A Threat to Your Relationship

“I am so mad, James.” Lauryn threw her purse onto the table and sat down with a sigh.

“You know that great guy I’ve been bragging to you about? I think he’s cheating on me.”

I looked at her with concern. Not even her immaculate makeup could hide her fatigue. “That must have been a shock. What happened?”

She explained that her guy had been “working late” lately. It had been hard for her, because even when he did find time for her, he was preoccupied and withdrawn.

Then, yesterday evening, a friend of hers saw him at a coffee shop standing in line next to an attractive woman. They were chatting in an overly friendly way.

“He’s a liar and a cheat,” Lauryn pronounced. “I want you to help me figure out how to confront him.”

Her determined expression didn’t match the tears welling in her eyes. If I said the wrong thing, I’d unleash those tears and Lauryn wouldn’t thank me for it.

I leaned back in my seat and took a minute to think.

How We Face Threats

When you are upset and confused and angry, the last thing you want to do is take a minute to think.

You want to vent. You want to scream.

You want to get behind a wall and shoot arrows at the person who dared hurt you.

Your response isn’t a conscious choice. It’s automatic.

When we feel threatened, we defend ourselves. We attack back.

We do whatever it takes to protect our survival.

This defense response made sense tens of thousands of years ago, when life-or-death threats were part of everyday life.

But today our lives are rarely at stake.

We can end up behaving aggressively in situations where curiosity would be more appropriate.

Your partner isn’t trying to kill you when he talked to that attractive woman at the coffee shop, but it can feel that way.

Knowing how your defense response works—and having an antidote to counteract it—can help you keep your cool in relationship crises.

Defense Mode

Imagine you’re hiking along a trail in the woods.

All of a sudden, you catch a glimpse of something slithering by your foot.

You shriek and jump back.

Your heart is racing a mile a minute. You’re breathing hard. You’re soaked with sweat.

Let’s freeze the scene there.

What just happened?

Did you see something, evaluate the evidence, conclude it was dangerous, and decide to take evasive action?

Of course not!

Your automatic reflexes took over. You reacted first and thought later.

This is your defense response, also known as fight-or-flight.

It kicks in when your threat-scanning system (neuroception) detects a threat.

That threat doesn’t have to be physical. It can just be emotional.

When your fight-or-flight system kicks in during an emotionally challenging conversation, you don’t necessarily shriek and run away, but you do become uncomfortable.

Your heart starts to race, your words get heated, and the reasonable part of your brain turns off.

Defend. Attack. Survive.

Surely there’s a better way to deal with threat.

Discovery Mode

Let’s go back to that moment on the trail.

You jumped away. Your heart is pounding.

Now that you’re safely 10 feet away, you can think again.

You have a choice:

Will you keep running away or grab a stick to defend yourself?

Or will you turn towards the threat with careful curiosity?

In everyday life, most of us aren’t used to turning towards a threat.

We don’t want to look more closely at something that scared us.

But when it comes to relationship threats like that faced by Lauryn, turning towards the source of your fear is one of the best things you can do.

Discovery mode is different to fight-or-flight.

Instead of defending and attacking, you’re engaging and examining.

You may still be scared, but your desire to figure things out is more powerful.

If you turn towards a threat with curiosity, you might just find that it wasn’t threatening you after all.

What you thought was a snake was just a stick.

What you thought was cheating was just chatting with the person next to him in line.

So the next time you find yourself in defense mode, take a pause.

Even though your entire body is urging you to defend or attack, you don’t have to.

Do what you need to do to feel safe, then turn towards the threat with curiosity.

Figure out what’s going on. Figure out what it means for you.

Then deal with the threat, confident that you have the information to make a good decision.

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