Archive for fight

Anger and the Couple

Like a sniffer dog recognising the scent of explosives, we all learn to be alert to any hint of danger to our psychological well-being. Whenever we have a suspicion that our partner may be behaving in a way that makes us feel vulnerable, we move to defend ourselves against the threat.

Deep in our brain, the amygdala is responsible for recognising and responding to the perceived danger. It sends out an alarm so that we can be prepared to protect ourselves. It is responsible for the ‘act first, think later’ response. We become all about ‘reaction’ – and it is so rapid that there is no time to think about our behaviour or consider the consequences.

There is an almost instantaneous physiological reaction as the amygdala triggers a surge of the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline. There is an immediate change in both our physical and mental state as a result.

Cortisol increases our muscle tension, breathing and heart rate, blood flow and blood pressure. Our focus becomes intense and fixed on the danger. 

The next influence is our individual propensity to one of the stress responses of ‘Freeze’, ‘Flight’, or ‘Fight’.

So we might ‘go cold’ (freeze), avoid eye contact and close down, shrink inside, and be unable to think. We hope the danger will pass without us having to engage.

Or we might have an urge to escape and get away (flight). We might need actual physical separation and space; or our partner senses that we have become emotionally unavailable, become distant, and have withdrawn from actively engaging with them. We have retreated into our cave.

Alternatively, our default survival mechanism might be angry confrontation (fight). We become hostile or threatening (both verbally and physically); or we sulk and become passive aggressive. The assumption here is that ‘attack is the best form of defence’.

Sometimes anger is energising and allows us to recognise something is wrong. We can become assertive and work for change. But that can only happen when there is a balance of reaction from the cortex. This is the ‘rational’ part of the brain which is responsible for thinking and judgement.

Frequently, we lose the ability to think and the anger escalates and becomes destructive (and even violent and dangerous). Couples describe being caught up in a repetitive spiral of arguments that never get resolved. They easily lose control, and lose access to the competent, creative, problem-solving parts of themselves. It becomes all about ‘feelings’.

 Because anger masks the fear and anxiety that has provoked the reaction, the partner is oblivious to the underlying feelings of vulnerability and the actual issues are never addressed. It becomes about ‘the dirty cups’ and not about ‘I feel you don’t care enough about me’.

There is a ‘Catch 22’ situation where describing those feelings would increase the sense of panic. After all, the person we love is the person who has the ability to hurt us the most. But they are also the ones who could soothe and reassure if only we could let them. But anger blocks that. When we are aggressive they stand up to us in return. Or they just want to get away from us, and we remain misunderstood.

Relationship counselling offers a calm space to uncover and understand the underlying issues. A couple can discover why they react to certain triggers and think about alternative ways of responding. Paradoxically, exposing the vulnerability can strengthen the relationship. It can become a safe place not haunted and overwhelmed by past hurts. The love, care, trust and generosity in the relationship can be used to heal emotional wounds. Counselling can offer the opportunity of experimenting with managing angry feelings – and equip the couple with constructive, supportive coping strategies. 

Kathy Rees

Stress and the Couple

Two news items caught my attention this week: how stress impacts relationships and whether there is a stress gender divide.

The first is new research released for National Stress Awareness Day on 1 November 2017 shows that many more women than men are feeling stressed and anxious.

Data showed that more than half of women (54%) experiencing stress or anxiety are struggling to sleep – while less than 4 in 10 men do (39%)

More than half eat junk food due to stress compared to a third of men

Nearly half (45%) have taken out their stress on partners or family – in contrast to less than a third of men (31%)
Almost a third (29%)have had panic attacks due to stress compared to less than one in in five of men (31%)

Do women juggle with more caring and parenting responsibilities which need to be juggled with their careers?

The second is the BBC 2 programme Trust me I’m a Doctor Mental Health Special who were testing out some of the claims that can help to reduce stress of which only some are supported by scientific evidence.

Working with couples it is becoming more evident how big a part stress can play between partners and how difficult it is to stay connected amid the difficulties.

When conflicts arise, it’s much easier to blame our partners –how could you have done that? Why didn’t you empty the dishwasher? You never ask me about my day.

These are all everyday examples of annoyances, disappointments and criticisms that can easily lead to the blame game with our partners. It seems simpler to focus on these negative interactions than to consider how much stress may be a major contribution. Do we even realise how much stress can be the cause of our relationship distress?

Many couples continually juggle with busy work schedules and parenthood and run a hectic lifestyle. This can be difficult enough. Throw into the mix lack of sleep, financial worries, illness and family issues – it’s not difficult to appreciate stress’s constant presence in our lives.

How does stress affect a relationship?

When a stressed partner does not get the support they need from their partners, this often leads to feeling isolated and ignored in the relationship and the tendency is to withdraw or fight. If we confront our partner for not supporting us, they often feel misunderstood – not even realising their own behaviours.

Even if we aren’t stressed ourselves, we are often not very responsive or miss the opportunity to provide comfort and help to our partners. We often don’t want to admit to ourselves that everything and everyone is making you irritable.

If both partners are overwhelmed with stress at the same time, which often happens, the situation worsens. We use each other to vent and take it out on our partners by picking fights over little things and being overtly critical. This often becomes a competition for who is not cared about the most.

How to stay connected under stress

Some partners chose to keep stress to themselves in order to protect a partner. Other partners chose to off-load at every opportunity making it difficult to find any relief. Neither way is ideal. Use this situation as an ideal opportunity to connect with your partner and really try to understand what they need in the way of support from you right know and how to give it. It may be as simple as practical hands-on assistance or it may include more physical comfort and emotional reassurance.

Learn to be more aware of just how much stress your partner may be experiencing. Don’t just look at the negative behaviour but try and understand together what might be going on below the surface.

At times we presume our partners should know when we are stressed and get reactive when they don’t respond in the way we want them to. Perhaps the answer to this is to ask for help when it is needed in a way that will get the response you need from your partner.

Take time out to support your partners stress head on. By sitting down together, taking time out to listen and offer comfort and understanding rather than focusing on yourself are not only key factors in managing stress but show our partners in those important moments that we are truly there for them side by side no matter what.

Stress doesn’t need to threaten our connection to our partners, it can bring us closer together when our stress hormones activate our brains systems to respond with compassion, love and cooperation.

Dawn Kaffel