Advantage Counseling

Brain Therapy: What Your Nervous System Has to Do with Your Marital Fights
Written by Advantage Counseling
Published on December 29, 2020

EVERYONE, and I mean EVERYONE experiences tension with their partner. We all have coping mechanisms we find ourselves using when things get heated. Those can include anything from raising your voice, becoming critical of your partner, numbing out, walking out of the room to avoid the conflict, etc.

What if I told you, those behaviors that you feel guilty or embarrassed about actually have a silver lining. They are a sign you care.

That’s right, these “bad behaviors” are actually signs that you are desperately trying to hold on to your partner. That’s a good thing!

A Nervous System Out of Control

Believe it or not, you don’t have control over the emotions that naturally light up inside of you. Our nervous system recognizes when things start to get tense. We sense a threat and that system starts firing signals to our brain that tells us it’s time to protect ourselves.

While we can’t help how we instantly feel, we can choose to operate from a place of self-control. We choose what action we take and how we go about expressing those feelings to the people around us.

Fast Lesson in Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory is a very big topic to cover, but the key is this: every human has a natural and deep need to develop an emotional bond with a few precious others.

When we’re born, we quite literally attach to our mothers for food. Attachment science informs us that having someone we can turn to in order to meet our emotional needs for comfort, love, acceptance, and loving touch is AS IMPORTANT as our basic physical needs. This need to bond deeply with few precious others follows us from childhood into adulthood which means our adult relationships, especially our romantic ones, will be where we look to fulfill these needs.

When these early attachment relationships are “good enough,” we tend to learn to trust in our own worthiness of love, that others will be there for us when we call for help, and that the world is a safe place to explore. However, when these early bonds go poorly or miss the mark in some places (which all of them do in some ways), it can have an impact on our ability to securely connect with our partners.

What does that have to do with my relationship?

It might be weird to think about your romantic relationship as a reflection of your parental relationships. I get it.

Think of it this way…

You bring strategies into your marriage or partnership. Strategies for bringing people close when they feel far, coping mechanisms for dealing with hard things, and expectations of how others will react when you open up and are emotionally vulnerable.

Those things started to form in you when you developed an attachment relationship with your parent figure(s). Now, you have the opportunity to take what you learned from childhood and re-shape those strategies and emotional signals within the context of your partnership.

You NEVER stop longing to attach to someone. It doesn’t matter how much of an introvert you are, how guarded you are, or how much of a “loner” you are, people want someone they can connect with. It’s natural. The work becomes utilizing more productive ways for getting those longings to be met.

Nervous System + Need for Attachment

Once you connect with someone in a romantic relationship, you form an attachment. When that bond is developed your brain will understand that keeping that person close and staying connected to them is your best chance for survival and thriving..

Because we’re human and relationships are hard, we will face disconnection in our relationships. It’s in these times that our nervous system flares and tries to protect us with the strategies we learned to use in our early attachment relationships to either try and bring them close again or to calm things down by distancing or going away.

The problem is, the strategy of one partner can often trigger fear in the other because our partner is also bringing his or her own attachment strategies to the relationship. Now you both have to team up and figure out how to find that connection you both long for and need.

Now what?

First things first: we have to normalize this whole thing.

  1. Need for attachment – Normal
  2. Emotions when bond is threatened – Normal
  3. Strategies to manage distance – Normal

When you feel yourself raising your voice or nagging or slamming a door, know this – you are trying to sort out the best way to hang on to that attachment figure. You’re using the tools that you have. It’s just not working.

When your partner raises his or her voice, nags, or slams a door, know this – you mean something to them. They’re just trying to figure out how to tell you that.

Positive Strategies to Replace “Bad” Behavior

Your habits may be well-intentioned. And, hopefully normalizing the behavior removes some of the guilt. But that doesn’t mean you should keep those habits. It’s time to recognize them in yourself and your partner and develop better strategies that bring you closer together, not push each of you further apart.

Introducing: SLOTS

After counseling dozens of couples, I’ve developed a 5-step strategy to help anyone get their wits about them in the midst of conflict. It’s quick, easy to remember, and will help you slow down and save a situation that’s headed in the wrong direction.

In fact, the “S” in slots stands for Slow Down. That’s step number 1. When things between you and your partner start to escalate, slow the pace.

In my next blog post, I’ll be going more in-depth on tangible ways to slow the conflict down. And, we’ll cover the rest of the SLOTS acronym so you can use it in your relationship.