Is Conflict Sending Your Brain Offline?

Is Conflict Sending Your Brain Offline?

Q: Every time we get into a big fight my wife starts yelling loudly and calling me names and just says really mean things. Whenever I see it going in that direction I try to end the conversation so she can cool down (and so I don’t get worked up either) but no matter what I say or where I go, she follows me around the house and forces me to hear her. It usually just makes the fight worse and then we end up fighting about our fight rather than dealing with what started the argument in the first place. She always feels bad later, but I feel like I’m avoiding any topic that will cause a fight because it just never goes well. How do I get my wife to see that she’s out of control?

He: This isn’t good. We all have different styles of conflict resolution. Some clam-up, some yell, some cry, some hit, some drive off, some set your clothes on fire after you drive off. Often, one’s style of conflict resolution does not match well with that of our partner. But this seems a bit beyond a mismatch of style. She may have some deep-seated resentment toward you that needs to be resolved. We all know someone who has too much to drink and will let fly some hurtful or off-color remark that would only be uttered in a state of drunkenness. His or her inhibitions have been reduced and somehow they let some darker thought out for the whole world to see.

Conflict can trigger a similar phenomenon, where the adrenalin released can cause a departure from the normal range of discourse and resolution. Combine that with the emotional confusion that comes with having a conflict with someone that you love, and things can get ugly. My guess is that your wife is emotionally reactive, and had a parent(s) or another role model who was not particularly good at resolving conflict.

I’m also guessing that she may be harboring some sort of resentment toward you that should be explored. You can usually tell by the theme and intensity of the name-calling. Is she calling you a “poopy-fart”? No problem- just a childish reaction. Is she calling you an “overbearing, controlling Asshole”? That’s a problem. Are you? Even if you are not, why does she think you are? No matter what the name-calling is, uncovering the source is an uncomfortable process and you may want to get the help of a therapist to get to the core. Even if it isn’t a deep-seated resentment, a therapist will likely help you come up with few strategies to help with the intensity of the fights you have been having.

She: The biggest thing that brings couples into therapy is a perceived inability to communicate. One of the biggest complaints I hear is that (typically) the man does not listen, and the woman does not feel heard. When I dig deeper I inevitably hear this scenario play out. It is an issue of one partner getting escalated (angry, hurt, frustrated) to a point that they can no longer converse rationally with their partner. The calmer partner feels this intensity and desperately tries to avoid engaging in the hysteria, knowing (with their rational brain being somewhat intact) that the conversation is not going to go anywhere, and is, most likely, never going to end if continued at this level; the automatic reaction for this partner is to run. I myself have experienced this, and I hold no deep resentment toward my husband, so I’m a little surprised to hear Andy’s impression of this common communication issue. Perhaps a look at exactly what happens during these escalations would help.

In understanding the brain, the perusing partner in this scenario has entered the stress cycle. When one is at a heightened level, and stress is high, the brain gives the body a message that there is imminent danger and something must be done to assure safety immediately. At this point the body enters a state of emergency known commonly as the ‘fight or flight’ stage. Once a person has reached this high level of arousal, their brain sends a message of danger to the rest of the body and begins a process of moving blood from the head to the limbs in order to prepare to defend oneself (explanation for aggression and domestic violence during conflict). When there is reduced blood in the brain, it turns into a place where logic and reason are difficult or impossible (until balance and calm has been restored). I often pose to couples I work with the following, “You are trying to solve problems in your relationship when there is no blood in your brain? How is that working?” Understanding the neuropsychology of what happens to your wife when she is escalated can help to choose how to respond.

In the end, you are doing the right thing by not engaging in these arguments at this high stress level- there is no rational conclusion that can come until level heads are back. However, it is important that your partner not feel like you are abandoning her and that you don’t care about her. I often encourage my clients to come up with a code word to say during these heated arguments (some have included; banana, frontal lobe, later, and time-out). These code words will signal an understanding to the escalated partner that it is not the right time to talk about this issue, due to the heightened state. Most important though, this key word is a promise to that partner that when they are able to calm down (from 30 minutes to later in the day) the conversation will be resumed. This allows for assurance that problems in the relationship will be resolved and not linger forever and continue to build up and damage the relationship. It also assures your wife that you love her and want to hear her feelings, but only when she is calm.

Dr. Jen Semmes and Andy Wilson have been (mostly) happily married for nine years (currently happily). They are the owners of Coastal Counseling therapy center in Carlsbad, California. Jen holds a license in clinical social work and a doctorate in psychology, and is a therapist at Coastal Counseling. Andy just tries to hold it together.

If you, or anyone you know, has a question for ‘He said, She said’ please send a private message to Coastal Counseling on Facebook or email the question to Check us out on the web at

Disclaimer: This blog and the information herein are for educational and informational purposes only. It is not meant as a substitute for professional psychological or therapeutic services.  The self-help information provided by this blog are solely the opinion of the bloggers and should not be considered as a form of therapy, advice, direction, diagnosis, or treatment of any kind. Instead, the information is designed to be used in conjunction with ongoing treatment provided by a mental health professional. Use the information in this blog at your own risk. All of the information is provided “as-is,” with no warranties of any kind, express or implied.


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