In the brunt of an argument, do you view your partner as your enemy or your teammate, who is fighting for the same cause (the relationship)? Whether or not you stay connected during a relational conflict can influence how long a fight lasts and how quickly you repair.
Conflict is normal. Some psychologists say that couples who do not fight have higher chances of divorce. One 2012 study published in Society for Personality and Social Psychology found that sometimes it is more beneficial for a long-term relationship for couples to express anger in the moment rather than bury their feelings.
Explosive, persistent fighting is not sustainable, nor does it feel good. But avoiding conflict altogether is also unsustainable. So, how can partners stay more connected during a fight or disagreement?
Why does disconnection happen during fights?
Trauma and early childhood experiences can shape how we show up to conflict—whether through withdrawing or bearing down to win the fight.
Disconnection can happen during heated arguments or during simple disagreements about trivial everyday matters like furniture preferences, dinner, or divvying chores. Relational conflict and the pattern to disconnect can be cyclical, though.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Stephanie Macadaan said, “Most couples get caught in a cycle of conflict that they repeat over and over again, whether it’s about big things or little things. They are usually playing out dynamics they learned growing up, often from a defensive or guarded position. The cycle usually ends with each feeling unheard, misunderstood and frustrated which gradually increases disconnection.”
There’s also science to support why we disconnect in relationships during fights. Our nervous systems are wired to protect us when there is a real threat and when it perceives a threat. In a heated conversation, the nervous system could perceive a snappy retort from your partner as a threat, causing a shutdown.
If you or a partner have ever felt disoriented in a heated discussion, the nervous system likely has something to do with it.
If your nervous system perceives a threat each time there is conflict, whether or not there is a real threat, it’s understandable why someone might disconnect. The prefrontal cortex goes offline during fight or flight, which means that high reasoning goes out the window. High reasoning involves big picture view, connecting concepts, and problem-solving.
If you or a partner have ever felt disoriented in a heated discussion, the nervous system likely has something to do with it. If you’ve ever implored your partner “just hear me” or “why can’t you understand what I’m saying?”, the nervous system also accounts for why they might not be able to listen or respond to you at that moment—the prefrontal cortex is offline, and they are in fight or flight.
How do you know when you’re disconnected?
Macadaan explained the most common way couples disconnect is by getting caught in a pursue-withdraw dynamic. “One partner withdraws and shuts down communication in order to prevent a conflict escalating. However, this often triggers the other partner who wants to talk and resolve the issue and is stuck in distress when their partner withdraws. Both are attempting to protect the relationship, but in two very different ways, which triggers feelings such as anger, fear, and sadness in each and gradually increases disconnection.”
Disconnection can be subtle or overt. Subtly, partners might feel distant from one another. A more severe example is wanting to be in separate spaces and not communicating. Less sex, a shorter fuse, unnatural conversation, or increased arguments can also be signs of disconnection.
During a fight or disagreement, disconnection can make it harder for partners to repair, which is imperative in moving forward. After studying 3,000 couples, relationship researcher and psychologist Dr. John Gottman found that repair is the key to how couples can foster emotional connectedness around a fight. A repair could look like comforting a partner, apologizing, or cracking a joke.
How much disconnection is too much?
Though connection during conflict is the goal, it might be unrealistic all the time. Macaadan said, “I often give couples my 80/20 rule. In general, you should feel pretty connected and comfortable with your partner 80% of the time, the other 20% allows for general mood shifts due to being hungry, tired, work or family stress,” said Macadaan.
Partners should be concerned when periods of disconnection are frequent and challenging to come back from, explained Macadaan. “A big warning sign is when disconnection starts to impact sex and intimacy, and that should be a cue to seek out some support,” said Macadaan.
When is disconnection warranted?
If we return to the concept that our nervous systems go into fight, flight, or freeze when we perceive a threat—if you don’t feel safe, you might disconnect, whether that’s physically or emotionally. The goal is to foster a sense of safety during conflict so that partners can feel comfortable and connected. Fighting may, of course, stir tense feelings, but connection can allow for effective communication.
A caveat to staying connected in conflict is that if a fight is volatile, abusive either emotionally or physically, or coercive, disconnection makes sense; it’s wise to seek support from a professional.
On The Gottman Institute’s site, Gottman states,
Partners can begin to form an awareness around what it feels like directly before the nervous system steps in. Developing an understanding of what it looks like when your partner is in fight/flight can also be helpful.
Taking Gottman’s statement into consideration, the practice of staying connected in a fight becomes about taking a skillful pause when things are starting to feel emotionally overwhelming, an experience which Gottman calls “flooding,” meaning you’re too overwhelmed to have a productive conversation.
Macadaan also recommends pausing when tensions escalate. “I always recommend that my couples pause and then each write down what they want their partner to hear and what they think their partner is feeling. This can help calm your nervous system enough to be able to be more present and clear with each other, and it can be helpful to put yourself in your partner’s shoes for a moment instead of only seeing things from your perspective.”
Awareness of the cycle of conflict can also help partners track their patterns and change them. Awareness, Macadaan noted, is the first step to connectedness. “Once you begin to see your patterns in action, it’s easier to start shifting to a more connected stance.”
Ultimately, it bears repeating that conflict can be healthy and that working through it together can actually increase connection and communication.
If your relational fighting is abusive or unsafe, help is available! Please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233.