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r. Keith and Corey explore how to better manage conflict in our relationships, focusing on one critical moment in these conflicts — the moment a defensive state arises. How that moment is handled is a massive determinant of how a relationship will progress, as discussed by Keith and Corey in this episode.
Text by Dr. Keith Witt
A marriage is a friendship, love affair, and varying capacities to repair injuries. To establish and grow a good relationship, couples need regular positive friendship and lover moments, and processing skills that reliably transform conflicts into deeper love.
Repairing injuries is crucial
Whether partners are conflict prone or conflict adverse, all relationships involve some suffering and discord. The bottom line? If you want enduring bliss, you need to know how to repair injuries back to love! This of course begs the question, “What are the secrets of successful relational repair?”
A critical moment in a fight
There is a critical moment in a fight. A moment of extraordinary risk and opportunity. When we feel threatened, our adaptive unconscious can ignite a blast of emotion and a critical story about the threatening other. This feeling/belief/impulse state can arrive 40 milliseconds from when we first feel a social threat. How this moment is negotiated largely determines the development of the individual and the future of the relationship. One person unwilling or unable to receive positive influence to resolve conflict—from themselves, their partner, or someone else–can doom a relationship.
Most people in conflict think the other can’t regulate the critical moment, but usually our biggest obstacle to success in the critical moment is ourselves. Effective couples’ counselors continually challenge partners to be responsible for identifying and transforming critical moments of distress and distortion into effective self-regulation and return to love.
Conflicts will always happen in intimacy
Miscommunications, mistakes, random irritating/threatening events, momentary thoughtlessness, personal drives and goals, and bad habits all occur in relationships and lead to conflicts. Conflicts become fights when someone feels injured past a certain point, blames the other, and doesn’t notice or regulate the cascade of neurobiological/interpersonal/Shadow forces driving their consciousness to distrust, attack, or flee.
Fights begin with injury and unregulated blame
Fights begin with injury and unregulated blame. Someone feels hurt by another’s action or inaction and blames the other without considering whether that blame is distorted, amplified, or non-productive. This hurt/blame occurs spontaneously milliseconds after our nervous system reads “Threat!” and we can only become conscious of it a second or two later. That moment when hurt/blame becomes consciously available is a critical moment. The human tendency at that moment is to keep elaborating on the blame-story and self-protect with fight or flight. A transcendent human potential is to:
- Notice the moment.
- Reach for self-soothing and compassionate understanding
- Take a stand towards resolving distress back to love.
What is unregulated blame?
When you feel blamed, your nervous system reads “Threat!” At that moment a defensive state shows up, driving you to fight or flight your way to safety. This defensive state has emotional arousal, loss of empathy and self-awareness, and a story that makes your amplified pain proportionate to what happened (usually distorted towards the negative)—the blame story.
If you’re ten minutes late and I feel minor irritation, no problem. Minor irritation is proportionate to the injury and disappears when you show up and I feel the pleasure of seeing you.
But what if I read your lateness as a threat? Maybe in my past I’ve been injured by lateness (by you and/or others) and have wired hypersensitivity-to-lateness into my survival defenses. Your 10 minutes late might trigger surge of rage, as my adaptive unconscious generates an ugly story about you to make that rage feel proportionate. For instance, “You know I hate waiting! How selfish, thoughtless, and disrespectful of you to hurt me like this!”
If I can’t observe this amped emotion and distorted story, and regulate to compassionate understanding, I could disconnect, attack, or flee, and keep feeding the hostile story–which keeps me disconnected (and subjectively safe) from dangerous you.
If I speak up and try to convince you of your blame (attack you), you feel threatened by the ugly story about you and are likely to instantiate a defensive state of your own. If I passive-aggressively nurse my negative story and say nothing, my energy becomes painful and irritating to you, making you more likely to be triggered into distress.
As this unfolds over the first few seconds of an emerging argument, our defensive states unconsciously coordinate into an escalating conflict which tends to jack us up further and make us more clueless. This is a critical moment!
Either one of us notices this dynamic and reaches for compassionate understanding and repair, or we keep escalating the fight into attack or angry distance. If one of us has enough witness observing the tangle and reaching for empathy and compassion, a lot is possible. One partner looking for his or her contribution to the problem and committing to improve, while reaching for warmth right now, can be magic.
Say you notice my surge of rage at your lateness and ask (perhaps a little nervously), “Is anything wrong?” Say I notice my defensive state and respond with, “I’m hyper-sensitive to lateness and got an irrational surge of anger when I saw you were 10 minutes late. I’m calming down now, and I’m sorry my energy is weird.” Say you trust me to self-soothe and respond with, “I’m sorry I was late! I should have left earlier, and I’ll work on being more on time.” We both relax throughout this exchange and now are connected and intimate. We have successfully navigated the critical moment and have creating a little more warmth and love with each other.
Fights escalate quickly
An observer of our repair might find it unremarkable—two people having a brief discussion about lateness—but this repair reflects extremely complex self-regulation and interpersonal functioning.
If I hadn’t noticed my defensive state, believed my rage was proportionate, and attacked you when you arrived (“You’re always late. It’s so rude!”). You might have felt threatened and defensive (“Come on Keith! You’re making a mountain out of a molehill! I hate it when you do this!”). You can imagine the escalation from that point. Such escalations tend to happen quickly. People become more upset and distorted as they feel blamed and misunderstood, and almost instantly there are two people cooperating with destructive tendencies to attack, flee, or suppress—all of which disconnect couples and compromise love.
Such escalations look and sound complex, but really are us surrendering to primitive impulses and locking ourselves into rigid positions. These are complicated situations, but the more complex responses are the ones that get back to love quickly and efficiently through self-regulation, compassionate understanding, and emotional vulnerability.
As we develop witness consciousness and awareness of our states–especially defensive states and states of healthy response to the present moment–we can observe critical moments of defense as opportunities for progress and love. Couples that pass that threshold tend to report lots of happiness and satisfaction. They become the masters of relationships.
Conversely, couples who have disaster relationships can develop the witness, learn the skills, and change their consciousness significantly for the better at the critical moment.
Music by Justin Miles and Stuart Davis
Previous Episodes of Witt & Wisdom
Mastery, Collaboration, and Finding Your Unique Healing Style
What Makes Us Happy? Growing Toward Anti-Fragility
How Self-Hatred Can Lead to Self Transformation
How Attachment Theory Can Improve Your Relationships
Escaping the Comfort Zone: Motivation, Shame, and the Will to Transform
About Keith Witt
Dr. Keith Witt is a Licensed Psychologist, teacher, and author who has lived and worked in Santa Barbara, CA. for over forty years. Dr. Witt is also the founder of The School of Love.
About Corey deVos
Corey W. deVos is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of KenWilber.com. He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996. Corey is also a professional woodworker, and many of his artworks can be found in his VisionLogix art gallery.