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An Early Warning that Conflict Might Turn Dangerous

Your body senses danger better than your head.

I get many emails from people in high-conflict marriages who want to know if they are being abused. First I advise them that definitions are not the issue - the only thing that really matters is that they feel respected and are respectful in their disagreements, even in torrents of anger and anxiety.

More important than how you characterize your partner's behavior is your safety, and for that, women have a powerful alarm system embedded in their bodies.

It's Not Anxiety
Anxiety is a dread that something bad will happen and that you will not be able to cope with it. Most of the time anxiety is a better safe-than-sorry alarm system; it overestimates the likelihood of bad things happening and underestimates your ability to cope with them. This means that by the time you're an adult your anxiety has produced a lot of false alarms - a lot of the bad things you thought would happen didn't, or if they did they weren't that bad, or if they were, you handled them better than you thought you would.

Visceral Fear of Harm
Although it can occasionally seem similar to anxiety, there is one kind of nervous reaction that does not give many false alarms and that you must never doubt. I call it visceral fear of harm. It's a feeling in your muscles and in your gut that you will be physically injured. Unlike anxiety, which is based in part on your imagination, visceral fear of harm is a response to physiological cues that your brain picks up when you are close to someone who feels aggressive. This visceral feeling comes over you more abruptly and with greater intensity than mere anxiety about having a bad evening or even a dread of distress, depression, and other worries that go with conflict or emotional abuse.

Visceral fear of harm is not cognitive; you sense aggressive impulses in others before your brain can formulate thoughts about possible danger. That's why you get tense in certain situations, like seeing certain strangers, without knowing why. Women, like the females of most social animals, have a heightened sense of this early-warning system, which is why your man remains perfectly calm and might even get annoyed with your nervousness as you walk near a stranger in a darkened parking garage.

The Most Dangerous Kind of Self-Doubt
Although visceral fear of harm is compelling, many women start to doubt it when the physical threat comes from someone they love, and especially when they have learned to walk on eggshells to avoid unpleasant home situations. In that case powerful emotions like the love, guilt, shame, and abandonment anxiety that keep us attached, can easily cause you to doubt the internal alarm system meant to keep you from harm.

For instance, you may feel guilty or ashamed if you admit to fear of the man in your life, as if your involuntary reaction to threat were a betrayal of him. It may also be that you have figured out that your fear activates his shame and anger and you end up fearing your fear. Or your dread of losing him might exceed your fear of him. Or your love for him might be so strong that you want to believe that your fear could not possibly be real, that it's all in your head. Actually, it's just the opposite. Love, guilt, shame, and abandonment anxiety are in your head; visceral fear of harm resides in your body and reflexes.

If you are in a conflictive relationship, get used to monitoring your body - how you feel around your eyes, in your neck, shoulders, back, chest, arms, hands, stomach, gut, thighs, and knees. These are the most reliable indicators of whether your partner poses a threat to your physical safety. They are more reliable than what your partner says, simply because men are often not aware of how aroused and prepared for aggression they are in domestic conflict. He may have no intention of hurting you, but his body is at a hair-trigger level of arousal when you experience visceral fear of harm.

If your body tells you that you are in danger, you must always put your physical safety first, even if he has never been violent in the past. I have seen too many cases of women who ignored their visceral fear of harm and were badly hurt. Please do not ignore yours.

Men and Visceral Fear of Harm

With the exception of combat veterans and sexual assault victims, men are a lot less likely to experience visceral fear of harm and are, therefore, less likely to be empathic to their wives' experience. They need to develop a higher order compassion for a vulnerability they do not share.

I've treated many men who were victims of domestic violence, but have never seen one who knew visceral fear of harm in the way women victims do. Male victims will have anxiety and dread of humiliation from their abusers, but not real visceral fear of harm. I believe this is the main reason why male victims tend to be less damaged by emotional abuse and domestic violence than female victims. Shame, while painful and paralyzing, has more adaptive defenses than fear. You can ignore shame and regulate it by acting on your deeper values. But the alarm system of fear - triggered by danger in the environment - cannot be ignored or internally regulated. Fear, which freezes you, makes you far more susceptible to control, while shame, which makes you want to get away and resist submission, makes you less vulnerable to the abuse of a controlling partner.

In any case, if you live in a state of fear and are afraid of being physically harmed, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (for U.S. and Canada) 1-800-799-SAFE. You can get local referrals from this clearinghouse. If there is no visceral fear of harm, check out CompassionPower.