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“What the hell is this!?” mode

Conflict occurs in all relationships. The presence of conflict does not mean your relationship is headed for disaster. In relationships where perpetual conflict occurs; when you are chronically in “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!” mode rather than “WHAT IS THIS?” mode toward your loved one, take heed that your relationship is likely headed into muddy waters.

Perpetual conflict is when there are one or more problems in the relationship that continue over time. Perpetual problems seem unresolvable. Perpetual conflict makes you vulnerable to saying things and acting in ways that are unbecoming of you, and that you feel terrible about when it’s all said and done. This cycle quickly eats away at friendship, fondness, admiration and intimacy and leads into “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS”?! mode.


“WHAT THE HELL IS THIS!?” mode begins to occur after perpetual conflict sets in, and you begin to see your loved one as a source of threat and discomfort rather than a source of safety and solace. As perpetual conflict continues, your brain starts associating your loved one with negative experiences and threats, and your brain forces you into a state of ‘diffuse physiological arousal’. This means that your brain and body are forcing you into a rudimentary state of wanting to flee or aggress (flight or fight) the very moment even a whiff of perpetual conflict seems to be on the horizon. Essentially, your brain is sensing danger and is trying to protect you.


You know when you are in diffuse physiological arousal when you experience any of the following symptoms: increased heart rate (usually over 100), increased blood pressure and changes in breathing. While this is occurring, your brain is releasing cortisol and catecholamines (both stress hormones). There is also increased amygdala activation (emotional powerhouse of the brain), and decreased frontal lobe activity (the part of your brain that helps with impulse control, judgement and decision making).


When physiological arousal accompanies relationship conflict, it may lead to: (a) a decrease in your ability to take in information (reduced hearing, reduced peripheral vision, problems with shifting attention away from a defensive posture), (b) an increase in defensiveness, (c) a reduction in the ability to be creative in problem-solving, and (d) a reduction in the ability to be listen and empathize.
During these times, it is nearly impossible to compromise or come to a solution. This is because of our biology. Coming up with a mutually-agreed upon code word (velcro, strawberry-whatever you want it to be, or whatever has meaning to you) to throw into the mix that indicates that both you and your loved one physically separate is usually beneficial. This code word would work best if you use it before you start getting physiologically aroused, so that the stress hormones don’t get a chance to wash over your brain and completely take over. Also, so that you can calm down quicker. You and your loved one should also agree upon a time-frame as to how long the time apart should last. As a general guideline, take a minimum of 20 minutes (average anger lasts 15 minutes, so tack on 5 minutes for good measure) to calm yourself down. While alone, practice some deep breathing, meditate, go for a run- whatever works for you to relieve stress.


To maximize cooperation, it is necessary to reduce threat. This means that the goal for both partners is to stay in “What IS THIS?!” mode instead of “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS!?” mode.