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Article - source: Mamamia

There are 3 ways to stop the 'conflict cycle'

4 September 2022

When there are ongoing cycles of conflict in our couple relationship, we often unconsciously take our partner’s comments, behaviour, opinion, tone of voice or facial expression as a threat. In that moment, we’re triggered into fight- or-flight and our mind and body react to our partner as if they were a hungry bear chasing us. 

The threat feels very real, and we react accordingly. We fight or run for our lives. The tragedy is that couples can do this for years, or even decades. 

Remember, it typically takes around six years of conflict before a couple will contact a therapist for help. Conflict is incredibly distressing for both partners. It’s easy to see the distress on the fighters: they shout, blame, degrade, regress, make their bodies bigger or voices louder in anger. 

Those who flee the conflict are also extremely distressed, even if they don’t look it. Remember, they have the same cascading survival reaction that compels them to run away as the fighters have to attack. Both experience a surge in their adrenaline and cortisol levels, and their heart rate and blood pressure increase.

Prolonged couple conflict causes suffering for both partners. It’s gruelling, both physically and mentally, and it takes time and energy to recover from each exhausting episode. Very few of us bounce back after a fight without any lingering impact. 

The residue of conflict impacts our relationship and creates the perfect climate for the ego to tell elaborate stories of our partner’s inadequacy. It’s vastly different from the way we saw each other at the start of the relationship. 

I see many couples where both partners feel vulnerable and powerless within their relationship. Their dynamic has changed. They both feel victim-like and see their partner as powerful, and even persecutory. When they come to me for therapy, typically they’ve both been using their go-to ego defence mechanisms and telling themselves ego-based stories for years. 

These behaviours and narratives are entrenched in their relationship, so both partners have plenty of ‘evidence’ to back up their ego’s version of the ‘truth’. Often, they disregard any information that conflicts with their version. 

Many of the partners engaged in cycles of conflict didn’t develop distress tolerance in their relationships with their parents when they were children. It’s not their fault. And it’s not your fault. It’s not your parents’ fault, either, or even their parents’ fault – they didn’t develop distress tolerance either.

We know our ability or inability to tolerate distress is handed down from parent to child. You know already that securely attached people have a higher threshold for handling distress than those who are insecurely attached.

It’s a different experience for the insecurely attached. Their threshold is lower, and arousal is higher, which means more distress to deal with, more ego-based stories and defence mechanisms. 

Those who were faced with the biological paradox will have an even lower threshold for distress tolerance, and they live with chronic arousal, perceiving many more threats in everyday life, and certainly in their relationship. 

Why judgement is problematic

 

What’s important here is that we don’t judge ourselves, our partner, or anyone, for being insecurely attached and not developing distress tolerance. It’s easy to want to judge our partner for their inadequacies or blame our parents for our insecure attachment. 

Using judgement may allow us a little ego boost. However, it’s not healthy for us – and it’s using the ego defence mechanism projection. It’s fine to acknowledge that it’s a shame, or that life would have been simpler if we were securely attached, but judgement is problematic. It implies that we’re not like the person we’re judging (so we’re ‘good’), and therefore are better than them (as they’re ‘bad’). 

Do you recognise this? Whenever we use the extremes of good and bad, we’re using the defence mechanism called splitting. It means we’ve separated the person into the black and white binary and removed all grey zones. 

So, what’s in the grey zone? Well, everything that’s about all of us being complex, real and multifaceted human beings. The grey zone contains an understanding of our partner’s journey, their relational templates and childhood experiences, our journey, our need or safety and what our ego and physiology do when we perceive danger. 

We’re no more ‘good’ than they are ‘bad’. We all need to understand that there are no angels or devils in this life. My clients often want to make me out as ‘good’, as if my life is perfect and that I never struggle with tough times. I always tell my clients that there are no halos in my consulting room – not on their heads and certainly not on mine. 

Just like all of us mortals, I behave according to my attachment style and can hit my limit of distress tolerance. I work within myself to increase my threshold of what I can tolerate. 

We’re all in the human experience together. When we judge someone, we believe they should know better and behave better. We can also judge our own behaviour harshly, whether it’s with our partner or with others. We can be so fearful of being seen as inadequate and deemed unacceptable in our community. 

Remember, abandonment is primitively wired within us as being akin to death – a lone human didn’t live for long in the wild. Today, there’s a major problem socially and via the media, as we judge all adults through the lens of a securely attached template. It’s a bit rich, isn’t it, given that only 60 per cent of us are actually securely attached. We don’t mind being completely inconsistent within ourselves as we delight in judging a monumental celebrity downfall. 

We love to gossip about it and judge that celebrity accordingly. We even sound holier than thou and feel rather unblemished as we speak. We see the celebrity splashed across the internet, hiding their ashamed faces on the evening news and in magazines. We love seeing how terrified, unworthy and below us they are now. We devour this stuff because it makes us feel better about our own lives.

We do this to our partner in our relationship, too. We judge them harshly for what they don’t know exists inside them. 

When we hit our own threshold of distress tolerance, we often make excuses for our cruel or out-of-control behaviour. We may have called our partner ‘weak’ or ‘pathetic’ or yelled at them to ‘shut up!’, with expletives added for emphasis to frighten them just a little more. Or maybe we punished them with the silent treatment for days. 

One of the best things we can do in our relationship is to stop our judgement and develop empathy for both of our individual struggles and how they interact in our relationship. 

We’re all humans, influenced by our primitive biology and relational wiring. We all can feel sadness, anxiety, irritation, shame, humiliation, guilt, pain and frustration. We’d be robots if we didn’t. The difference lies in our ability to manage these feelings.

The first step we can take is to attend to our own home. It’s your turn to explore your own threshold of distress tolerance, to understand why and how you fight with your partner. You’re not responsible for the attachment style you developed, nor for what triggers you into flight-or-fight with your partner. You’re not even responsible for the ego-based stories you’ve been constructing in your mind for decades. 

However, now that you know about attachment styles, distress intolerance, triggers, ego-based stories and defence mechanisms, it’s your responsibility to liberate your relationship from the suffering caused by these things. And it’s not just the suffering to your relationship. 

We take ourselves everywhere, and when we take responsibility and liberate ourselves from the impact of the past, we liberate our partner, any children, friends, family and colleagues at work. Developing distress tolerance is how you stop the cycles of conflict with your partner. 

The more you do this, the more peace you’ll both feel. This creates the space to make happy memories together. I see this with my clients all the time. They do the work and the dark grey cloud that hovered over them disappears. 

How do we develop distress tolerance?

We can’t separate mind and body as they influence each other constantly. We are one organism. This means we need both mind and body solutions for developing distress tolerance. 

I believe there are two main categories of coping strategies that are critical for developing distress tolerance. They allow you to reduce your reactivity to triggers through understanding how your triggers link to that whiff of familiarity from the past. 

This awareness will help you calm down and then you’ll recover more quickly. For couples, this decreases the damage of the conflict. These categories are connected and overlap in practice, but I’ll present them separately so you can see how they work. They are – 

1. Bio-hacks for calming ourselves down. 

2. Developing earned secure attachment. 

Bio-hacks for calming ourselves down

Bio-hacks are strategic interventions that you can apply yourself to improve your health, wellbeing or performance. You can use these to calm down whenever you want or need to. You already know that your limbic system is your brain’s emotional centre. 

When your amygdalae determine you are under threat, your body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which increase your heart rate and blood pressure. These changes prepare your body for fight-or-flight, and your thinking brain takes a back seat. 

Sometimes the left hemisphere goes offline, as in the case of adults with childhood trauma. To develop distress tolerance, you need to learn to get yourself out of fight-or-flight mode, to calm your whole system. Then you can get on with your life and think creatively about your next steps. 

Stop the conflict and take time out

The first thing you need to do is to stop the episode of conflict. You need to take time out from the fight with your partner, even if that means physically moving away from them and into a safe space. You can’t calm yourself down if your fight-or-flight response is still being stimulated, as the hormones will keep surging through your body. 

So, we need to take the time to calm down before returning to each other. Think about how long you need. Is it fifteen minutes or is it hours? Take the time to ensure you don’t keep re-triggering each other. When you reunite, you need to have a mindset that’s open to resolving the conflict in a respectful way. You may even simply let it go and move on. 

Once you’ve taken time out, you can use some simple hacks to calm down. These help you join your mind and body together to focus on your here and now. When you’re triggered, you’ve confused what’s past and present. We all only have now: our past is over, and our future is not yet written. 

There are many ways to calm down, and I’m going to share my top three go-to tools. These tools have been scientifically tested, and even medical experts recommend their effectiveness. The more often I use these, the higher my threshold for tolerating distress becomes. Most of my clients find them life changing. They can be done anytime and anywhere. Just make sure you keep your eyes open during the breathing exercise when driving! 

My top three bio-hacks are: 

1. Breathing exercise to stimulate the vagus nerve. 

2. Mindfulness. 

3. Riding the 90-second wave. 

These bio-hacks return us to the present. And the only fact we really have (as opposed to the fake news created by our ego) is that our physical sensations are actually happening in the present. By focusing on being present and calming down, we can learn to tolerate distress within ourselves. 

This means we’re not needing our external world to be our crutch. We’re not distracting ourselves by reading, watching TV, tidying the office drawers or rearranging the kitchen cupboards. Distraction is being used as a defence mechanism. 

What we often try to do is use the external world to help tidy up our distressed internal world. We unconsciously believe we’ll get our mind in order if we can just achieve order in the kitchen. (And of course, it’s nice to have a compelling reason to tidy the kitchen cupboards). But distraction won’t help increase distress tolerance, and developing distress tolerance is critical for decreasing the cycles of conflict in our relationship. 

1. Breathing exercise to stimulate the vagus nerve. 


At a biological level, breathing is the most powerful way we can regulate our fight-or-flight response. This works because of our vagus nerve and its incredibly calming capacity. The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve, and it extends from our brainstem down through the neck and thorax to our abdomen. 

Think of it as a two-way street that carries a massive range of messages from our digestive system and organs to the brain, and back again. When we stimulate the vagus nerve, we send a message to our body saying it’s time to relax and de-stress. You do this simply by taking a slow, deep, deliberate breath in through your nose and down to your stomach. Then, you exhale slowly. These deep breaths activate neurons that detect blood pressure. The neurons also signal to the vagus nerve that your blood pressure is too high, so it lowers your heart rate, which helps you calm down.

2. Mindfulness.


You will now be aware that you compound your own stress and distress by creating ego-based stories that evoke sadness, anxiety or fear. And you know that your ego is just a part of your mind, continuously concerned with your identity from moment to moment. Mindfulness is a great tool to help us calm down when our ego’s stories take off, tell fake news or lack coherence. We’ve seen what happens to us physically and mentally when we let the stories rule the roost. Mindfulness takes our attention away from our left hemisphere, allowing us to drop the stories and redirect our mind to ourselves as an entire living and breathing organism.

3. Riding the 90-second wave.

 

For this approach, we can think of our body’s experience during fight-or-flight as a wave in the ocean with a beginning and an end. 

Following her stroke, Jill Bolte Taylor discovered that the physical sensations of fight-or-flight (such as surging adrenaline, racing heart rate, increasing blood pressure) reach a peak and then dissipate by themselves in 90 seconds. This means the physiological experience of emotions such as anger, frustration, sadness or distress takes only 90 seconds to ride through our body. 

So, why all this talk of distress intolerance if we only need to cope for 90 seconds? Bolte Taylor explains that our thoughts continue to re-stimulate our nervous system, which causes the fight-or-flight reaction to occur again and again. 

Think of it like this: we don’t normally just see one wave hit the beach. They keep rolling in, one after the other, in a continuous cycle. Similarly, our ego-based stories keep reactivating the physiological waves, keeping us in fight or flight until we stop the stories or become exhausted.

This is why it’s critical you become aware of the stories you tell yourself. These stories repeatedly hurt you and your relationship. Remember, the stories don’t just stay in your mind. If you believe you are stupid or hard done by or not good enough, then you’ll treat yourself accordingly. If you believe your partner is disappointing, selfish or cruel, you’ll treat them as such. Where your mind goes, your behaviour often follows, and this has consequences for your relationship.

These hacks are simple. The more frequently you use these strategies, the more you’ll want to keep using them to alleviate your distress, anxiety and sadness. You’ll no longer be held hostage or feel helpless in the face of your emotional state. 

The beauty of these hacks is that you can take them with you wherever you go. Over time, you’ll become more resilient and increase your threshold for tolerating distress.

This is an extract from Relationship Reset, published by Pan Macmillan Australia, available now from Booktopia, Book Depository, Amazon and all the other online bookstores. 

For more from Lissy Abrahams, you can follow her on Instagram.

Have you practiced any of these hacks before? How did you go? Share with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty.

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