Who's Running the Show in Your Arguments?


Part of the ANATOMY OF INTIMACY Blog Series with Irene Fehr.

When couples fight, it's rarely about the topic. And it's rarely a mere exchange of words.

Whether it's about money, sex or the color of your next car, disagreements in intimate relationships trigger competing fears — the fear of losing control and thus losing yourself AND the fear of losing your partner.

Will I be heard and seen for who I am?
Will I lose myself if I give in?
Will you love me if I disagree?
Am I safe with you as I am?

On the surface, it can look like "can I win and get my way?"
Deep down, it's "can I stay connected to you without losing myself?"
Deep down, it's about fear.

When we are activated by fear, our nervous system snaps into fight/flight mode, and we resort to our best-practiced and easily-accessible relational coping mechanism — the teenager response.

When we're scared, we let our young scared parts rule our arguments and drive the bus.
When we're scared, our adult prefrontal cortex goes offline and our young (reptilian) brain takes over. We fight or flee from threat.

Which is a very useful survival mechanism in the wild — but not in intimate relationships.

In intimate relationships, when we fight or flee, we make our partners enemies, breaking the connection we deeply desire.

In intimate relationships, we have to learn how to stay. Vulnerably.

The teenager acts on fear.
The adult looks within to identify the fear and name it.

The teenager pushes away to reassert independence.
The adult vulnerably shares what's happening inside, speaks their needs and moves towards their partner.

The teenager runs.
The adult owns up to the impulse to run and stays.

TEENAGER: "Don't control me! I do what I want and you can't deny me of my right!" Pushes the other away and storms out.

ADULT: "There is a part of me, the rebellious teenager, that wants to scream at you "Don't control me". That's how I am used to dealing with conflict where I don't get what I want. As I tune into it, what's really happening for me is that I am scared that I don't have a say in our decision and that gets me even more scared that I'll end up doing something I do not want to do. And when I get scared, I push you away. I see how this creates distance between us and keeps us stuck. Could we step back a bit? I need to hear from you that my word matters to you."

We can act as teenagers, or we can act as adults. And the extent to which we can stay in the discomfort of intimate relating as adults is the extent to which we can grow our intimacy.

Which part of you runs your arguments?