Humans, like all species, are designed for survival. Our neurological response to threat focuses its efforts toward that purpose. When we sense danger, we require no conscious input into the activation of our sympathetic nervous system. You can’t take time to evaluate the situation when a hungry mountain lion plunges into your path. Quick response is key.

How We Perceive Conflict and the Threat Response

The body also perceives conflict as threat, responding accordingly in fight-flight or freeze-response. A discussion, disagreement, or change in mood with your partner often triggers these responses and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, disabling effective communication, understanding, and the ability to connect, which often leads to escalation.

You may not possess conscious awareness of the impending threat. In a process called neuroception, Stephen Porges describes the unconscious reaction to potential threat and the body’s natural response happening quite efficiently, completely under the radar of our conscious awareness.

Complications arise when conflict between partners causes threat response and reaction. A simple disagreement or misunderstanding can escalate unnecessarily before you even fully comprehend the situation. Are we doomed to inefficient and unproductive conflict with our partners forever? Fortunately, no.

Deactivating Threat Response in Relationship with Your Partner

In her blog called Recipes for LOVE, Diane Poole Heller suggests:

“Shift your orientation away from the instinctive defensive response that can be triggered in relationships (since our brain is biased toward survival-threat) and toward regaining and sustaining openness. Defensiveness makes us feel constricted, fearful, or avoidant, whereas cultivating our willingness refuels our receptivity to our partner…”

Stephen Porges also discusses the importance of developing a sense of safety in relationships and deactivating the threat response as quickly as possible once conflict arises. That is not to say that issues should go unaddressed, but you can agree to discuss it at a later, less-activated time. Let your partner know that the relationship may need some work but that, “You and I are ok.”

Give Yourself a Quick Time Out

Before reacting, reflect on the natural neurological responses that occur and choose instead to co-regulate with your partner, avoiding triggering behavior. Even small actions such as turning away from your partner at a crucial moment or inflections in your tone of voice can trigger threat and derail communication and connection. If you have experience in a long-term relationship, you probably regretfully recognize this pattern.

Using prosody of voice, physical touch, or comforting words, you hold the power to deactivate the threat response. Obviously, this does not happen naturally, but the awareness of at least one person in the couple and the attunement to their partner’s needs, triggers, and patterns affords an opportunity to diffuse threat-response drama and reclaim connection.

  • Try hugging for a full 20 seconds before speaking another word.
  • Feel your partner’s breathing, heart, and touch. By first bathing in this delicious warmth, you can now re-establish connection. It doesn’t make the problem go away, but it deactivates the survival threat, replacing it with safety.
  • Consider your tone of voice, focusing on the prosody and avoiding the lower register, which signifies threat.
  • Avoid blaming statements, which trigger anger and shame.

Counteracting the Brain’s Negativity Bias

Another area of opportunity in couples therapy involves counteracting the brain’s negativity bias by offering frequent acts of loving and connecting behaviors.

Our brains tend to focus more on past hurts, infractions, and trauma than the positive experiences we have in our relationships. It’s how we are innately wired. This knowledge opens the door for the possibility of shifting focus from the grocery list of past conflicts and employing neuroplasticity to wipe the negativity fog from our window and gain a clearer perception of the true nature of our relationship.

This is especially effective when partners consciously create a secure environment for growth by taking small steps that form their new, more positive habitual behaviors and construct a safe container for their relationship – a gentle touch, warm gaze, and verbal reassurance.

More on Nature, Nurture, and Neurons

In our Therapy Mastermind Circle, we will deeply explore this topic over the next three months. If you would like to learn more about ongoing online trainings that include teachings from Diane, monthly expert calls, live demos, and case consults, stop by the information page or contact [email protected].

Diane also offers live DARe trainings that provide practitioners with 20 CEs. To view our upcoming events, visit our events page.