Tag: relationships

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.

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Understanding Your Part in the Trouble

2-discussingAn Excerpt from Love Cycles by Linda Carroll

It’s difficult to have real exchanges with our partner if we’re not clear about our needs and motivations. First we must be honest and listen to ourselves. Then we must be honest and listen to our partner, in good faith. Otherwise, so-called communication is nothing more than an empty exercise. Here’s an example of this dynamic, which played out in two meetings with a couple I saw in my practice.

As Rob and his girlfriend, Mandy sat in my office, Rob spoke enthusiastically about his weekend. He’d just come back from a “fantastic celebration,” his twenty-fifth high school reunion, but he hadn’t invited Mandy to go with him.

“I feel excluded,” Mandy said, looking down at her feet. “I know you wanted to spend time with old friends, and I actually thought that was great. Except you didn’t ask me to come.” She hesitated for a moment. “I felt like maybe you weren’t proud enough of me to introduce me to your friends.”

“I’m really glad you shared,” Rob said, leaning in close to her. “I can understand how you feel.” He capped his response with a smile and a hug.
Mandy settled back in her chair, somewhat mollified.

The following month, Rob took the lead in planning a weekend ski trip with some of the same friends. Once again, he failed to invite Mandy. This time, when he began to “actively listen” to her feelings of exclusion, she jumped up and strode 
out of my office. Rob sat there, amazed at his girlfriend’s negative reaction. He worked in an industry whose products were cutting-edge, and glitches in the newest systems often led to consumer complaints. He was a master at grievance management. The communication skills that worked so well in that environment were ones he used in one-time interactions with customers. With Mandy, however, he ran into trouble. She had begun to witness enough repeat performances of his listening to her protests with all the right responses, while continuing the same old behavior, to see them for what they were — well-practiced management techniques rather than genuine listening. Although Rob was in couples counseling, he seemed unwilling to learn how to listen to his partner with the necessary empathy, curiosity, and willingness to change that allow real growth in a relationship.

If Rob had used his considerable communication skills to connect rather than to manipulate, he would have heard Mandy’s  pain about not being invited to the school reunion rather than just pretending he had. Out of respect for her feelings, he might have then asked her along on the ski trip or come clean and explained his needs for time alone with his old friends.

Your Emotional Core

If you get stuck in behavior that doesn’t work, as Rob did, it’s time to explore your emotional core. Reflecting on your family history and understanding its impact on you is one of the best ways to get information about how you operate in your intimate relationship. My experience as a therapist has taught me to look out for two red flags when people recall their childhoods. The first flag pops up when I hear that “everything was perfect,” and the second when I’m told that “everything was awful.”

The story of a perfect childhood is one of omission. No one escapes entirely from the human condition and its trouble, loss, fear, and difficult passages. We might prefer memories in which everyone smiles in the photograph, and the message says “Happy Holidays from the (Perfect) Family.” But our real history is more complicated. Every family is made up of moments and seasons, and every sibling is born into a different family, in terms of how she reacts to circumstances and how she interacts with other members.

If you remember your childhood as perfect, your rosy remembrance is probably a reflection of your positive personality and perhaps your adherence to a family value that admits only to the flawless. If you believe that everything in your childhood was bad, that belief, too, reflects your personality and your family ethos and is most likely an overstatement. If things were so uniformly wretched, where did you get the skill and the courage to read a book like this? To go to work, make dinner, find friends, and maintain hope that life will get better? (Of course, some people have enjoyed reasonably happy, safe, and loving childhoods, while others have grown up with a lot of struggle, pain, and fear. It is the 100 percent stories — all bad or all good — that I am addressing here.)

Not all the clues about how we interact and behave can be found by looking at our families, of course. Some people who come from solid, caring homes find themselves at a perpetual loss in adulthood. Others who grew up in poster families for dysfunction manage to build rich, happy lives. Nonetheless, every family wields a lasting impact. All of us can benefit by revisiting our beginnings and paying special attention to the childhood beliefs and behaviors that we bring into our present relationships.


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.

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Making a New Move

3-new-moveAn Excerpt from Love Cycles by Linda Carroll

When we feel disappointed in love or worried in life, most of us move in one of two directions: either we shut down and push away, or we move closer to seek comfort and care. In our most intimate relationships, our instinctual response is often the opposite of what our partner needs, and it’s here that our willingness to make a new, counter-instinctual move is needed.

Ted thrived on social contact. Ellen was private and needed a lot of time by herself, especially when she was upset. When the couple suffered any kind of misunderstanding, Ted wanted to talk about it immediately, which made Ellen more anxious and apt to back away. Her distancing only increased Ted’s distress, because he wanted to fix the problem immediately so that they could reconnect.

“Are you asleep?” Ted asked Ellen.

Earlier in the evening they’d had a stressful argument about a possible job switch that would require the couple to relocate.

“I need to sleep,” Ellen said. “I don’t want to talk now.”

Ted couldn’t understand how Ellen could sleep after they’d just had a fight — not if she really cared about the relationship. He got up and began to pace at the foot of the bed. “Come on, Ellen, you can sleep later. Right now we need to talk this problem through.”

“Ted, can’t you see I’m exhausted?” Ellen burrowed deeper under the covers to show him how much she wanted to go to sleep.

“That’s insulting — don’t you know that? — to turn your back on me when we’re in the middle of something we need to resolve.” Ted walked over and gave his wife’s shoulder a gentle touch.

As soon as he touched her, she shot up in the bed and exploded. “Leave me alone,” she screamed. “Just back off!” She jumped out of bed and went off to another room to sleep.

Ted was devastated. He wondered whether the marriage was over.

Ellen, meanwhile, felt great relief once she crawled into bed in their guest room down the hall. She fell asleep almost instantly.

This couple came to a class of mine with the knowledge that they had to change this pattern but with no clear idea how. It took them a short while to understand the concept of the counterinstinctual move, and with practice they were able to change their dynamic.

Still, whenever they have an argument, Ted’s first instinct remains the same. If they are in bed he still wants to say, “Ellen, are you asleep? I’m feeling a need to talk about what happened between us.”

Then he remembers that she is wired differently than he is. Instead of trying to initiate a conversation, he lies still and silently soothes himself. Just because Ellen is different from him doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about him and their marriage, he reminds himself. He breathes slowly until he can relax and not personalize her need for sleep before they talk again.

Occasionally, of course, Ted can’t resist trying to reconnect quickly. Ellen will hear him ask, “Hey, you asleep?” But she no longer snaps, “I was until you woke me!” Although it’s not her first instinct, she usually remembers to gently reach out and touch her husband’s arm before saying, “Ted, I’m not ready to talk. How about we discuss this after work tomorrow?”

Each of them made a move that was counter to what came naturally: Ellen moved a little closer, and Ted moved away. As a result, the couple gradually managed to loosen and finally exit the endless loop they had been caught in so miserably. Each learned to see that the other’s behavior wasn’t wrong — just different — and both learned to stretch beyond their own comfort zone.


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.

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