And when that happens, do the tables on the conversation get turned around and result in either a massive argument or in one or both of you completely shutting down?
If you’re anything like I was back in those dark days, is your fight or flight response actually a tool to help you avoid those tough questions and conversations?
Well, I’m here to tell you that if you truly want to help your spouse to “move on” and “get over” your affair, then you need to be able get a handle on your flight or flight responses.
What I used to do…
When Linda would approach me with questions I would become defensive in a huge way. When I did, Linda would pull away. She would retreat like a hurt child and it would shut her down.
Though my reactions were somewhat natural due to my fight or flight instincts, the end result was actually what I was hoping for. She would shut down, the conversation would end and I’d be “safe” from answering questions and talking about the affair again for at least another day.
Obviously, at that time, by head was way too far up my ass and I couldn’t see the forest through the trees to realize just how selfish my behavior was. It took some time performing this dance before I learned that all she wanted to accomplish was to get closer to me, yet my defensiveness only served to pull us further away.
When I stopped the defensiveness and instead just listened to her – that’s all she wanted was for me to listen – we got closer, and calm, open communication typically ensued.
Now, you may be experiencing extreme shame and guilt, or you still might be in that foggy state, so conquering your defensiveness may be difficult for you. You may need some help in getting past it. Here is where you might consider some individual therapy, counseling, or at least talking to a trusted friend who can help guide you.
What helped me…
For me, I determined that the biggest thing that helped me to get past – or at least manage – my flight or fight response, was awareness; being aware when I was getting all fired up and ready to make a stand – and why. Also, being aware and taking into consideration Linda’s true reasons and motivations for her behaviors.
Prior to this realization, if Linda would approach me and start tossing questions my way or expressing her anger or frustrations, I’d typically start to get antsy. My heart would start to race and I could sense my adrenaline kicking in. I was physically and emotionally preparing to defend myself from her “ambush attack.”
Dr. Jim Taylor, Adjunct faculty, University of San Francisco says…
Our “fight-or-flight” reaction may be the best-known expression of our survival instinct. This response set is triggered when we (and all animals) perceive a situation as a threat to our existence; our sympathetic nervous system activates rapid emotional, psychological, and physical changes. Emotionally, we feel either fear or anger intensely. Psychologically, our senses are heightened, and we’re able to make faster decisions. Physically, we get a shot of adrenaline, our heart rate increases, blood flow is diverted to essential parts of the body, and we experience increased strength and stamina.
When this stress response is triggered it becomes hard to rationally think things through. Therefore, trying to resolve a conflict when the fight or flight response has been activated doesn’t work well.
Margaret Paul, Ph.D. has some suggestions when this response is triggered and an all-out battle seems apparent…
What Not to Do
“If one or both of you are triggered, here is what not to do:
- Don’t escalate the conflict by attacking and blaming.
- Don’t fuel the flames by defending or explaining.
- Don’t shut down and withdraw.
- Don’t try to pacify the other person.
- Don’t comply. Don’t give yourself up.
If you do any of these controlling behaviors, you will either escalate the conflict into a fight, or you will lose yourself. In either case, there will be no caring resolution.
What to Do
There are only two responses in conflict that have a chance at leading to healthy resolution:
- Opening to learning
- Lovingly disengaging
Learning: What this means is that you become curious about your own and the other person’s reasons for each feeling the way you do. When you each share your point of view, with caring for yourself and the other person, you each open to the possibility of learning something new. By each of you opening to seeing the situation through the other person’s eyes, you will each likely gaining new information that will enable you to resolve the conflict in a way that works for both of you — where neither of you feels you have given yourself up or compromised yourself.”
This is basically what Linda and I were able to accomplish.
One day, we had just had one of our “episodes” as described above, and in our post-shut down period we had a calm discussion. Long story short, we discovered our motivations for behaving why we did.
Linda learned that I felt blindsided, attacked and accused, while I learned that she was just trying to express herself and vent some of her feelings. As a result of this, we each made some adjustments and carried them with us when similar situations arose in the future.
Disengaging: “Disengaging is completely different than withdrawing. When you withdraw, you are shutting down, closing your heart, cutting off your love for yourself and the other person. Withdrawal is a form of punishment: “I will shut down and withdraw my love from you until you stop hurting me, or do what I want you to do.”
Disengaging is temporarily leaving the conflict, but keeping your heart open to yourself and the other person. This means that you need to learn to lovingly manage your painful feelings of helplessness over the other person being closed, and of the loneliness and heartache that might be there when someone is angry, blaming or shut down to you.
When you disengage, you might say to the other person, with a kind and open voice, “I don’t think we will get anywhere right now. Let’s try again in half an hour and then maybe we will be able to be more open with each other.”
Once you feel fully open, go back to the other person and see if he or she is ready to learn with you. If not, then you will need to let it go for another time, or even let it go permanently. We cannot have control over whether or not another person opens in conflict. If the other person doesn’t open, then you will need to decide for yourself how to take loving care of yourself in the face of not being able to openly talk about the conflict.”
I must say that Linda and I rarely practiced disengaging back during those rough days, though we do now. Often the emotions were so high that withdrawing was typically our response. And to be honest, it was our typical response for most of our marriage and was the only thing we were really familiar with. We had to learn a different approach.
Doing things differently
Fight or flight choices are about survival. Knowing when it’s best to make a tactical retreat and when it’s time to fight is baked into our genes.
We know where the flight or fight reaction will lead if it is left to play itself out unconsciously. The challenge is now for us to cultivate awareness and realize that at any moment we are in a position to actually decide to do things differently.
This doesn’t mean that you will never feel threatened or fearful or angry, or that you will never do anything silly or self-destructive. But in general, awareness either reduces your fight or flight response at the time, or it helps you to recover from it more quickly afterward.
To be sure though, if you do not get a handle on your fight or flight response, especially as you try to recover and heal from the affair, you and your spouse will be in for some frustrating times.
We’d love to hear about any experiences that you’ve had with regard to your – or your spouse’s – fight or flight responses, and how they’ve impacted your communications and your recovery.
Please share this with the community, along with any practical advice you might have in the comment section below. Thanks!