“My stomach is in knots. I just shut down when she gets like that. Is there something wrong with me? She says I need to learn to communicate better, but I just can’t. Am I weird?”
Lots of men tell me this. And, of course, an occasional woman. They are referring to how they feel in the face of their partner’s emotionally-charged criticism and complaint. They wonder why they can’t respond and they’re worried about the conflict and distance growing between them and their partner.
So what’s going on?
Basically, it all has to do with the way our amygdala, the seat of our emotions in the center of our brain, perceives an incoming message. If the message feels heated or angry it’s experienced as a threat. When this occurs, the amygdala springs into action and initiates a “fight or flight” response. Since most men want to avoid fighting with their partner, they flee (i.e. they check-out, avoid, or distance themselves from the problem). It’s often surprising for them to learn they could have such a strong, physiological response to conflict.
It’s also important to know that it generally takes at least 20-30 minutes for the frontal cortex of the brain to process a message to calm down enough to figure out what’s going on. This means it takes time for someone who feels threatened or attacked to figure out if the perceived threat was real.
So why does my stomach hurt?
When you feel anxious or afraid, your body goes on high alert. You probably notice your muscles tense up or your jaw tighten. You blood pressure goes up and you may perspire. All these, in addition to a churning stomach, are an indication that stress hormones are activated and preparing you to do something to preserve your safety—even when the perceived threat is emotional and not actually physical. Overtime, these stress hormones (epinephrine, norepinephrine, etc.) can take a toll on your body if they remain at elevated levels.
In short, what’s good for you in the short run is not good over time. In fact, a heightened stress level means you are less likely to fight off illness. Your production of white blood cells (the infection fighters in your body) go down and your susceptibility to illness (physical and mental) go up. So, yes, sustained, unresolved conflict in an intimate relationship can literally make you sick.
Why are some people bothered by this more than others?
A lot has to do with past experiences. Grow up in a family where mom or dad drank a lot and yelling meant bad things were about to happen to you and your family? You’re more prone to feeling the long-term effects in your adult relationships.
Or, let’s say your mother or father struggled with anxiety and depression. They were prone to expressing high intensity anger and exhibiting emotional instability. You could never be sure whether you would be hugged or slugged. If this was your childhood your amygdala is likely to be more sensitive to stressful situations and fire off sooner, because your experience warns you that when you hear loud angry voices bad things are likely to happen.
This is why it’s so important to learn ways to deal with conflict in a safe and effective manner, especially during difficult times like those in a global pandemic. Whenever a majority of folks are undergoing at least some level of stress, the collective anxiety can add to already difficult conversations and situations. Failing to learn good communication skills and how to manage conflict safely and effectively can literally make you sick or much more prone to illness. On the other hand, learning to manage difficult feelings and emotions can help you and those closest to you have better health outcomes now and for generations to come.