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Blue Mountains
Blue Mountains

Responding to the Smoke Signals

Posted By Michelle Avigan, Ph.D.

Do you notice how your body reacts in an emergency? You feel a rush of adrenaline. Your breathing and your heart beat speed up and you may feel flushed or sweaty. This is your built in alarm system. Much more quickly than your thinking brain can react, your body activates this system when it senses danger, getting you ready for ‘fight or flight’. This automatic response to threat is a brilliant survival mechanism — but did you know that it also gets triggered by threats to your emotional well-being? We humans have some very basic needs. While we recognize the necessity of air, food and water, we often forget that we require connection just as urgently. 

Our culture teaches us to be strong and independent, presenting models of self-sufficient heroes as ideals. The fact is that people need other people. It is our natural state to reach for each other for companionship, support and intimacy. We are actually strongest when we have a few reliable others to whom we can turn in our moments of need. The knowledge that we matter to those precious people is actually a crucial part of feeling secure in the world. This is true for us not just when we are children but for our entire lives. Because of our need for secure attachment, a threat to our bond with a significant other is coded in our brains as danger. In other words, when we feel the threat of disconnection from one that we love, it can set off our alarm bells and throw our bodies into panic mode. 

When our most important relationships are strong and we feel safely connected, we can usually shrug off the little hurts that come along with moments of disconnection. After all, we know that we cannot be perfectly tuned in to each other all the time. When our partner looks irritated and gets critical or when they go quiet and seem distant, we can give them the benefit of the doubt. We think to ourselves “She’s had a bad day at work” or “He must be tired”. But when our relationship feels less secure, these behaviors become warning signs that danger is ahead. Even before our thinking brain can say “Uh oh! Are we OK?”, our body is reacting to the alarm. Feeling the need to protect ourselves from danger we may get defensive or attacking, or we may pull back to avoid the confrontation. Either way it can trigger our partner’s alarm bells, setting off a vicious negative cycle of interaction. 

When the alarm goes off it means our basic need to feel loved and treasured is in danger of not being met. Partners deal with the flood of panic in one of two ways: They either fight to get their needs met (this often looks like complaint, criticism, demands, pleading, control), or they flee by trying to turn off the need (this often looks like defensiveness, avoidance, silence, logic, coldness). The more one partner fights, the more the other will pull back. Over time the pattern gets more rigid and happens more quickly. Couples can feel stuck in negative cycle of disconnection, isolation and loneliness. 

For couples that have been stuck for a long time, therapy can be helpful. In Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, partners will work toward understanding their negative cycle and slowing down enough to step out of it—together. They will learn to recognize the alarm bells and reach out to their loved one in soft and vulnerable ways, inviting their partners to come forward and to be responsive and accessible. When couples are not caught in a destructive pattern they can turn to each other in times of distress and find new solutions to old problems.