Conflicts – why are they so painful?
In order to understand why conflicts with your intimate partner are so hard and confronting you need to first understand what circuits in your brain are triggered during conflicts. They are far deeper than what you would believe. So let me take you into the basement of your mind where our story begins.
Once upon a time, around the age of 8 months you realised that you were alone in the world and were totally dependant on another human being for your survival. Mother nature equipped you with an essential biological mechanism to make you seek closeness to your caretaker. This mechanism is called Attachment. Attachment aims to keep you safe. Without the presence of your caretaker you wouldn’t be able to cope. Separation anxiety during those years is excruciating. You would have died if your caretaker was not there! In a healthy attachment process you gradually come to realise that you are not going to be abandoned. You develop trust and you feel secure. Your caretaker is always there regardless of your misbehaviours.
Studies of the relationship brain in last 30 years have helped us understand how this same Attachment mechanism plays a role in romantic relationships. Emotionally, you ‘use’ your partner in a similar way to how you ‘used’ your parents:
- maintain emotional and physical closeness
- reach out at times of distress
- miss partner when you are apart.
- count on partner to be there for you when you explore the world.
As you can see, security is the most crucial aspect of the attachment mechanism. It means that you are wired to need the support and care from another human being. You expect partner to be there unconditionally, to never abandon you. Yet, in most cases, your partner is not as safe as your parents were.
During conflicts the fear of losing connection may be provoked. For the Attachment part of your brain this is perceived as a threat for your very survival. You don’t remember the times you were dependant and vulnerable but your body does. You may feel a strange emotional flood of panic or anger. You are left puzzled by your over-reaction.
As a needy vulnerable child you likely protested with rage when left alone but as adult you are expected to respond from the ‘wise part’ in your brain. This is quite a challenge for many people.
At this stage you probably wonder what you can about it.
For a start, accept the fact that your partner holds a great deal of power over you. Romantic relationship confronts your fears and your dependency needs. Don’t hate your partner for that!.
You may also want to develop awareness and self-understanding of your emotional reactions. Explore if some of your panic stems from early childhood experiences of rejection, shame, abuse or abandonment.
Regardless of the origin of your emotional reactions you want to make sure that you never leave injuries during conflict. Stay respectful and focus on the issue not the person. This is a hallmark of a long-term satisfying relationship.
But your best way to reduce the level of anxiety during conflicts is to invest in enhancing connection. Why? Because this will result in increased sense of security. The more relationship is secure the more partners are open, gentle and flexible while handling their differences.
About the author:
Guy (Hagai) Avisar is a psychologist with more than 30 years of experience helping people with relationship issues.