The human response to fear is fight or flight. When fear is present, adrenaline pumps into our bodies, preparing us to either fight or flee. This response is useful when it comes to physical danger like a tiger, bear or lava from a volcano. However, it’s not as helpful when it comes to emotional fear in relationships, specifically fears of rejection and engulfment, which cause the fear of losing ourselves and others.
When we experience fear in relationships, we tend to respond automatically by fighting or fleeing. When we fear losing the other person, we fight for love by defending, blaming, attacking, complying, fixing, or by withdrawing. When we fear losing ourselves through being controlled by another, we flee by resisting or withdrawing, or we fight by attacking, defending or explaining. This automatic response creates fear in the other person, which is the fear of losing themselves or losing us. This cycle of fighting and fleeing creates more fear and leads to deep problems in relationships.
It’s essential to replace the fight or flight response with loving actions towards ourselves and others. However, what does it mean to take loving action in the face of another’s fight or flight behavior? Where do we get the role modeling for what it looks like to take loving action in the face of conflict?
Unfortunately, most of us haven’t seen much role modeling for loving action. Our parents didn’t role model it, and we haven’t seen much of it on TV or in movies. So, how can we learn to take loving action on our behalf when we’re in conflict with others, actions that take care of ourselves without violating or threatening others?
The first step is to attend to our feelings, the physical sensations within our bodies that let us know when we’re anxious or afraid. The next step is to stop and breathe when we feel fear or anxiety in the face of conflict or another’s fight or flight behavior. Giving ourselves some breathing time helps us make a conscious decision instead of going on automatic pilot.
Once we’ve taken a moment to breathe, we can take action based on the information we’ve received. For example, we can move into compassion for the other person and ask them what they’re afraid of that’s causing their behavior. This approach may de-escalate the situation and lead to understanding and healing. If the other person isn’t open to calm discussion and exploration of the conflict, disengaging from the interaction and speaking our truth without anger or blame can be helpful. We might say, “I don’t want to fight with you. I’m going to take a walk, and let’s try to talk about it later.” Or “This isn’t feeling good between us. Let’s take a break and get together later.”
If the other person has withdrawn, it may be useful to engage in self-nurturing activities, such as doing something fun or taking time for self-care. Both staying and learning together or taking some time apart to reflect on the issues or self-nurture can break the cycle of each person going into fight or flight in reaction to the other person’s fight or flight.
It takes conscious practice to stop going into automatic behavior, but the payoff is well worth the time it takes to practice loving action. When we take loving action in the face of conflict, we learn to be present with our fears without reacting automatically. We learn to respond from a place of compassion and understanding, which leads to deeper connections and healthier relationships.
Replacing fight or flight with loving action is essential for creating healthy relationships. It involves attending to our feelings, stopping and breathing, and taking action based on the information we receive. When we take loving action, we move into compassion for the other person, disengage from the interaction if necessary, and engage in self-nurturing activities.