Millennia ago, the physiological phenomena known as “fight, flight, or freeze” served us very well. And it is still serving us… just in a different way.
Long ago when humans encountered any number of potentially threatening circumstances, their sympathetic nervous systems were designed to automatically provoke the best response to maintain physical safety. After all, physical threats were much more common then.
People had to be on guard. A bear or tiger could ambush them while they were picking berries. A neighboring clan could attack to claim their prized hunting ground. The body developed a way to try to provide safety reactions within a second. There was no time to waste.
While our (typical) modern day threats have changed a great deal, our bodies still respond the same way.
We are still wired to try to protect ourselves, to preserve our lives. While we may not have to defend the day’s hunt from hungry wolves, even innocuous comments can touch sensitive spots and trigger similar defense responses in us.
One of the areas in which these protective reactions commonly manifest is in our relationships. This seems counterintuitive at first glance, given that our closest relationships are those where we ideally find security, attachment, and acceptance. But at the same time, considering the deep vulnerability of romantic relationships, perhaps these reactions make more sense.
We expose parts of ourselves to a partner that many others may never see. We disclose the thoughts that we rarely share with others. Emotionally speaking, we put ourselves out in the wide open, away from the shelter of the forest or caves.
As children, we needed the emotional attachment we had with our parents. When we reach adulthood, we continue to need deep emotional attachments—none of which are so deep as when we are in a significant relationship.
Being in a committed relationship means that we believe we can put ultimate trust in the other person. We feel safe with them in a way we may not with other people. We depend on them to be there for us when others are not. We believe they will have our backs and protect us.
As our romantic relationships deepen and grow, though, conflict often arises. This is normal, of course. Both partners bring different expectations, emotional backgrounds, and personalities to the table. The stereotypical differences between the genders can also come into play.
With time, these issues may develop into very sensitive spots. These spots may have their roots in events before the relationship began, or they may have developed within the relationship based upon what issues arose.
Sensitive spots are those areas in which we feel particularly vulnerable or easy to attack. It may be our spending habits, our insecurity in other friendships, our weight, our similarities to our dysfunctional parents, or feelings of jealousy toward our partner’s friendships. The list is vast.
Perception of Danger
At the outset, we talked about the wide-open vulnerability of romantic relationships. When we become embroiled in conflict with our partner, any “you” statements we make toward each other will feel like direct hits.
- “You spent $200 on craft supplies again?!”
- “Why can’t you ever come home from work on time?”
- “You don’t help at all with the baby at night!”
- “You care more about your parents’ feelings than mine!”
No matter what you or your partner’s sensitive spots are, when they are triggered, the brain will take over to make you feel safe. Even though you are not physically attacking each other, the emotional attacks are enough to make you feel in great danger. Subconsciously, your brain says, “My partner isn’t here for me and I don’t feel safe!” or “My partner is attacking me! What is going on?”
These triggers will, of course, spark reactions of fight, flight, or freeze.
We might “fight” back with angry words or destructive behavior. We may “flee” by disengaging from the relationship and giving the silent treatment. And the “freezing” behavior can look like depression. No matter our reaction, we are trying to protect ourselves from the danger of emotional vulnerability.
Thankfully, the wisdom of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is available to help us tease out these underlying issues and learn to reattach with each other. We can find ways to understand our fight, flight, or freeze reactions and how to modify them.
If you find yourself struggling with these or other types of problems in your relationship, please contact my office to find out more about how I can help you.