Imagine being in the throes of a heated relationship argument, when suddenly you’re facing a partner who has turned stone deaf. When our partners stop listening, we naturally turn up the volume, hoping to blast the wax from their ears. No use. Instead of understanding what’s bugging us, they dig in their heels and defend their actions. Now we’re really frosted, so we crank our emotional thermostat to the max and blast them with more heat. And big surprise. They’re more deaf, more defensive, or just plain outta there in the flash of a firefly.
Millions of couples throughout the world are all too familiar with the way their partners – particularly the male – distances themselves when heated relationship conflict erupts. The technical name for this conflict pattern is the demand/withdraw negative escalation cycle, or Husband Withdrawal for short. Left unchecked, Husband Withdrawal leads to more heated arguments that result in a pervasive attitude of contempt, which Dr. Gottman has found to be the number one predictor of divorce.
What Causes Husband Withdrawal?
Heated fighting triggers a biochemical imbalance in men’s bodies that can cause them to flee from conflict. This occurs because their bodies are hard wired to be hyper-reactive to stress and danger – programming that dates back to prehistoric times when men were hunters and needed to react with lightning speed. Modern danger is no longer the ferocious tiger. It’s the pissed off wife or girlfriend, and when she comes at him, baring her teeth and berating him with criticisms, his body sees danger and involuntarily switches into autonomic nervous system (ANS) arousal, which triggers the fight-flight response. Dr. Gottman calls this flooding.
Since most men don’t want to physically fight their partners, they flee instead.
There are three ways that men flee from conflict.
The first type of fleeing is physical, in which the man leaves the room or the house, hides out in his workshop, or avoids coming home.
The second type of fleeing is mental, or psychic fleeing, in which the mind takes a hike. In this case, the man is physically present but mentally gone. When I first observed this pattern in my own practice decades ago, and began my own research and writing on the topic, I was delighted to find Dr. Gottman’s research. What I call psychic fleeing roughly corresponds to the stonewalling reaction that Dr. Gottman refers to as the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse.
The third type of fleeing is verbal fleeing in which a man justifies, makes excuses, and defends himself in order to verbally escape responsibility.
Not knowing that these various fleeing behaviors are driven by an involuntary, biologically programmed reaction, a woman thinks that her guy is hightailing it because he doesn’t care enough about her to stick around and resolve the issue. Her hurt morphs into anger, but when she blasts him with more intensity, she unwittingly sets off more biological fire alarms and more fleeing. This is how the cycle of out-of-control fighting is born.
How Can We Break the Cycle?
In my latest Hay House book, Kiss Your Fights Good-bye: Dr. Love’s 10 Simple Steps to Cooling Conflict and Rekindling Your Relationship, I outline my Relationship Climate Control techniques that enable you to easily abort the heated fighting that triggers the chemical imbalance that causes men to flee. It is precisely the cooling of the relationship climate that literally shuts off the fight-flight response.
One of my many techniques for cooling the climate is to identify and heal what I call the Old Scars from childhood. This aligns very well with the “Dreams Within Conflict” intervention from Gottman Method Couples Therapy.
Old Scars heat the relationship climate and fuel our fights in two ways.
Old Scars Make Us Overreact to Minor Events in the Present
The unconscious mind constantly links present-day slights with the wounds we suffered as kids. This is what I call the Emotional Lake Effect. Think about an actual lake-effect blizzard that gathers moisture and energy as it moves across large expanses of warmer lake water and dumps mounds of snow on the lake’s leeward shores. Well, the unconscious mind does the same thing. As the mind dips into the reservoir of your unconscious, it dredges up memories of similar hurts that you suffered as a kid. The next thing you know, you’re blowing an emotional gasket because you are reliving all the pain of previous similar offenses. This explains why fireworks are going off inside you even though the current event doesn’t seem to warrant such an explosive reaction.
To complicate matters, these associations are happening on an unconscious level – meaning your “feeling memories” are disembodied from the original trauma from way back when, which makes it easy to wrongly assume that the mountain of emotions you’re experiencing is the result of whatever your partner just said or did. The next thing you know, you’re aiming your broadsides at your partner and dumping old emotional baggage onto him or her without realizing it. This heats the environment to a sizzle. Take the following example:
Bob repeatedly checks his office messages when he is out with Mary. Mary becomes increasingly agitated by this behavior and finally blows up at him.
Why is she so furious over a seemingly innocuous action? Because memories of her mother who never had time for her were triggered by Bob’s behavior. So when a trivial incident occurs in the present, it surges that already overloaded circuit in her brain, and she blows. Such associations usually occur without any conscious awareness.
You Can’t Shake the Feeling
In addition to causing a disproportionate reaction, Old Scars also make it hard for us to let go of the feelings that have been awakened. We get emotionally stuck precisely because we aren’t consciously aware that an Old Scar has been triggered. Hence, we remain stuck with intense feelings that we can’t shake. Obviously, this heats the climate and creates more fighting.
To make matters worse, when we aren’t aware of what the core issue is, we end up fighting about the overt issue that got the ball rolling – the lack of foreplay, his being glued to the TV, her tendency to leave dirty clothes on the floor. What is diabolical is the fact that the overt fight content acts like a smokescreen that conceals the real issue: the Old Scar that lurks beneath.
Until the real emotional issue is identified, we never achieve resolution, fights go unresolved, and the climate just gets hotter and hotter.
How Stripping Can Solve Your Conflicts
Believe it or not, stripping resolves fights caused by our Old Scars. No, I’m not talking about getting nekked! I’m talking about a technique that I’ve created called Stripping Away the Overt Fight Content to uncover the Old Scar that lurks beneath.
To do this, I show you how to Draw a Fight Map in which we remove the overt fight content from the equation (the who did what to whom) and instead chart the emotional course of the fight: identify what you feel now, when you felt this way as a kid, and what was going on when you felt this way as a kid (who was doing what to you?). Last but not least, we identify your Happy Ending: what you wanted and needed in your past that you never received.
To achieve your Happy Ending this time around, I guide you to talk with your partner about your Old Scars. When your partner discovers that your reaction isn’t exclusively due to his/her behavior, a miracle occurs. You have now transformed your enemy into an ally who can help you realize the ultimate and most divine purpose of our intimate unions – to heal our Old Scars. This is our Happy Ending! A side benefit of healing your mutual Old Scars is a cooling of the relationship climate, which extinguishes ANS arousal, withdrawal, and fighting.
I should also make mention of the fact that it is also not uncommon for women to be the ones who withdraw from conflict. The good news is that even if the roles are reversed and a woman is doing the withdrawing, my Relationship Climate Control and conflict-resolution techniques are equally effective in aborting the pattern.