionally from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. This can involve staying silent, giving monosyllabic answers, sulking, changing the subject or simply walking out of the room.
Activate your new brain and listen
In any relationship there will be conflict and it is normal to be angry at times. However, in order to feel heard and to get what you want from your partner it helps to try to engage the prefrontal cortex of our brain more which helps us to be more receptive, empathic and able to respond in a constructive and positive way.
It helps to have an understanding of your own responses and to notice when your old brain is activated. Notice when your adrenaline starts pumping around your body, your heart beats faster, you get tunnel vision and can’t process information very well or you want to withdraw or attack in order to shut down negativity. When responding from this position you are not likely to get through to your partner and you won’t be able to resolve conflict. Notice when you feel flooded, i.e. overwhelmed with your partner’s demands. You won’t be able to creatively problem solve. Noticing your state of mind will help you to take a break and to signal to your partner that the conversation has to end for now. Equally if you notice that your partner cannot be receptive allow them to take a break when they need it too. Both of you need to be willing to listen in order to resolve your issue.
If you are both stuck in your old brain responses take a break of at least 20 minutes and in this time allow for your negative and distressing thoughts to lose their intensity. It helps to do de-stressing activities that deactivate your fight/flight/freeze response. This may include for example breathing deeply into your abdomen, relaxing your body through a muscle tensing/relaxing technique such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation, to visualise a pleasant place for you or to have a relaxing bath.
In the long term it is helpful to practice any kind of activity that allows you to get in touch with your emotional and mental landscape in a better way. This might include daily meditation, a reflective journal where you note down your frustrations and get them out of your system, a creative activity such as painting, dancing or playing music or indeed engaging in a talking therapy.
Knowing how to listen to your partner will change the way you resolve conflict. It sounds simple but requires active practice too. Listening to your partner with interest and empathy signals that you are keeping them safe so there is no need to respond with the old brain.