Hot and Cold Keep Each Other Turned On

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In the face of catastrophe and distress of any kind, many of us have the admired ability to stay cool, calm and collected. For several years through my brother’s terminal illness, I remember my mother’s remarkable strength, how she remained steadfast, capable and caring not only for her dying son, but for all her children. I think of doctors’ abilities to act confidently and decisively whenever a family member has faced a life-threatening situation.

We can thank our ability to respond effectively to distressing and even life-threatening situations to our body’s built in threat response systems. We have two systems that automatically kick in when we’re under threat. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is the most well known: It’s the “hot” system that activates and mobilizes our body to fight or flee. The other, less well known, system, which allows us to stay cool and calm in the face of overwhelming danger (like the example with my mom), is called the Dorsal Vagal System (DVS). The DVS is our “cold” system that immobilizes our body, shutting us down to conserve resources when threats are too large for our SNS to handle.

If you’re living a normal, stressful, American life, it’s likely both of your threat response systems frequently engage to help you cope. However, where your threat response systems are most activated may surprise you. You’re most likely to see their actions in your own home. And unfortunately, at home, it’s highly likely your threat responses are neither effective nor welcome, and contribute to long-term, subtle or not-so-subtle patterns of disconnection and dissatisfaction in your family relationships.

In today’s world, often the most frightening place to be is at home with your partner. In our independent, achieving and and isolated society, we have come to depend almost exclusively on our home (and especially our partner) for our most essential needs: feeling cared for, supported, belonging, connected, important and special. It’s at home where we have the most responsibility to care for someone, and where at the same time, we are most desperate to be cared for. Yet the burdens we each carry from society and from our pasts make it difficult, if not impossible, to fully meet each other’s needs. Thus it is at home where we’re most likely to disappoint and be disappointed, and where our threat response systems are most likely to engage. It’s at home where we’re most likely to act in ways that on the surface, seem crazy, bad or uncaring.

On the surface, we might be angry and critical because our partner forgot to take out the trash. Our conscious, logical minds (and our partner’s logical minds) say: “What’s the big deal? Why are you so upset?!” Unconsciously, our SNS has kicked in, activating us into an angry protest, responding to what feels to our amygdala like a life or death emergency: “Maybe we’re not important, not cared for?!”

Others respond automatically to threats with their DVS threat response system. That’s what’s happening when our face sets in stone and we feel nothing in response to our partner’s criticism or distress. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that our DVS response has shut us down from something that’s overwhelmingly dangerous and over which we feel powerless: Our unconscious minds hear “We’re not good enough” or “we’re worthless” — a sense of rejection from the person from whom we most need to feel valued and accepted.

Many of us respond with not just one but both threat response systems, automatically employing different strategies at different times, or a combination of both at the same time. SNS threat responses include anger, criticism, demanding, and dramatizing. DVS responses include numbing out, withdrawing and distancing, distracting (including working too hard), self-medicating with alcohol and drugs, and dissociating.

It’s important to know that none of these threat responses are “wrong.” They are all “right.” These automatic threat responses are designed to get a different response from our partner or protect ourselves from the pain when we don’t. Because we rely so much on our partners to feel that we matter, are cared for, and are valued, it makes sense that our bodies are highly tuned into each other and poised to respond automatically to apparent threats.

What is extremely unfortunate is our tendency to judge these automatic threat responses as “wrong,” “bad,” or “crazy,” and to misunderstand their intent and meaning. SNS responses are often seen as “critical,” “condescending,” “too needy,” “too sensitive,” or “crazy.” DVS responses are often seen as “uncaring,” “incapable of caring,” “narcissistic” or “insensitive.” What both systems’ responses really mean is “your feelings toward me matter so much, and I’m afraid you see me as unimportant, undeserving, or unworthy.” Judging and misunderstanding our threat responses perpetuate our lack of emotional safety, and ensure they have to keep on running.

To decrease our relationship distress, we can turn down both the “hot” and “cold” threat system responses at the same time by working together to create greater emotional safety. A huge step toward increasing our safety with each other as partners is to recognize our own automatic threat responses, whatever form they may take, not as “bad” or “wrong,” but as signals that we feel deprived of something that is very important to us. Our threat responses at home signal we need to know we are precious, cared for, valued, accepted for who we are, and not alone. Admitting that we need these feelings, and want more of them from each other, can take our conversations at home in a whole new, positive direction.