How our Biology Rules our Conflict and Communication Skills

Couples who seek my guidance often express a need for better communication, which is usually a euphemism for frequent disagreements. Fortunately, thanks to the groundbreaking research of neuroscientists and the Gottman Institute, we now understand how our biology and brain function influence our conflict and communication patterns. This knowledge can bring a sense of relief and empowerment to couples as it provides a clear path toward improving these aspects of relationships.

Conflict and maladaptive communication are influenced, first and foremost, by our brain and biology, least by how much we love and adore each other. I have sat with couples that love each other dearly, but until they understood their biology and how it affected their communication, they got nowhere. The concept of “Flooding,” discovered by Dr. Jon and Julie Gottman at the Gottman Institute, refers to how the body affects communication. What is flooding? Also referred to as DPA diffuse physiological arousal, DPA is our body’s general alarm mechanism inherited through evolutionary means. (Gottman)

  • Diffuse: many parts of the body are affected at one time.  It’s not a specific response; it diffuses many body parts.
  • Physiological: of the body, a physical phenomenon
  • Arousal: stirring up the neurological system, preparing it for action. This is also known as the Stress or fight/flight freeze response.

What happens in the body when we are in DPA-Fight or flight response?

  • Breathing becomes rapid
  • Blood pressure rises
  • The digestive system slows down
  • Heart rate (pulse) rises
  • The immune system goes down
  • Muscles become tense
  • Hormones are released
  • A heightened state of alertness
  • Blatter stops working
  • All blood goes to the extremities

It will either motivate the body to fight, flee, or shut down. There are only these three options. In this case, partners fight if they are in a fight, and the nervous system responds, flees, leaves the room, or shuts down. They do not talk for four days, not wanting to deal with the issue at all. All versions of this are standard in couples and family communication and conflict patterns.

Neurologist Steven Porges explains the biology of communication in this way. Perceiving the environment as unsafe affects how we interact. The brain perceives danger based on poly vaguely theory, coined by Stephen Porges, which helps us understand the pathway to how humans perceive safety and how this affects communication. Steven asserts the nervous system is divided into three areas: sympathetic, parasympathetic and the addition of the social engagement parasympathetic system. The theory offers a new perspective on behaviour, allowing intervention in compromised social behaviours’ by modulating the autonomic states of arousal through human-to-human contact to engage the nervous system from the standpoint of safety and planning. That is if we can override the threat response by entering a ventral vagal connection.

What happens if we cannot manage this fight-or-flight response and fail to stay in the ventral vagal connection? These are negative behaviours that Gottman refers to as the four horsemen. Let’s review the four Horsemen of the apocalypse identified by John and Julie Gottman through their extensive research with couples in the love lab. They found that these interaction patterns often lead to communication breakdowns and relationship trust issues. 

The first four Horsemen is criticism. Criticism tends to be a personal attack on your partner’s character and often includes using the words “you.” I describe it this way: if you draw a circle around your feet and a circle around your partner’s feet, if you’re talking about your partner in their circle, you’re most likely criticizing them. For example: You should’ve done this. You never do that. You’re always doing this. Talking about them in their circle tends to make people feel very defensive. When someone is criticized, typically, people become defensive and will counter-criticize their partner, which makes a conversation very distressing for both partners. 

The second behaviour that ends relationships is defensiveness. Defensiveness creates a cycle of blame and escalates the conflict rather than resolves it. Stonewalling is the third of four Horsemen of the apocalypse. The body has entered a dorsal vagal shutdown, and the person cannot make contact, refusing to engage or communicate. If your partner has any attachment injuries, this tends to activate them as they feel ignored, rejected and sometimes, at its worst, abandoned. 

The last four Horsemen to identify is contempt. This is the nasty one: contempt, which is hatred where you will say things I promise you’ll regret. Stuff like you look like your mother; I wish I’d never married you. I hate you. These types of things cannot be taken back and hurt people deeply. If you’re feeling thoroughly depressed by now after reviewing the Four Horsemen, hang in there because there is hope. 

Through his research, Gottman was also able to identify some alternative behaviours. He calls them antidotes to the four horsemen that will heal rather than harm the relationship. His antidote to criticism is using a gentle startup. This can be thought of in a formula. I feel blank about blank, and I need blank. If you notice, it’s the opposite of using the word “you” instead of using ” I ” and talking about your thoughts, feelings, and needs. 

The antidote to defensiveness is to take responsibility. This often confuses people, but I’d like to describe it this way. Taking responsibility is not shining a shame mirror in front of you. It’s simply diffusing the situation, reflecting on the other person. Their way of perceiving the problem. For example, if your partner gets mad and says, you’re such a loser; you never clean the house, you will simply say you are correct, at times: I’m not cleaning as much as I should.

 The antidote to contempt is compassion, kindness, and appreciation, again very difficult to do when you are flooding and your prefrontal cortex, “the rule maker” is offline, which is what happens when you are flooded.

The final antidote to stonewalling is to self-soothe. The body must get out of immobilization and move into the social engagement system of the nervous system, which is referred to as we have discussed the ventral vagal system. When we are in this state, we perceive our environment to be safe, and we can engage. When the dorsal shutdown system is activated, the environment is perceived as a threat, and there’s no other way to escape but to freeze; lizards and possums often do this.

The good news is that we can train our brains in calmer times to learn ways of interaction that will not allow us to damage our relationships or each other. This is done through planful conversations of understanding how to get your brain to perceive safety and thought and learning how to get your body back into the ventral vagal connection through accessing the scenes.

Next time you and your partner fight, remember this is not about loving each other. Your body’s inborn protective systems are working for you but against you. So, learning how to manage and befriend these systems is a powerful way to gain control over arguments and fights. If you need further assistance with this, contact Can’t We Just Get Along Counselling, and we will help you and your partner learn how to manage these systems.