Written By Dr. Joshua Klapow
Fighting is an inevitability in any relationship. Whether it’s a meaningless tiff about where to order takeout from for dinner or a more heated discussion about personal boundaries, these interactions can definitely be stressful. Depending on how intense a fight is, it can actually have a powerful physiological effect on you, too. In fact, what happens in your brain when you fight with your partner is pretty wild.
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., the response that occurs in your brain will largely depend on not only the level of intensity with which you’re fighting but also your attachment style. According to attachment theory, everyone forms a particular way in which they approach and behave within relationships, and which style they develop depends on how their primary caregiver forms a bond with them at a young age.
The four main attachment styles include Secure, Dismissive-avoidant, Anxious-preoccupied, and Fearful-avoidant (also known as Disorganized). Those with a Secure attachment style tend to be trusting and confident in their connections. People with a Dismissive-avoidant style are known for being uncomfortable with emotional intimacy, which causes them to pull away when things are getting too close. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Anxious-preoccupied person needs constant approval and reassurance from their partner to feel secure. And the Fearful-avoidant/Disorganized person both seeks emotional closeness and rejects it at the same time, oscillating between Dismissive-avoidant and Anxious-preoccupied. Whether you know it or not, your attachment style plays a big role in how you react during fights with your partner — as well as how your brain and body respond during the experience.
“Individuals with generally secure attachments will fight with a greater focus on the topic, on their perspective, on what has happened,” explains Dr. Klapow. “In contrast, with generally insecure attachments, there’s a fear of the repercussions from their partner. A general fear of unresolved conflict, a fear of abandonment, a fear of the partner rejecting them are all likely to be present at a subconscious level.”
Here’s where it gets interesting: your attachment style can inform how you respond on a mental, emotional, and physical level during a fight. Those with a secure attachment style may be able to engage in an argument without their fight-or-flight system coming into play. On the other hand, someone with an Anxious-preoccupied style might perceive a greater sense of danger during a fight (because it poses the potential threat of their partner leaving), which may cause their sympathetic nervous system to become activated. As Dr. Klapow points out, the intensity of the argument will also factor in here. Just because you have a Secure attachment style doesn’t mean you won’t go into fight-or-flight mode, particularly if the fight escalates. Dr. Klapow notes that once the fight or flight system becomes activated, you’re more likely to engage in irrational thinking and behaviors as a way of subconsciously protecting yourself — which often prolongs the fight as well as the fight or flight response. In other words, it’s a vicious cycle.
So, what is the fight or flight response? Basically, it’s a physiological reaction that prepares your body to either stick around and deal with the threat or flee to safety by triggering a rush of hormones. From an evolutionary standpoint, this response is crucial: it allowed our caveman ancestors to survive dangerous circumstances, like out-running a predator. But in today’s world, since you’re not being chased by any wild animals, it can still set in when your partner sends a confrontational text or raises their voice at you.
“It has evolved such that now it is triggered not only when the perceived attack is physical, but also when it’s verbal, emotional, or social — like a rejection or criticism,” explains Dr. Klapow.
While hopefully, your arguments never feel like a life-threatening situation, it may very well feel like the stakes are that high when you’re afraid of losing the person you love.
According to Harvard Health, the stress response starts in the brain. As soon as your partner raises their voice or says something combative, your eyes and/or your ears send that information to the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for processing emotions. The images and sounds you’re experiencing are interpreted in the amygdala, and when it detects danger, it immediately sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, another part of the brain involved in stress control.
Once that alarm has been sounded, the hypothalamus triggers the sympathetic nervous system, at which point your adrenal glands being pumping out epinephrine (adrenaline). This particular hormone can cause a number of physical changes — like a faster heart rate, quickened breathing, increased blood pressure, dilated pupils, tense muscles, and trembling. Not only that, but you may become more alert and your senses may sharpen as extra oxygen is sent to the brain. These changes happen so rapidly that they may come into effect before you can even process what’s happening.
“Anger and fear are typical markers for an autonomic nervous system arousal, or a fight or flight response,” Dr. Klapow tells Elite Daily. “We go into protective mode. In general, anger and fear are associated with autonomic arousal and sadness is associated with helplessness and a desire to retreat. However, in some cases, the experience of sadness triggers feelings of anxiety, which in turn circles back and sets off the fight or flight response.”
Once your brain stops detecting a threat, the parasympathetic nervous system swoops in to put the brakes on your stress response, and to calm your mind and body down. According to The American Institute of Stress, it takes between 20 and 60 minutes for your body to return to its normal state (and hormonal levels). That’s why it can be a good idea to go for a walk or take a breather in the next room once you notice that a conflict is escalating: it allows you some time to normalize so you’re less likely to react out of fear.
“The process is incredibly important for times where our physical well-being is threatened, but it is very unproductive when we are engaged in a verbal disagreement,” says Dr. Klapow. “As a general rule, if you feel the fight or flight response kicking in during a fight with your partner, it’s time to take a break and let that response settle down.”
By the way — once the fight is over and you’re reflecting on it, you can’t exactly trust your memory of how it went down if your fight or flight response was activated. According to Harvard Health, while your brain is prioritizing crucial functions in order to increase your odds of surviving the threat, your memory function kind of gets pushed aside. That’s why you may have trouble remembering anything good about your partner right when you’re in the middle of a heated battle — your memory is actually compromised because your amygdala has hijacked your brain with a big red flashing light.
Understanding your attachment style may offer some insight into how you respond during fights with your partner. And while the fight or flight response may lead to some pretty unpleasant symptoms, remember: it’s just your body’s way of protecting you. If you find that it’s being activated frequently during arguments in your relationship, it may be time to figure out what danger your brain is sensing. Does it set in when your partner criticizes you? And if so, what fear is at the root of that? Or, does it seem to get triggered when your partner dismisses what you’re saying? And what about that makes you feel unsafe? Asking these kinds of questions may help you to figure out what you need from your partner during a conflict to short-circuit that flight or fight response before it takes a physical toll on you.
Dr. Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist