The Freeze, Fight, or Flight Impulse When we Argue with Our Partners

Part of my three-year healing journey has focused on learning how to avoid going into freeze, fight, or flight response every time I find myself in conflict with my spouse. I love him tremendously. Having already navigated a separation, and very nearly a divorce, I naturally fear anything that threatens the peace and happiness we have worked so diligently to build since reconciling. Because of that, arguing can be a considerable trigger for me.

I’ve learned that I tend to see relationships as fragile. Easily broken. My therapist and I have put considerable effort into understanding why that is, and we have a long way to go. The consequence of this view of relationships is that I see every argument, even moment of conflict, as a threat to the relationship. And that’s not just in my marriage—its thorny vines find their way into my friendships, my professional relationships, and my family.

Seeing relationships as something that can be so easily broken has had a devastating impact on my ability to communicate healthily when conflicts arise. For example, when I feel that tensions are running high and conflict is unavoidable, I often shut down completely. Fearful that any argument could possibly lead to the demise of the relationship, I prefer to just stay silent. In so doing, I allow things to fester.

On the other hand, sometimes this fear and discomfort causes me to explode. I become volatile, angry. I say the meanest thing I can think of. This is not because I want to cause harm to the person I love, but rather, it is because I am trying to prevent myself from being harmed. If I can find something to say that will utterly offend and repel the other person, then that’s just fine. At least I pushed them away before they could hurt me any farther.

This tendency to either stuff or explode is part of my freeze, fight, or flight response. And all of it ties back, ironically, to self-protection. In these unhealthy ways of trying to protect my relationship with others, I end up doing things that repel other people and that make me harder to get along with. Sadly, my marriage is where I find these unhealthy patterns showing up the most.

Thankfully, through therapy, I am beginning to learn new, healthy methods for handling conflict with my husband. Last night, he and I found ourselves in an argument. We seldom fight, especially since our reconciliation. But we are human, and occasionally, we hurt each other. Last night was one of those moments. I found old thought patterns creeping in. As the argument progressed and didn’t seem to be reaching any sort of resolve, I felt that old unease pushing its knife into my back. This is it. This issue is unsolvable. Might as well tell him you would rather not do this anymore. Or, at least give him the silent treatment. At least then he can’t hurt you.

Despite those old thoughts, I somehow found a way to reign myself back in. I forced myself to be calm and quiet. To listen. To breathe. As I drew in breath after breath, feeling my nervous system calming down with it, I found healthier thoughts fighting their way to the surface. This is just an argument. He loves you. Arguments happen, and they don’t mean the relationship is over. Just stay and talk. And if you can’t talk, just be calm and quiet.

I was able to get through the argument in a healthy way. We didn’t exactly land on a solution to the problem, but I am at peace. I’m learning that there are some conflicts in marriage that can be resolved quickly, and some that will take time. Some issues are residual. They will require time, and lots of work toward change and finding common ground. I’m coming to understand that it’s okay to not settle everything right at the moment. In fact, for many issues that arise in marriage, it may even be possible. I can do my best to work with my husband to help us reach a “stopping point” in the argument— a place where we have de-escalated things enough that we can walk away from the conversation in good standing. We can revisit this anther time.

After all, we have a lifetime together to figure these things out. By forcing myself to remember this fact instead of believing that every fight threatens the end of our marriage, I am learning how to bring healthy communication and behavior to conflicts when they arise.

No freeze. No fight or flight. Just a resolve to stay, to love, and to promise to keep working toward solutions, however long that might take.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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