Wednesday, February 21 , 2018, 12:41 pm | Fair 60º


Russell Collins: New Ideas About Couples in Conflict

The clues to resolving chronic fighting often can be traced back to childhood

I had a psychology teacher assistant at Berkeley named Amy who kept an extra set of china in a special closet, for times when her husband really ticked her off. It didn’t matter so much what the argument was about, Amy told us, because anger isn’t fundamentally related to disagreements. It’s more like the pressure that builds up behind a dam. Even in the healthiest relationships, anger must be released periodically to prevent it from leaking out.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

This periodic release was termed catharsis. Without catharsis, anger has corrosive effects on the psyche. Fortunately for Amy, her husband was a psychology professor, too, so when she pitched a dish or two from her special closet at him, they both understood that it was catharsis, not an attempt on his life.

That was a long time ago, and Amy’s kind of cathartic therapy for couple conflict has pretty much gone the way of the club. Letting couples “get it out” in the therapy room produced the same results as when they tried it at home. Conflict is not so much like water behind a dam, it turns out, as fire in the forest. The more you let it rage, the further out of control it gets.

But her underlying point is still a good one: The chronic arguing couples do has psychic roots unrelated to the subject of their disagreements.

In the past 20 or so years — and even more so in the past 10 — a lot of work has been done on the question of why couples fight. We know now that one key to couple conflict lies deep in the brain, and specifically the “relational brain” that develops very early on when a child is forming his or her sense of basic safety in the world. Early experiences during this time are “wired in.” The result is that while most people can tolerate an elevated level of emotional disturbance around them with no trouble, in some adults, a relatively minor triggering event can create an alarm state, where the brain is on high alert and spends most of its bandwidth scanning for danger.

All of this is fine, but it doesn’t fully explain why some couples who seem fairly calm and stable in the rest of their lives fight fiercely within their relationship.

There’s another complicating factor that helps make sense of this contradiction. Because the emotional dynamics of a marriage or relationship tend to resurrect the traumatic experiences of early childhood attachments, people who tolerate their slings and arrows fairly well in the rest of life may operate in a near-permanent state of alarm in their marriages. Here, they are on guard almost continuously to protect themselves from pain so old that it has slipped into the recesses of unconsciousness. They are hyper-vigilant for any signs of a rejection, disapproval or abandonment they fear but can no longer remember.

When a couple find themselves constantly in conflict, then it may well be because one or both of them is being thrown back into brain states that originated under stressful conditions in childhood. Powerful states of alarm that, once activated, seize control of the mechanisms of awareness, so that everything out there is suddenly experienced as dangerous. You can think of the brain as a movie director selecting and choreographing images, dialogue, music and other elements to produce a desired experience. In the alarm state, the desired experience is always the same: You’re out to get me, you’re going to reject me, you’re going to attack me, betray me, etc.

Kathy was a divorce mediation client who seemed to be in a constant state of alarm. Divorce is a high-stress event, especially for the partner who doesn’t want it. High-functioning people who’ve lived healthy, happy lives up to now can quickly slip into panic as the reality of a future without their spouse sets in.

Kathy’s alarm state was almost permanent during our mediation sessions. Anything said by anyone in the room, no matter how reasonable, generous or supportive, was interpreted by her brain as “Danger, Will Robinson.” Though her husband, Ray, believed that he was conceding every point to give her everything she wanted, Kathy saw him as scheming, selfish and withholding. What’s more, she often lashed out at her mediators as we struggled to find a solution she would be happy with.

I once rescued a panicky cat from 10 feet up in a Pittosporum hedge. Finnegan and I had years of lap time and petting stored up in our relational brains — we were family. But the terror and rage in Finney’s eyes as I tried to tear him off the branch — he was not seeing me as family. For my efforts, I got long, painful claw marks in my arm. Pulling a terrified kitten off a branch 10 feet up was pretty much what it felt like to mediate with Kathy.

In the course of our work with Kathy and Ray, they told us of Kathy’s childhood with a depressed and emotionally labile mother and an emotionally distant dad, and Ray’s early family history of divorce, and life with an angry, domineering father. It was easy to see how the jigsaw pieces fit together to form a picture for both of them: Ray appeared empathic and supportive to Kathy early on (this was the behavior style he had learned to escape his dad’s shaming rage), while Kathy appeared courageous and strong to Ray — she was socially confident, decisive and ferocious when aroused.

Later, though, with the stress of kids and work, Kathy’s forcefulness began to grate on Ray, and his frequent absences for work left Kathy feeling abandoned and betrayed. Under increasing stress, they slipped into a low-grade, chronic state of alarm in relation to each other. Ray’s brain began to see Kathy as threatening like his father, while Kathy’s brain began to see Ray as withholding, abandoning and unsafe, like her parents.

Along with old patterns of seeing and thinking, old patterns of behavior took hold in them, too, reinforcing each other’s perception. It took 15 years to kindle, but by the time they came to see us, both of them, especially Kathy, were in a state of continual fear and suspicion — an alarm state — about everything involved in their marriage. Kathy attacked. Ray withdrew. Ray attacked. Kathy attacked back.

In the end, we were fortunate with Kathy and Ray. By coaching Ray to acknowledge with kindness rather than defend against Kathy’s feelings of being abandoned by him (“I can see how it might have felt that way to you, Kathy, and yes, maybe I was less than fully present in our marriage during these last few years”), and working carefully and compassionately with Kathy to gently challenge some of her more acrimonious perceptions about Ray and about us (“Can you see, Kathy, that at least some of Ray’s withdrawing from you comes from his own set of fears and vulnerabilities, not from an intent to hurt you?”), we were able to open the way to an agreement that left at least a civil relationship intact for the parenting of their children.

We have not always been so fortunate with divorcing clients in this state — if the illusion of impending danger and betrayal is pervasive and urgent enough, it overwhelms any attempt to work around it.

As my T.A. Amy pointed out many years ago, when couples fight, there’s often something going on underneath. Especially when fighting is chronic, it almost certainly means the couple have slipped into a state of alarm regarding each other. “He always ... .” “She never ... .” Those are the code breakers — they refer to the experience of a semi-permanent state, not an event or events. It’s the alarm state, not what’s happening out there in the world, that is shaping each partner’s experience.

The good news is that research and clinical practice are identifying more and more effective techniques for helping couples gain control over these states. Today, rather than throwing plates at each other, couples learn to recognize the alarm states. Discovering our own power over our moment-to-moment experience of each other is the first step. After that, consciously moving ourselves from a fear state into compassion and understanding for the pain we both feel can powerfully accelerate the process of relationship healing, and create freedom and openness in our individual lives as well.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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