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Your Fight-or-Flight Reflex in Your Relationship

We are physical beings with reactions that can blind us in our relationships.

Key points

  • Our fight, flight, or freeze reactions are strong and immediate and help protect us from danger.
  • In relationships, actions that are not actually threatening can set off our fight, flight, or freeze impulses, leading us to overreact.
  • The fight response can manifest in verbal attacks, while the flight or freeze responses can lead to withdrawing or shutting down.

In part 1 of this series, I discussed how physical reactions to threats are powerful and immediate. These so-called fight, flight, or freeze responses are important, but they impair logical thought, and this can cause problems in relationships.

When partners become physically escalated, they favor self-protection and aggression, and even good partners can end up in feral fights. It is important to understand this impulse, and learn how to calm down, shift out of fight or flight, and connect.

Source: Krivitsky/Pexeks
Source: Krivitsky/Pexeks


Many people have difficult family histories, leaving partners over-sensitive to threats and cues. One couple I worked with was adept at triggering each other and had to work hard to overcome their learned fight-or-flight impulses.

Jared was a tall, dashing stockbroker who would come to our sessions in suits and slicked-back hair. His wife, Joy, was a driven triathlete and consultant. They earned a lot of money and spent even more.

They were also skilled debaters, with Jared claiming his 70-hour workweeks were because Joy spent too much. Joy responded that he was avoiding her and she needed to buy things to fill the void he had left.

Their back-and-forth jabs were quick and pointed. “If she could be happy with what we have,” Jared would begin, “we wouldn’t have this stress about money.”

Joy would respond, “If you hadn’t lost so many of your accounts, we would be fine.”

“If the economy hadn’t tanked, then I wouldn’t have lost the accounts.”

“If you would try harder, you would land new clients.”

“If you would get off my back, I might get more motivated.”

Instead of hearing each other, they mobilized and counter-attacked. This happened whether the concern was small or large and resulted from their quick fight-or-flight responses. It may make sense to jump in a foxhole when real grenades are being lobbed, but Jared and Joy would hit the deck and return fire at even the smallest noise. Joy would comment about Jared’s shirt, and he would tense up and snap back. He would sigh at her new purchase, and she would blame him for it: “You wouldn’t approve of anything I get, so I just have to take care of it myself.”

Defenses protect wounds, but they also keep them from healing properly. Like a badly set bone, some injuries remain sensitive, and people learn to keep others away through sharpness or aggression. Joy had watched her parents suffer years of volatile arguments about her father’s infidelity and perpetual absence.

Her father was a politician with money and power, and Joy had learned to despise him for his irresponsibility at home. She had built up emotional scar tissue, a rigid fortress to block out the repeated betrayals and embarrassments he caused. In her marriage, this prevented calm discussion, even when Jared was waving a white flag. Jared would seek connection, but her amygdala would overreact and shut him out.


Withdrawal is another natural reaction that is normal in the face of true threat but harmful in a relationship. When Jared felt like Joy was judging him, he would pull back and stop interacting. When researchers watch couples interact, they can code withdrawal based on lack of eye contact, non-response to the other, or decreased emotion. Sometimes withdrawal is a kind of deadness, where people go through the motions of a relationship without feelings for each other.

John Gottman calls this stonewalling, and like defensiveness, it takes a toll. Men are more likely to stonewall than women and go into physical flooding in response to threats. A typical response looked like this: Joy would see Jared surfing the web in the evening, become annoyed, and say, “Have you followed up with that guy that owes you $4,000?”

Jared would stiffen, and his heart rate would escalate. He would typically respond with a blunt, “It is being taken care of.”

This wasn’t satisfying to Joy, “You said it was coming in last week. Have you even tried?”

Jared’s skin would tingle, and his face would get warm. “What I said was that it was under control. They were gone, and I am not calling them on their vacation.” He would then turn away and ignore her, which she found very provocative.

Have you had someone stop listening or hang up on you? It’s annoying and evokes a strong response. We are highly social creatures and want to see expressions of interest in the other or sense their emotions to know where we stand. If you tell your spouse something important and they ignore you, it’s upsetting.

When experiments have been done with babies (and baby monkeys) where the mother puts a stiff, non-expression on her face, the babies go ballistic. They cry and even attack the mother to get a response. We hate non-responsiveness because it sends the message, "You are irrelevant."

To be ignored is devastating, and Joy hated it. When Jared turned away, she stomped over and demanded that he look at her. He glared at his computer screen and then abruptly left to go for a drive. This is a version of flight called stonewalling, where one partner refuses a response or physically separates.


Flight is running away from a threat. Most don’t like conflict and avoid it, but it is particularly terrifying for some.

Jared hated conflict and sometimes dropped clients at work when they became difficult or required hard conversations. Relationships and families can be loud and messy, and many people shift into the “get me out of here” mode during these times, and some deal with family problems by cutting off relationships completely.

When Jared would leave, this triggered Joy’s aggression, and her escalating noises would further scare him off. This pattern is common and has been called “pursuer-distancer” or “demand-withdraw.” The stereotypical version is for the woman to pursue (women bring up 80 percent of relationship discussions), but it happens in any gender variation. The more demand-withdraw happens, the less satisfaction there is in the relationship, and the more likely things are to progress to escalation, violence, and divorce.

For couples to succeed, they need to learn how to identify when their protective fight, flight, or freeze impulses are heating up. Jared and Joy spent time together and in therapy, learning how to cool down and soothe themselves and each other. They became better at identifying their own triggers and would share when they were feeling flooded. This helped them take time outs, reconnect to their best selves, and find safety and support together.


John M Gottman, The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples, (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2011), page P. 132

Christopher L. Heavey, Andrew Christensen, and Neil M. Malamuth, "The longitudinal impact of demand and withdrawal during marital conflict," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 63, no. 5 (1995): 797.-801.; Kathleen A. Eldridge, Mia Sevier, Janice Jones, David C. Atkins, and Andrew Christensen, "Demand-withdraw communication in severely distressed, moderately distressed, and nondistressed couples: rigidity and polarity during relationship and personal problem discussions," Journal of Family Psychology21, no. 2 (2007): 218–226.

Adapted from Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships. Cedar Fort.

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