Turning the tide on distress in disagreements, fights, conflict.
Updated: Dec 30, 2022
• What couples remember as their first fight is the first time they got shaken out of the ceaseless protection from the world that their relationship had so easily offered them. A disagreement, fight or conflict made their partner suddenly look dangerous—with a small “d”—and threatening—with a small “t”. The brain’s primitive fear-initiated defense systems got activated and they acted out from this primitive place, asking questions later, shooting now. This cascade into small-d danger and small-t threat scared both partners. Some felt it as anger instead of or in addition to fear. (It’s important to note here that small-t and small-d are perceived, not actual; if there is actual danger to the well-being of partners, that relationship has no future and should end.).
• Paths diverge in couples' experiences of their first fight. Couples that do well with their fights years later have learned to send cues of safety and friendliness. They can calm and reassure their partner of their intentions and meanings. They can keep each other in a state that supports collaboration and partnership even while disagreeing. Cues of safety for these couples quickly override cues of danger and threat. Experience builds up of the speed of this shift and so the couple can anticipate that shortly they’ll have made progress on the disagreement and experience relief. Anticipation is always now: if they anticipate relief because they know from experience they’ll have it soon, relief will flavor the disagreement.
• What have these couples learned? That deliberately and redundantly signaling safety and friendliness is the key to managing conflict, disagreements, fights. The formula can even be simpler: cueing safety through friendliness. These couples learned to signal friendliness in ways that are specific to their partner, but probably include one or more of these: verbal reassurances, touch, shifts of tone, volume, or speed of speech; shifts in the positivity/negativity of the content of their turns, and the sequence of them (e.g, not ending a turn with a complaint, but rather with a conciliatory move); or shifts in the physical distance between them. Multiple, rendundant cueing of friendliness is essential, while editing out whatever accelerates distress for your partner (e.g. eye rolling, sighing, holding the floor too long are sure-fire accelerants).
• Couples that don’t do well with their fights years later will likely have darker colored lenses on their first fight. If so, it’s likely they continue to experience distress and fear in disagreements and don’t get relieved quickly enough. They signal unfriendliness with the words they choose, their tone, volume, speed, ending turns with negativity, or many other cues. They may start conciliatory but end their turns with a complaint added on, or worse go into a stream of complaint, leaving the conciliatory move meaningless. These couples kindle their fears and states of threat rather than relieving them. Their first fight still looms, because something like it keeps happening. They have no choice but to anticipate it will happen again.
• The solution is to provide immediate cues of safety through friendliness. They must deliberately act in friendly ways to each other again. Partners must disarm each other by making shifts that their partner will perceive as friendly and thus as a bid for collaboration. They may at times have to cue their partner to be more friendly with them, but even these cues are done in a friendly way.
• It’s not the content of the fight; it’s how friendly the couple is able to stay, and how quickly they can return to friendly if they lose their way. For those with much history of unfriendly conflict it will take time to build up anticipation in each partner of safety through friendliness, but multiple experiences of producing and receiving cues of safety and friendliness can turn the tide and bring you back to a place where you can think and feel at the same time. You are creative and productive in this state and ready to collaborate on the next thing.