Arguing With Your Spouse: The Emotional Hijack

Do you argue with your spouse? Arguments are normal in a healthy relationship. Two people, different views on the world, different histories, and different experiences- are bound to argue at times. Arguments can be constructive. But in some circumstances, arguments can be destructive to your relationship leaving you depleted and devastated. These article discuses a type of arguing that leaves a trail of broken relationships in its wake. And, the fact is, that our brains natural functioning can actually work against our loving bonds.

Our brains are much better suited to war than love. What is adaptive for survival and has helped keep us alive as a species, can, in some cases be deadly for our relationships.

Before we delve into relationships, let’s take a detour into your brain.

Within the brain is a structure- more specifically a group of structures called the limbic system? The limbic system is the center of our brain’s emotional processing.

The most potent part of the limbic system- you might say the captain in charge of fear and aggression, is a small structure called the amygdala.

The amygdala does a rapid and rather gross evaluation of the environment in comparison with memories of past dangers. Is this bad? Could it hurt me?

the Amygdala

If the information registers as dangerous, the amygdala broadcasts a distress signal to the entire brain. This happens so fast that the thinking brain (the cortex) does not even have a chance to get a word in edgewise. The alarms go off, triggering a cascade of physiological responses–from a speeded-up heart rate to a jacked-up blood pressure to many other changes that prepare one for “fight or flight”. There is a rapid release of a variety of hormones, adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortical, and others. Within milliseconds, we can explode with rage or freeze in fear, well before our conscious mind can even grasp what is happening, much less persuade us to take a few deep breaths and maintain our cool. Sometimes this is called being “emotionally hijacked”- also called an amygdala hijack.”

Unfortunately, the amygdale is not very smart. It is not very discerning- the amygdala doesn’t care much if it overreacts – it easily errs on the side of danger.

When it comes to survival, it’s much less of a problem to mistake something as dangerous when it is not- than to make the mistake of not reacting to something that will kill you.

While being hijacked by our brains alarm system is actually adaptive when it comes to survival, it can cause huge problems for our relationships.

So- you argue with your spouse.

The undiscerning amygdala may register danger as having our feelings hurt, feeling blamed for something for which you feel is not you’re your fault or simply arguing with “the most important person in your world.”

Your partner, in essence has become the enemy.

Because you have been emotionally hijacked you are not able to think clearly (or at all). You may over react to some interaction with a partner. You could fly off in a rage, you might yell and scream, perhaps throw things- or at least you may say or do things in that you will later regret.

Even if your reaction is not so extreme, you may find yourself withdrawing, or fleeing in such a way that your partner feels hurt or abandoned.

It’s not easy to stop an amygdale hijacking but, if mindful, you may be able to gain control- pay attention- notice when it begins- perhaps- Try to focus on your breathing. Try to stay in the moment and focus inside. If the alarms are really going, it may be good to take a time out.

Ask your partner for a 5 or 10 minute break to get yourself calmed down.

It’s best to discuss this time out strategy in advance. A self imposed time out could be perceived as avoidance and discounting to your partner- not wanting to hear them. If preplanned, with your partner, it is more likely to be perceived positively.

Being mindful and noticing when you start to heat up then taking a break is just one way to manage the amygdala hijack. Being relatively cool and collected during serious marital discussions can make the difference between having a productive argument and having a devastating battle to the emotional death.

>One more thing: Everyone has an amygdale alarm go off at times. It can happen a lot if your marriage is in trouble and you and your partner argue. But- some people have serious problems that can manifest when the alarms go off. If you or your spouse loose it- really fly into a rage, do property damage, become abusive or physically attacking, or otherwise become highly threatening- seek professional help immediately. This can be very dangerous and life threatening and it takes a professional to deal effectively with this problem. It could be a sign of serious mental illness such as an Impulse Control Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, or a serious neurological problem. Also, if you being hurt by someone who losses it to such a degree, please seek out a local abuse shelter or call 911.