Sending Mixed Signals in your relationship?


Feeling disconnected in your relationship? Read on to find out what is happening to you and your partner in those moments of disconnection.

Often times, in our love relationship we have moments of disconnection. We all know those moments when your partner’s tone suddenly turns sharp and you start to wonder what the heck you did wrong? Or when a sharp glance gets thrown your way? Or suddenly, your partner disappears and they are nowhere to be found. These moments are when our body starts to power down as we go into Flight, Fight, or Freeze response or as Sue Johnson calls it “primal panic”.  James Gross, a neuroscientist has done some incredible research on when this primal panic is happening.  When a potentially threatening stimulus or situation arises it takes:

—  100 millisecond for your brain to react/respond and show on your face

—  600 millisecond for the frontal cortex to register the response and shut down the reaction or facial expression

—  That equates to a 500 millisecond DIFFERENCE – resulting in mixed signals!

Here’s an example: if you were on a hike with your partner and you were to come across what appears to be a snake. It takes your brain 100 millisecond to react/respond. So already your brain has signaled adrenaline to kick in and told her body to respond in some way.  I hate snakes so my body would respond by jerking backward, perhaps in a fleeing motion. Suddenly, after 500 more milliseconds your brain processes the information and what you thought was snake is in fact a stick. The tricky part is, my body has already had this “primal panic” response.  Now relating this to your relationship….

You walk in the door from being away all day, your partner doesn’t greet you in a warm way but instead sends a sharp glance your way. All of the sudden you get that sinking feeling that “uh-oh” things aren’t going to go quite the way I expected them to tonight. That uh-oh feeling is your primal panic response signaling for you to “protect” yourself. The way you protect yourself is then, avoiding your partner, not because you don’t care that they are upset, but because you don’t know how else to help. Your partner’s interpretation of this “protecting” yourself is that you don’t care, you would rather be doing X, Y or Z then spending time with them.

And thus we see the enormous disconnect in relationships that become so powerful and send the exact opposite message to our partner.  

So what can be done when this disconnect kicks in?  Let’s look at the three R’s

1.       Recognize:  The first key is to recognize that something is amiss.  As you and your partner get better at recognizing this disconnect you can then start coming together to work through these moments.

2.       Respond:  One of the hardest parts can be responding in a way that your partner can connect with you.  In most relationships there are two typical characteristics that partners take on:

  • The Pursuer: This is the person in the relationship that “wants to fight it out.” Now this fighting it out doesn’t always mean a knock down drag out fight/argument. It is often that they will continue to ask or try to find out what is wrong.

  • The Withdrawer: This is the person that disappears. Disappearing can take on many forms; going into another room and working on a project, playing on your phone or console, or just avoiding the confrontation with jokes or redirecting the conversation.

You can see I emphasized responding in a way your partner can connect with.  If you are a withdrawer, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel, find a way to reach out to your partner to confront the issue.  If you are the pursuer, do not go on the attack, realize that your partner will shut down further if you do.  Instead allow a little time and space and with gentleness and love approach them, give them time to respond or reach back.

3.       Remedy:  When the two of you have made that step of reaching out to each other, now remedy the problem.  Always remember there are two sides to every interaction.  As the two of you learn to approach this with love, humility, compassion, and forgiveness, you can then come together and experience improved closeness.

Now it is time to go and practice.  If you have tried to employ these tactics already and you are still getting stuck; please feel free to reach out and see if we can work on this together