By LuAnn Wu
The pandemic has forced us all to socially isolate. For some, this is a welcome time to spend with family or to do those neglected home projects. However, as the quarantine extends, this sustained and constant presence of our loved ones might feel like “too much of a good thing.” Interpersonal conflicts often result during periods of high stress and prolonged proximity.
How we deal with conflict is often an extension of our upbringing and may not always be productive for our current relationships. The favorable response is to maturely discuss a disagreement, so that both parties are heard and a mutually satisfying resolution is discovered. Yet, we have a fallen nature that often responds in an instinctive response: to fight, flee, or freeze.
These automatic responses are hard-wired into our psyche to protect us from real danger. Fighting can include behaviors like yelling, intimidation, contempt, or sarcasm. Fleeing is not limited to physically leaving, but can also be emotionally “leaving” by bingeing on food, alcohol, media. Freezing is an emotional shutdown and withdrawal. At its worst, this can lead to dissociation, which feels like you leave your body or mind. These responses may have been protective during threatening circumstances of our childhood, such as divorce, abuse, neglect, or abandonment. However, these responses can go into overdrive when we feel present-day, emotional threats.
I am one who flees. Or at least, fleeing was my default response to conflict. My family-of-origin did not deal in a healthy way with conflict. I hid my most vulnerable emotions and was extremely compliant and agreeable. My husband came from a family of “fighters.” After we were married, there was inevitable conflict. We lived in Seattle at the time in a small one-bedroom apartment, and each time we had a disagreement, I would quite literally leave and walk “The Ave” near the University of Washington. I spent many hours that first year away from home because I did not know how to deal with the conflict in our marriage. By God’s grace and my own counseling journey, I am now able to tolerate familial conflict, even when it feels uncomfortable. But my initial reaction is still to flee.
It is not easy to resist the urge to fight, flee, or freeze, but the power of the Holy Spirit can help us have healthier relationships.
What are the steps toward healing?
- Ask God for His promised wisdom (James 1:5) in revealing your body’s response and your tendency to fight, flee, or freeze. Sometimes your spouse, a trusted friend, or a counselor can help with discernment. Resist the tendency toward defensiveness during this introspection.
- Look for physical sensations that may indicate emotional distress, such as a raised tone of voice, shakiness, clenched jaw, racing heart, sweating, or stomach ache.
- Ask for a timeout. This is the most respectful and compassionate behavior you can do for yourself and your family members. I ask couples or families to come up with some short phrase or hand signal (e.g., a timeout sign) to use when they feel triggered. Agree ahead of time on how long (at least an hour, but not more than 24 hours) this timeout will be. It takes the body at least an hour to return to a calmer more regulated state.
- Use your timeout to ground yourself to a calmer state. Take a walk. Breathe slowly. Call a trusted friend. Pray. Journal. Pray again. This is a crucial step as your brain is not wired to resolve issues when it is in a flight/fight/freeze response, for it is only about escape.
- When feeling more regulated, bring your calmer self to discuss and to hopefully resolve the issue.
Next Tuesday, I will explore listening, which is profoundly important when exploring an area of disagreement. I challenge you to be kind and loving toward yourself and your family, taking responsibility for your own emotional health. God desires for us to have closeness and attachment. The whole of Hebrew Scripture rests on loving God and loving people (Matthew 22:37-40). Regardless of COVID-19, learning how to disagree in a healthy manner is something we can all do, which will have a lasting impact on your marriage, children, and community.
LuAnn K. Wu, a licensed professional counselor, has attended UFC with her husband Duke since the church began. Together they led a small group for nine years. LuAnn returned to school when her youngest child started kindergarten, ultimately receiving her counseling degree from Northwest Christian. She has practiced counseling for 13 years, primarily working with veterans who have experienced trauma, and counseling couples because, as she says, “I know how hard marriage can be.”