Hello everyone! This post is a Part II to last week’s, which you can read here if you missed it.

What happens when you are fighting with your lover and you get either so hurt, or so angry, that you can’t think clearly?

Research by Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University demonstrates that mammals develop a special pathway in the amygdala that lights up when they perceive their mate is unavailable. Panksepp is convinced this special pathway exists in all mammals. So what happens when you feel, most likely without even realizing it, that your connection with your partner is under threat? You are plunged into what he terms “primal panic.” The primal part is due to the absolute need,  a primal need, for connection to others–especially our significant others.

can't think clearly

This “primal panic” can take several forms. One way this plays out is that your partner shuts down and simply refuses to engage with you. It is possible he/she is thinking “I’ve heard it all before, a 1000 times over, so why bother even trying?” Or they may be pulling away because the logic of their inner message is one of self-protection: “I can’t please you no matter how hard I try, so I will stop trying, therefore I can’t fail–again.” The other partner is now left holding a big bag of desperation. They sense the disconnect and begin to try to get you to start engaging again. That can take the form of anger, outrage, tears, nagging, or attacking. Now both of you are locked in a dance of demand and withdraw. While one partner continues the chase, the other leaves the building, so to speak.

At the very least this type of interaction is dissatisfying. At worst, your brain codes this interaction as a dangerous threat to your well being. What should you do? Each partner should first identify what emotions they are feeling. Simply doing this will calm your limbic system a bit, which will ease your anxiety. Next, you can slow down and ask yourself why you might be feeling this threat so keenly. What need of yours is not being met at the moment? Is it more of an emotional need, such as truly feeling heard and understood by your partner? Or is it a problem that cooler heads might solve with a little planning logic? The process that will help you is called active appraisal. Let’s look at a simple example.

One key element for success in this scenario is to be able to name what you need without shooting flaming arrows (AKA character attacks) at your partner. This is hard to do when you feel this sense of panic and disconnect. But it can be done with practice.

First Scenario: Can’t Think Clearly

Pat comes home from work and Chris reminds him of their upcoming 7th anniversary date night. Pat shrugs and says “Oh we have to move that because I promised my boss I would attend a networking event in his place.” Chris is furious and says through clenched teeth “You are spineless! You always cave to his weekend demands!” Pat becomes silent and quietly, but tightly, continues to put away his work gear. Chris has triggered his sense of failure and rejection, while failing to recognize that her own sense of fear surrounds feeling less and less important in his life.

Second Scenario: Active Appraisal

Instead, Chris might say “Wow, this makes me feel both angry and sad. I’m angry that your boss takes advantage of your good natured work ethic, but I’m sad at how unimportant I feel that our anniversary is being pushed to a lower priority. It is important to me, and I hope it is to you Pat.” Pat may then realize that Chris’ apparent anger is really her need to feel close to him and celebrate their marriage. He might then be able to look beneath her anger. In this revised example, Chris is refraining from her character attack of calling Pat spineless, which is never going to make your partner receptive to hearing how you feel. You can’t think clearly when you are attacking, nor when you are feeling attacked. You will likely become emotionally flooded.

I hope you noticed that Chris had to pause and name how she was feeling. You don’t always have to do this aloud, but it can be helpful to both partners to hear it. It buys you a couple of seconds of time as well, time you don’t spend escalating the conflict. Each partner was sent briefly into a state of primal panic in this example. Learning to recognize that your fear is that  your most important connection feels threatened, is what can help you stop this demand/withdraw dance. Emotions will still feel heightened, but they will come back to equilibrium much more quickly when you practice active appraisal.

Resource: Love Sense by Dr. Sue Johnson, 2013