If you find yourself in escalating conflicts with your spouse, the cause may surprise you. Often we see a cause and effect relationship between our spouse’s behavior and our reaction. But the cause of your distress may actually have more to do with your perception, specifically, your perception that your spouse’s behavior is a threat to you, not a physical threat but a threat to your well-being nonetheless.

These perceived relational threats can come in many forms. We can feel like we are “in danger” when we believe we are trapped, stifled, dismissed, or devalued in our marriage. We may believe that the demands being made of us are higher than the resources we have to give. We may tell ourselves that nothing will ever change. We may fear that our spouse will leave if conflict continues.

Our perceptions of threat come from our learned pain. Much like PTSD on a smaller scale, we perceive threat when we believe we are in a situation that has caused us pain or distress in the past. It could be learned from a past relationship with a parent or significant other, or even from our observations of other’s experiences. These experiences form our core beliefs and perceptions about safety and danger in our relationships. We all want to be connected safely and securely with our spouse, but when we sense a threat to that connection, it often results in a heightened state of emotion and conflict.

When there is a perceived threat, our sympathetic nervous system begins to take over, resulting in the familiar fight-or-flight response. Physiologically, what is actually happening is that the heart rate increases; breathing quickens; muscles tighten; bodily functions like digestion slow down; adrenaline is released creating a sense of urgency; and higher level brain functioning is decreased including judgment, reasoning, planning, language, empathy, and compassion. In this state, it is no wonder that conflict escalates. A raised voice or shutting down during conflict may add to the perceived threat.

The parasympathetic nervous system, however, acts like a brake that calms the body down. By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system we can slow down and think clearly rather than shutting down or raising our voice (fight-or-flight). With the parasympathetic nervous system turned on (and decent communication skills), we can then show empathy and understanding for our spouse’s perspective. We can change the trajectory of our disagreements when we learn to manage our perceived threats by using relaxation techniques.

Breathing deep from the diaphragm, relaxing your muscles, using imagery to visualize calm and peace, and mindfulness can all stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. Instead of trying to manage your spouse, you can work on managing your threat responses by slowing down, taking a breather, getting a massage, or doing yoga. These practices help us to stimulate the rest-and-digest part of the nervous system, allowing us then to evaluate our perceptions of threat more accurately. This in turn can serve to de-escalate conflict in your marriage and allow for the secure and safe connection we all desire.

By Angie Sumrall, LPC Therapist at Thriveworks Marietta