Love and Conflict Part 1: How the stress response can make conflict worse

by John Hoffman

First the bad news.

Conflict is inevitable; even in love relationships, if you didn’t already know (which you probably did). It makes sense that partners would have conflict. You spend a lot of time together. You have high expectations for each other. You have the classic issues to butt heads about – money, housework, sex, and, of course, leaving the toilet seat down. Having children expands the areas for potential disagreement: child-rearing philosophies, sharing the work of parenting and, of course, discipline.

Yikes! This is getting to be a downer, so let’s have some good news. Conflict need not be destructive. In fact, we can even learn and grow closer from it. But – and it’s a big but – the good things can only happen if we handle conflict the right way more often than not. So dads who want to keep their relationships strong are wise to think about how they handle conflict. And conflict can be handled well – but it’s not easy. Conflict is a big topic, so it may take a couple of blogs to touch on the key issues.

I want to start with how our bodies react to conflict. This is particularly relevant to guys because our gut reactions can often sabotage the brainpower we need to handle conflict well. Here’s why.

Conflict is stressful. And when we’re subject to stress our brains and bodies respond in ways that were designed to help us deal with a threat – you know – like being attacked by a predator. Obviously, conflict with your partner is not that kind of threat. But it can sometimes feel like a threat. And when that happens, certain parts of the brain and nervous system that we don’t consciously control respond as if we were faced with a serious threat. The nervous system releases certain hormones like adrenalin. Our heart starts beating faster. That moves us towards what stress scientists call fight or flight mode. We feel all jazzed up, tense and ready to react. That’s good when you’re dealing with danger, not so good when you’re trying to negotiate a disagreement with your partner.

It’s important to remember that a certain level of stress response can sharpen our thinking and alertness, which is a good thing. But when we’re more highly stressed, for example, dealing with a very angry spouse or when we’ve already used up a lot of energy dealing with other stressors we sometimes slip into fight or flight mode. When we’re in fight or flight the reasonable, thinking parts of our brain don’t work very well, or even shut down. That makes it much harder to see another person’s point of view and respond to criticism without being defensive or angry. And it’s almost impossible to think productively about how to resolve the problem that is causing the conflict.

So, if we’re going to avoid nasty conflict that keeps getting worse and worse we need to:

  1. stay out of fight or flight mode as much as possible
  2. recognize when we do get into fight or flight mode
  3. do something about that

It is possible to get yourself out of fight or flight, often by doing something physical. A bit of exercise, like going for a short walk or run often does the trick. Deep, slow breathing (i.e. yoga or meditation breathing) or even taking a shower can also help. Laughter can also turn down your stress system, that is, if you can find the humour in a situation without making your partner even angrier. What all of these things do is change the chemicals and hormones that are working in your brain and body in ways that help shut down the fight or flight response.

What works best for you is something you’ll have to figure out for yourself. The point is to find a physical activity that changes that jumbled up, anxious, alarmed inner feeling that often pushes us to do or say things that make conflict worse. At risk of stating the obvious, when you’re calm you have a much better chance of resolving the conflict in a way that doesn’t damage your relationship. It’s important to understand that this is not just a question of self-control or willpower. Sometimes you need to do something physical to help yourself.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to give your relationship the anti-corrosion treatment.

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