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The Calm In Conflict Blog

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What Your Brain Does During Family or Couple Conflict - Why Couple's Conflict Just Gets Worse

Here’s the first thing to know. What you can accomplish during fights and arguments is this: Nothing.

Let me tell you what I mean.

During heated conflict, you can’t get the other person to understand you and definitely not to agree with you. Don’t even try. And don’t try to resolve the issue that you’re arguing about – while you’re arguing about it that is. That just about never happens during conflict. Also, don’t try to get warmth or love or acknowledgment of the wonderful person you are, the great relationship you have, or any of the other achievements that you’ve had together with this person. Don’t try to get that during conflict.

These are all wonderful things to try to accomplish at other times. But often the main time we try to achieve understanding is when things are intense. We put so much energy into trying to get heard when one of us is very upset and that’s the time when it’s most difficult to achieve.


A diagram of the brain with the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex pointed out.
During fights and arguments, when you're really upset, the amygdala takes over. That's what's going on in the other person's brain too.

Here’s why. This is a picture of the brain. Above the neck is the amygdala. The amygdala is the emotion center of the brain. Up behind your forehead is the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of the brain that’s responsible for logical thinking and problem-solving. When we are angry or stressed the amygdala takes over. It’s like the amygdala says to the rest of your brain “It’s on me guys! Stop trying to think! There’s something big going on and I’m on it.” The amygdala then launches into emotional reflex otherwise known as the fight/flight/freeze response. That’s what the amygdala does. 

The amygdala makes choices and sometimes they’re not the most appropriate choices. When stress levels are high, the amygdala thinks it’s an emergency. It can’t tell the difference between a lion chasing you and someone yelling at you or even someone not giving you what you want. It wants to protect you, to save you from having to spend too much energy trying to think things through. After all, there’s no time to think in an emergency. Action – fighting, fleeing or freezing – is what’s needed.

So the amygdala is saying go, go, go. Stop thinking. It’s shutting down that thinking, analytical, problem-solving part of the brain.

If the person you love is angry, irritable or stressed enough, that’s what’s going on in their brain. Of course they can’t understand you, agree with you, or solve a problem with you, or validate you. They can't think. They can’t hear you. The sound waves may be getting through their ears to their brain, but they can't really take in and use or think about what you're saying. 

At the same time, during conflict you’re probably stressed or angry too, so you are in the same situation of not being able to think. That means you can’t fine-tune your communication to make it effective. When we communicate well, we’re noticing the other person’s responses by paying attention to their face and their body language. We see some of what they’re doing with what we’re telling them and we often adjust our message so that communication reaches its goal: the other person's understanding. During fights and arguments, we’re not communicating in a way that best meets this goal.

To sum up, during conflict, the person you love cannot hear you in any useful way and you can’t talk to them in a way that works.


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