Freeze, Flee, or Fight

1-flight-fleeAn Excerpt from Love Cycles by Linda Carroll

Our brain is wired for connection. When we begin to love someone, our connection circuitry lights up and dominates. We anticipate the best in our new partner, and we’re rewarded, because each thing she says and does activates the connection center of our brain.

We view her actions and intentions and interpret her language through the lens of our positive vision.  As the chemistry of love fades, a second kind of circuitry emerges. It turns out that we’re wired for self-protection as well. When we experience our partner as a threat, we withdraw to protect ourselves from further injury. Withdrawal and disconnection are what continue to create trouble. At the heart of our vulnerability lies the feeling that we’ve lost our best friend. Our heart and body ache for her return. Yet often our behavior is the last thing that would invite her back.

Whenever a threat is perceived, it registers in the old part of your brain, which some researchers refer to as reptilian. Your body is flooded with the neurotransmitters and hormones that alert you to danger and prepare you for battle. Once these chemicals are present, you can only comprehend a tiny fraction of what’s going on. Just when your ability to see the whole picture shrinks, your certainty that you’re right expands.

Say you’re out hiking in the mountains. Suddenly you see a cougar moving slowly on the next ridge, stalking you. You don’t stop to smell the wildflowers or wonder from what direction the cougar came. Your entire system focuses on how to escape or how to kill the cougar before it kills you. There’s no room in the situation for anything but certainty and action.

Now, say you come home from a hard day, stressed and tired, and your partner is annoyed because you forgot to pick up groceries. If you’re tired and cranky, the complaint may feel almost as threatening as the sight of the cougar. You might react as if you were fighting for your life. When you feel under attack, your body is flooded with warning chemicals. You have three options: to freeze, flee, or fight.
 
Forget the Groceries and Freeze
If you freeze, you’ll sense your IQ dropping several points. Words elude you, and it feels impossible to decide what to do next. You act out the belief “If I’m quiet and don’t draw attention, I’m less likely to get hurt.” If you tend to freeze, you might deflect trouble with a plea for sympathy. Here’s an example.

Your partner says, “Did you forget the groceries?”

You say, “Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry. I’m just not feeling well. I hope you’re not mad.”

Your partner replies, “I’m not mad, but I wish you’d remembered.”

You say, “I’ve forgotten other things in the past few days. In fact, I’m worried that I may be running a fever.”

You go lie down on the couch.
 
Forget the Groceries and Flee
If you tend to flee, most likely you’re wired in such a way that, in the face of stressful conflict, your body wants to run to avoid entrapment and harm. This urge to bolt can take the form of denial of problems, procrastination, or withdrawal. When you flee, you act on the belief, “If I get away from you, and you can’t catch me, then you can’t hurt me.” Here’s an example.

Your partner says, “Did you forget the groceries?”

You reply, “Well, I thought we could make do with something light tonight. We could stand to eat less, you know.”

Your partner says, “But we don’t have any eggs, and you said you’d get some.”

You say, “Look, I can’t deal with this right now. I’ve got a lot of reports to finish tonight. I’ll buy eggs tomorrow.”

You shut the door to your study.
 
Forget the Groceries and Fight
Just like Jack, fighters believe that “the best offense is a good defense.” And just as Jack did with Daisy, they deflect criticism through retaliation. They use the faults and transgressions of their “opponents” against them. The fighter experiences an apparent rise in IQ, and words come easily in the quest to offer proof against any complaint. Here’s an example.

Your partner says, “Did you forget the groceries?”

You snap, “All I need today is your criticism.”

Your partner replies, “I just asked a simple question.”

You say, “With you, nothing is simple. It’s always about what I do wrong. What about you? What about my birthday you forgot? What about Thursday, when you locked your keys in the car? Your brother always said you were an airhead.”

You leave the room and slam the door.
 
Although we can’t rewire ourselves to stop our initial primal reaction to freeze, flee, or fight, we can learn to override our first reaction and behave much more constructively. In the case of the groceries, for example, with some mental and emotional adjustment, we can learn to respond with something like “I’m sorry, I did forget them,” and then offer to go to the store.

Often, our partner just needs to register disappointment and once he feels heard will respond with something like, “Hey, it’s okay. I know you had a long day,” and it’s over. Or he may appreciate your going back out and getting the eggs. In any event, a small thing stays a small thing, because we’ve learned to override our initial inclination to freeze, flee, or fight.


Linda Carroll is the author of Love Cycles. A couple’s therapist for over thirty years, she is certified in Transpersonal Psychology and Imago Therapy and is a master teacher in Pairs Therapy. She lives in Corvallis, OR, offers workshops across the country, and is a frequent speaker at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Visit her online at www.lindaacarroll.com.

Adapted from the book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Wholehearted Love ©2014 by Linda Carroll.  Published with permission of New World Library www.newworldlibrary.com.