What’s my nervous system got to do with it?
I recently stumbled upon a Youtube video by Stephen Porges’ son Seth who talks about The Polyvagal Theory, trauma, safety and connection as it pertains to nervous system regulation and stress management. I have long been a fan of the classic theory of nervous system activation with the phrases “fight, flight, freeze and feigning death.” These are great cue words for what our system does when it perceives a threat. Porges goes on to include social connection as the opposite reality of our threat activated state, an often overlooked indicator of how well we are functioning. If I am interested in connection and make myself available to connect - it bespeaks a sense of safety and engagement not possible when I am in threat scanning mode.
Seth breaks it down this way:
Safety —> Proximity —> Contact—> Connection
When you feel safe, you are more likely to put yourself into proximity to others, proximity allows for contact, and contact can lead to connection.
This is an unconscious process for all mammals.
Stan Tatkin, in his book We Do, discusses the fact that partners can unknowingly set off each others threat response, which causes all kinds of chaos and drama within the relationship. He suggests that couples create a “couple bubble” that acts as a two person patrol system that wards off danger from the external world as well as the internal world of the couple. I found it a novel idea that couples can cause a threat to their partners safety -without intending to cause harm.
The simplistic solution to this problem is to become aware and intentional with how our words, actions, attitudes and beliefs affect not only ourselves but also our partner. Protecting my partner from myself becomes a priority. When my partner feels safe in my presence they are more likely to engage with me which increases our chances of feeling connected. Connected relationships ward off loneliness- one of the primary complaints that brings couples into counseling.
In a similar light, John and Julie Gottman discuss a state known as Flooding.that occurs when couples fight. The Gottman working definition of flooding is the physiological response to threat that causes the rational thinking part of the brain to go offline. Fight, flight or freeze often ensues. The partners in a fight become the threat. The only way to get around the flooded state is to take a break, distract yourself from the fight, calm your breathing, use self soothing skills and then revisit the issue when in a calmer state (committed to not re-engaging in the conflict). Once again we see how threat hijacks the peaceful functioning of the couple. Threat reduction improves the internal experience of safety which sets the couple up for connection.
If you and your partner are feeling disconnected or lonely; take a moment to notice if it’s possible that you might be inadvertently or blatantly creating a sense of threat to your partner. If you are; stop it! In a moment of calm, fess up that you notice you have caused some discomfort in your interactions, and ask how you can make your partner feel more supported. Listen and see if there is something you can do to make a change in how you interact that will build a sense of protection and safety within your couple bubble. Then do it!
If you’re the one who feels threatened it can’t hurt to ask your partner for what you need to feel safer. Gentler words or tone, checking in to see if you have enough energy to listen or deal with a conflict right now, a general awareness of vulnerabilities and a commitment to avoid those, an agreement to have a safe word when you’re approaching a flooded state so you can take a break without making your partner feel abandoned. Check in with your partner and see if your new actions are more soothing and protective. The results could be a renewed sense of connection.