Updated: Feb 22, 2021
Understanding emotions is one of the most common questions I get from couples who are caught up in arguing or fighting, or simply stuck. One partner might be going into shut down and not wanting to talk and the relationship is getting into a stalemate.
This is where it helps to understand the three emotional systems that are at play - our threat, drive and soothing systems. When a relationship is struggling, we often focus on the negative emotions that are present. Negative emotions - fear, anxiety, anger, disgust - play an important role as part of our threat system, our self-defense. Understanding the threat system helps to understand what is behind the emotions and why certain behaviours are showing up in conflicts.
However, we also need to balance our knowledge of the threat system with an understanding of our drive system and soothing systems. We need all three systems to be in balance in order to have a lasting connection in our relationship.
This is where it’s going to get a bit science-y. I’m a bit of a geek and I like to understand the evidence base for what I’m talking about. This article is based on neuroscience, neuro-psychology and evolutionary psychology. Things we know about the human brain and behaviour.
1. The threat system
When we feel threatened, we might have a series of emotions showing up - anger, fear, anxiety, disgust and sadness. We might start blaming the other person, showing hostility, or even trying to please the other (the equivalent of the British habit of saying sorry when someone stands on your foot!) These are all self-defense mechanisms. This is just how we respond to threats - our built-in drive to keep ourselves safe.
The first thing you need to know about the threat system is that humans have a built in capacity of aggression, hostility, territorialism. If you are one of those people who say, “nah, I don’t have that”. You do - it's your threat system trying to keep you safe!
I can offer you this example. Have you ever been on a busy plane, train or tube and the person next to you is just spreading right out and taking up your space? Don’t you feel yourself getting a little irritated? Maybe a little intimidated? You either shove back or try to make yourself small.
This is an example of the way that we respond to threats with different defensive strategies. Which strategy shows up for you is not chosen by you, it’s a split second reaction, based on how you were raised and what emotions and behaviours you learned from your parents.
When we are threatened, one of four self-defense strategies arises:
Fight - Physically or verbally protecting yourself, trying to win the argument, point scoring, protecting yourself through winning or criticising. This might also include slamming doors. It’s when the anger is showing up in a fighting capacity.
Flight - Avoiding the thing that you find fear-inducing. Removing yourself from the threat and getting yourself far away. One person leaves the room, avoids the topic or even the relationship: “I can’t deal with this, I’m going to end the relationship”.
Freeze - When you are unable to take any action at all, you go into shut down. This can happen when you’re so overwhelmed by your emotions you are unable to think straight. You go blank in an argument, you stop talking and you are unable to move. This can be troubling for your partner who might not understand that you’re doing so because you’re overwhelmed. They might pester for another response: “say something, what’s wrong with you?”
Appease - We try to avoid the danger by becoming submissive. You passively agree to something even though you don’t want to, just to stop the argument. You can be self-sacrificing or overcompensating all to make the risk of people not liking you or leaving you all go away.
Remember, the way you react is not chosen by you. You can develop a more compassionate mindset by understanding your and your partner’s self-defense strategies and where they come from.
Which ones do you go into and which one is your partner going into? You might have different ones depending on different contexts or with different people.
Now we’ve looked at the threat system, it’s important to notice that this is just one third of the overall picture. It’s easy to believe that when there is less anger, you can be happy. However it’s not just the absence of negativity that will help create a long-lasting relationship but also the presence of something good, like the sense of achievement, closeness, joy, vitality, feeling safe in each others’ presence.
Even if you just lower your threat system, it’s not enough for a lasting connection. You also need to bring up your drive system and your soothing system.
2. The drive system
The drive system is activating you to do things, it motivates you towards your goals. It is linked with the rewarding kick of the dopamine hormone, so it feels really nice. In relationships, the drive system is highly active in the early days, when pursuing each other. It feels rewarding to be liked, to exchange messages, to feel attractive.
It’s also linked to pleasure in a relationship. The second part of the drive system is when we reach our goal. We can consume what we were searching for and savour it. Once you have caught your partner, you can really enjoy their company!
There is a down-side. If we expect our relationships to be constantly rewarding and giving us a kick of dopamine, we’re having unrealistic expectations of how long-term love really looks. If one of you is struggling with your mood or your mental health, the drive system may be down as well. We know that depression can really block the drive system, so that we can feel depleted, lethargic, un-energised, demotivated. That can have a real impact on a couple's relationships too.
Savouring is a really useful mindfulness technique that can prolong the joy and excitement of the consumption, which can be useful in a relationship. Savouring is a really useful mindfulness technique that can prolong the joy and excitement of the consumption, which can be useful in a relationship. Find out more about how to savour moments, using gratitude practices and visual imagery in my new book, The Lasting Connection.
3. The soothing system
When we move into long-term relationships, we move towards more of a soothing feeling of closeness, linked to oxytocin. The soothing system is all about bonding and developing a deeper connection. It’s like evolving calm and connection at the same time. It’s related to relaxing, unwinding, the “rest and digest” or parasympathetic nervous system. The connection part of the calm and connection is about giving and receiving care and protection - the so-called "tend and befriend system".
So whereas the threat and drive systems are about moving and changing, your soothing system is about being still - being content with what you have and where you are. Savouring what you have creates a close bond, feeling at ease with each other and feeling safe.
The soothing system and related oxytocin helps us to metaphorically weather the storms of our relationship and life in general. If the soothing system is down, you’re going to start to feel discontent, antsy and like you are running around, looking for things that are wrong, looking for things to fix.
There are different ways to cultivate your soothing system, for example by developing a more compassionate mindset, practicing soothing breathing exercises and using your own calming visual imagery. These techniques stimulate the part of the brain and body that makes you feel more calm, connected and at ease and help you share those feelings with your partner for a deeper, longer lasting connection.
About the author
Michaela Thomas is a clinical psychologist, couples therapist and founder of the Thomas Connection. She is also one of the Nourish contributing team. She helps driven people let go of perfection to create more joy in our lives. Permission to pause, curiosity to find purpose, courage to play.
You will find a number of articles, videos and meditations from Michaela on the Nourish app to help us be more compassionate with ourselves and in our relationships. Click here.