A trial by combat, deciding a man’s guilt or innocence in the eyes of the gods by having two other men hack each other to pieces. Tells you something about the gods. ― Tyrion Lannister
In the popular book and HBO television series, Game of Thrones, the character Tyrion Lannister, who has been accused of a capital offense, elects to have his fate decided by means of a trial by combat rather than by a council of lords. Being a dwarf, who has little chance to overpower a much larger and more accomplished opponent, he chooses to be represented by a champion who will fight in his stead. Tyrion is in a vulnerable position and is desperate for a protector who is willing to fight to the death on his behalf.
I have discussed in recent posts the concept of executive operating systems (EOSs) that “drive” our body and brain in different directions, depending on the subconscious perception of the situation we are facing. When any particular EOS is active, our emotions, thoughts and motivations align in service of its evolved function (e.g., protection, nurturing). Since we are wired to survive our systems rapidly respond to any perceived threat. The same systems that orient us towards withdrawal or attack in response to mortal danger are likewise invoked in the face of relatively benign modern-day threats such as being cut off in traffic, being given poor service in a restaurant or in the midst of a family argument over household chores.
Couples counselors regularly witness trial by combat in their offices when romantic partners, who at times have loving feelings towards one another, suddenly bring forth their champions to defend their positions. Feeling emotionally vulnerable or wounded can elicit all manner of protectors to emerge. The defensive strategies employed by individuals in a relationship may vary, but when the partners interact under stress it is inevitably their preferred guardian EOS that is interacting. While not always a fight to the death, these encounters can leave both parties bruised, broken and even more sensitized to the next perceived slight, which triggers another cycle. The renowned relationship researcher, John Gottman, refers to this cycle as “negative affect reciprocity.” The ability to minimize these battles, escape from them once they have begun and repair the resultant damage is often the key to the relationship surviving.
Our instinct to survive is exactly what is triggered by our loved ones. Unfortunately, that instinct leads to an inhibition of empathy and sets us on a self-protective path rather than on a relationship-protective path. Orienting towards the relationship is counter-intuitive to our selected champion, as it involves exposing our vulnerability rather than shielding it. Healing a relationship caught up in negative affect reciprocity requires an environment that reduces the stress and reactivity so that the alternatives beyond fight or flight can emerge.
Relational battles are often heated (or chilled) debates between two individuals who desperately want to be seen, validated and cared for by the other. Feeling diminished, unappreciated or unloved can feel so threatening that any damage being inflicted in one’s own defense is deemed justifiable. One can be deeply wounded from active or passive defensive strategies. The interplay of fight or flight is inextricably tied together. This dance, which we so often find ourselves attending, cannot be won — it is a dance after all, and dancing is difficult when you are suited in armor.