Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast

What Is Your Partner's Default Survival Response? (& Why It Matters)

October 17, 2023 Amanda Armstrong
Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast
What Is Your Partner's Default Survival Response? (& Why It Matters)
Show Notes Transcript

Episode 35

Last week we talked about default survival responses and I invited you to see if you could identify yours – if you haven’t listened to that episode yet I recommend starting there because today’s conversation is a natural extension of that chat where I’ll expand on reasons why it might be helpful to identify your partner’s default way of responding when their sense of self or safety feels at all threatened and how even if they never consciously acknowledge their default survival response how your awareness of it might help you better navigate that relationship. Hit play to learn more!

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Full show notes HERE





Welcome to regulate, and rewire and anxiety and depression podcast where we discuss the things I wish someone would have taught me earlier in my healing journey. I'm your host, Amanda Armstrong. And I'll be sharing my steps, my missteps, client experiences and tangible research based tools to help you regulate your nervous system, rewire your mind and reclaim your life. Thanks for being here. Now let's dive in. 

Today, we're going to take a deep dive into what your partner's default survival response is and why it matters. So last week, we talked about default survival responses what they are, and I invited you to see if you can identify yours. So if you haven't listened to that episode, yet, I recommend starting there because today's conversation is a very natural extension of that chat, where like I just mentioned, I am going to expand on reasons why it might be helpful to identify your partner's default way of responding when their sense of self or safety feels at all threatened. And how, even if they never consciously acknowledged this for themselves, how your awareness of it might help you to better navigate that relationship. 

So quick recap of some of the conversation for last week that you need context of for today's conversation is first, survival responses are our automatic way of responding to perceived threat or stress. Sometimes these are referred to as trauma responses. And we talked about five of those last week fight response, which is the urge to move towards a threat flight is the urge to move away from or avoid a stressor or conflict. Freeze is becoming so overwhelmed that you get immobilized or stuck, fun or that appease response is when we instinctively seek to please a perceived threat to avoid that harm or conflict. And then finally is shut down we become so overwhelmed. It's that perceived life threat. Where there's a withdrawal a shutdown a dissociation from the situation, it can be emotional numbness as a means of protection. 

And last week, we talked about how gaining awareness around your default responses might help you to decrease some shame around certain situations or why you responded the way that you did in certain situations, and can really help you to be more intentional about cultivating other coping skills. If your current default response patterns aren't helpful or don't feel appropriate to your current relationships or situations in life. And it feels important to reiterate, and remind you that all of your ways of responding, were originally formed with positive intent to help you navigate past situations to protect you to get your needs met to help you cope. And the same thing can be said for today's conversation around your partner, your parent, your sibling, etc. All of their ways of responding were originally formed with positive intent to help them navigate past experiences or situations to protect them to get their needs met to help them cope, etc. The disconnection arises when survival response patterns, or at least the intensity or flavor of them, that you needed back then, do not match what you currently need in your life now, in the situations in your life, and the relationships in your life, and so on.

So shifting gears now to talking about why it might be helpful for you to identify your partner's default survival responses. And again, just a reminder to filter this through a lens that most applies to you. So when I say partner, you may think, parent, or sibling friend, boss. I'm using partner because this is somebody that I spend in my life, a lot of time in relationship with shared space with And inevitably, sometimes conflict with. And I think the hallmark of a truly great relationship isn't that they never argue. It isn't that there's never conflict, but instead it's how well and respectfully they can navigate conflict. How aware and considerate of each other are they or can they be when emotions are running high and this can be said again about a sibling relationship. A parent child relationship, relationships you have with your friends, etc. 

And to set the stage for this conversation, I think having this awareness around your partner survival response helps in three specific ways. The first is to help you not take things so personally or to take the way that they're responding, or the intensity in which they're responding personally. Number two, is this Can this awareness can help you to build a stronger relationship, and or number three, help you to set some spoken or unspoken boundaries when needed in relationships. 

So taking a deeper dive into number one, having an awareness of your partner's survival response helps you to not take things so personally or to interpret them as as threatening as a personal attack. And when we do interpret things as a personal attack, it elicits a deeper automatic survival reaction from you. So how often take a moment to reflect how often has an argument with a loved one escalated? Potentially unnecessarily, because you or they assumed the worst from what was said, maybe they took what was meant as a neutral comment personally, and responded accordingly. And I've been on both ends of this. We have talked previously about how the nervous system sources for three primary things to determine safety or threat, context, choice or connection. And when you know, their default ways of responding that fight flight freeze fun shutdown. It gives you context for their responses. Because a lot of times the unconscious internal narrative sounds something like, oh, like they're shutting down, because they don't care about me. They're just checking out because they don't care about me or this conversation. Or they're yelling, because I've done something wrong. 

An example of this, I have two sisters. And I would pretty confidently say that all three of us default pretty quickly to a fight response, to dig in our heels into getting defensive to either having our back pretty aggressively or just throwing some punches and making sure that you if you hurt my feelings, or I feel like you're personally attacking me, I'm going to make sure you feel dumb, because then I can, you know, retain my sense of being on top, which means I'm safe. And so knowing this, about them, about me about us, has helped me to navigate conversations and conflict. So much better, especially when I can keep myself regulated. And when I can't, because sometimes even I can't I teach people how to do this for a living, but I'm also pesky human. So all bets are off, and we throw some punches. And the part of this that we have had to get better at as we've gotten older, and in my opinion, more mature, is that like return and repair because we all three of us have decided that that relationship with each other is important. And sometimes we are going to mess that up. And that return and repair is a really powerful part of relationship building. 

But I'll share an example the other day where I was able to not take something personally stay regulated, and that drastically changed the trajectory of a conversation. So I said something to my sister that I thought was neutral, but apparently it hidden her. And immediately the tone of her voice change the volume of her voice change and she went right into defending herself with something like you know, you always bla bla bla bla bla or, like, hear all the reasons why. And instead of just sarcastically being like, whatever, as a way of dismissing her, or implying that she was overdramatic, I was able to take a deep breath, and I very calmly and very directly replied, You don't need to defend yourself to me. I trust you to do what's best for your life and I'm here for you. Low fight mode was immediately deactivated. Because isn't that exactly what you need to hear when you feel like somebody has invalidated you or however, she took my comment personally and likely through her lens rightly so because it probably was reflective of another time I said something similar where maybe I wasn't so neutral about it. I know now because of how our conversation shifted exactly what she needed to hear, right. You don't need to defend yourself to me, put down the armor because I trust you to do what's best for your life and I'm here for you. That made her pause As her fight mode deactivated, and we were able to have a great finish to the conversation, because I didn't dismiss her escalation, I didn't dismiss her reaction to her feelings as being too much. And I, nor did I punch back. And she was able to see that she was fighting a battle she didn't need to and what a relief. I'm sure her system is so tired of fighting all the time. I know mine is. But I was only able to do that. Because I knew that her getting defensive was more about her, it was not a personal attack at me. 

So again, this awareness of their response patterns can help us not take the way that they present themselves. So personally, which I think often happens, and can escalate the conflict. So another example of this is my own marriage, my default response pattern like you know, well fight, but my husband's is flight. I am a face things head on. And he is a avoid conflict at any and all costs. And this is something that we are very, very, very much still learning how to navigate. In fact, there's been conversations just this week around this. And there's been a number of times where there's been an obvious or at least obvious to me, conversation that we need to have or argument that we need to further resolve. And sometimes I will sit and sit and sit and just wait for him to bring it up. It's like this test, right. And like, I always bring things up. If and I write the story around how he doesn't care, because if he did, then he'd obviously say something, he'd come back upstairs and he'd want to resolve this. And when I've become so dysregulated, that I you know, walk away from an argument because like I mentioned last week, I go from fight to shut down in a nanosecond. I'm like, oh, go go, go, go, go go, boom, I shut down, I collapse, I'll go upstairs. Again, I'll expect him to like shortly followed a resolve that conflict, and he often has it. And then again, I Spiral out. How is it that he doesn't care, when in reality, he is likely also as dysregulated as me, my dysregulation is more obvious, because I'm loud, I'm explosive, I shut down, I retreat, where he goes more inwards, he had enums and checks out, in order to keep him self safe. He needs to avoid conflict at all cost, especially to avoid conflict with his wife, who can throw punches, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, consecutively in a row, to make sure that he feels way worse than me, because for whatever reason that must have worked in the past for me to get my needs met. And I don't love that. I don't like that I show up that way. And I don't like and I'm really hurt, when sometimes he shows up that way. And so what I didn't realize for a really long time was that my unconscious insistence on addressing every little thing head on, was in direct conflict with his unconscious insistence to avoid and like I said, went head to head I will bulldoze my husband and an argument nine out of 10 times. So of course, he's going to avoid that kind of conflict.

And what he didn't realize was how hurt I was feeling. When he chose not to say anything or not to follow up about conflict or to reach reconciliation. I was interpreting that to mean that he didn't care. I was feeling it like deep abandonment, that our relationship wasn't worth it, that I was always going to be the one to fight for our marriage, and it would never be reciprocated. Which all of this really triggers my wounding around, you know, needing to be hyper independent, not ever being chosen first, yada, yada, yada. We don't need to go deep down my trauma rabbit hole to see this pattern. But us now having this awareness around each other's default response patterns and us having some very intentional conversations around this has been able to lead to him not as quickly writing me off or avoiding or shutting down when I get kind of uppity and I less often take his need for space or his desire to avoid conflict personally, or at least not as personally. And we are often still right now in our marriage. We don't don't have this figured out, trying to rewrite the patterns of how we show up in relationship with each other. What does it look like for me to or for both of us to first in assume positive intent of the other person. And how is it that I can show up and navigate some of these hard conversations in a way that feels less threatening to his system, so it doesn't need to avoid as intensely, and so on. 

And so this kind of overlaps and segues into the second point I want to make, which is that having this awareness around our partner's default survival response patterns, gives us an opportunity to build a stronger relationship with them. And so my hope is that you are in loving relationships with partners, parents, siblings, or friends who are safe to talk to about something like this. And I know that that's not the case for everyone in relationships, or with all of the relationships in your life. And we're going to talk more about that in number three. But for the relationships that are, or at least in some way, they are more safe. Understanding their default responses and or having awareness can help you to improve that relationship in ways that I just shared, that my husband and I are doing and working on. But also, let's say that you have a friend, and you know that this friend is a clean, or king people pleaser. Their default response is a piece or fun, you could guess. How can you use this information to build a stronger relationship with them? Let's say you ask them to help you move your couch or to get lunch with you. And you get that like, Hallmark response. It's like, ah, yeah, yeah, sure, I can do that. Or maybe you get that, like, overly enthusiastic, immediate response of like, yes, of course, I can come help you minutes after they just told you how burned out how stressed out how busy they've been lately. You now through this lens of understanding this is your people pleaser friend, have an opportunity to be a better friend to them to build a stronger relationship with them, by potentially allowing them to reconsider by giving them a free pass. Because remember, somebody who has a default response pattern of appease, they are going to give you the answer that they think you want to avoid conflict with you or to secure their relationship with you. Please, please, please don't be mad at me. Please, please like me, please still choose me. So you can follow that up with? Hey, actually, I'm just putting two and two together. You just told me you've been so burnt out and stressed out lately? What if we put lunch on hold? For a week or two? Do you feel like you'd like to reclaim some of that time? Or? I'm actually going to ask my neighbor to help me. But I promise if they say no, I'll come back and ask you. Because again, remember that our people pleasing friends, and many of you listening are that people pleasing friend, I have been that friend in many, many, many situations in my life as well. We sometimes get our worth and value from being able to provide value and be of service to other people. Often at our own expense, we say so many yeses to other people that we end up unconsciously saying no to our own rest to our own needs, etc. 

I at one point shared like a friend asked like, well, what are your needs, and I I broke down in tears. It's like, I've been so disconnected from my needs for so long, because I've just been focusing on other people's needs. But a way we can build a stronger relationship is by letting these friends know. I like you, even if I'm not mad, even if you choose you first this time. And for those of you who are that people pleaser friend, how relieving would it be to be in relationship with somebody who can hear the difference between Yeah, I can totally do that versus that. Yeah, yeah. Got that. How much safer? Are you going to feel in relationship with that friend, or that partner? Who like gives you that free out? 

Actually, there is a perfect example of this just last week, so hey, Mariah, hey, Ali, if you're listening, these are two of my dear friends in the area. Mariah is a brilliant marketing guru for mother owned businesses and Aly is an incredible photographer and is actually my business photographer as well. So Mariah was putting on this event for local mom, business owners. And Ali was photographing that event and I was attending the event. So Mariah recently had a birthday and she shot me a text and was like, Hey, we're doing just like an easy go on pool party. For my birthday. She's got a son, who is in between the ages of my kids, like, come on over family friendly, etc. So Mariah and I are talking about seeing each other the day before her birthday. And Ali walks up and Ali wasn't there. And Mariah turns to Ali and goes, Yeah, I knew if I invited you, that you would, in theory want to come, but you wouldn't want to actually come. But you would like being invited, but also would feel really uncomfortable saying no, but I knew you weren't gonna come. So like, I love you, but I just didn't invite you. And some somebody might take that offensively be like what we need. So you didn't even bother to ask her didn't invite me. And Ally, you watched and she just turned to me. She goes, I feel so known. I feel so seen. She essentially saved me from that emotional gymnastics of like, I want her to know that I like her. And I'm grateful for the invite, but like, I don't want to go etc. Where you also may have that friend who, what if you invite them to the thing, but in the same breath, gave them the out. So like, maybe Mariah could have said, Hey, Ali, just so you know, I'm doing this thing. I'd love for you to be there. But I don't expect you to be there, like love you see you at the event, right? 

There's not necessarily any right or wrong way to go about this. But understanding our friends, our partners, our parents, default, survival responses, not only helps us to, again, not take their responses personally. But it also helps us to potentially build a stronger relationship with them by honoring that about them, or like I've said in my marriage by being able to come into open and honest conversation with that person to help source for how can I help you to feel more safe, supported, valued, loved, even in conflict. 

So I don't know how well that last example landed. And I definitely know that this next example, is probably a stretch friends, but it is just simply the season of life that I'm in right now. So my youngest is five months right now and breastfeeding, mid breastfeeding, every single feed, he gets a bit finicky starts pulling off multiple times. And I've learned that this means one of two things, he either has to burp or that side is low on milk, and he wants to switch sides. So his default response is to physically pull away to avoid either the discomfort of feeding when he has a burp or by not getting enough milk. And I respond, I'm like, Okay, I know, this means one of two things. I'm going to switch tactics, I'm going to put him on the other side. And if he still pulls away, then I know it's a burden. Now, every single time immediately upon putting him on my shoulder to burp him, he rages. In fact, we call it rage baby. It's like, yep, rage baby. He's arching his back, he is screaming, simply because I've removed his food source. And he wants more. But I've removed a food source that he can't consume, because he has this burp. And it goes zero to 10. So fast. And then the tension in his body from this reaction actually makes him getting the burp out so much harder.

The first month or so that this was happening, I would get really frustrated too. I didn't understand. Why is he reacting this way. I wouldn't understand why he was pulling away when I knew he wanted more, I wouldn't understand why he would rage so intensely when I was doing something that would help him get what he wanted. And the reality is that all of these things are just reflexive responses for him at this point. It's nothing personal. We understand that with a baby, right? It's nothing personal. And it's not me doing anything wrong. And because I have this context and understanding, I can now move through this situation with my tiny son differently in a way that doesn't detract from the closeness I feel with him. And again, let me be really clear about this. Nothing about his behavior has changed. We still have pulling away we still have absolute rage baby, but because I have more context around his reflexes. I am no longer triggered or overwhelmed by them. I no longer take them as personally. And in fact, I now can smile through rage baby. I'm like, yeah, here we go again, dude. And I've learned other strategies. I know that that like plopping a quick pacifier in his mouth helps him calm down enough to get the burnt out faster, get back to feeding. 

Sometimes we or our partners pull away from the love and connection that we want most, because it feels unfamiliar or uncomfortable to us. Sometimes we rage at someone's attempt to help us because we don't understand it. And again, these responses are reflexive, programmed into us primarily through our biology and our past lived experiences. And it is only in opening our eyes to the patterns that we can begin to navigate them differently, those patterns within ourselves, but also those patterns within our partners. And sometimes the things that we recognize about those patterns need this third thing that I am going to talk about, which is us setting some spoken or unspoken boundaries, you likely have someone in your life who isn't trying to heal, who isn't willing to see that their way of responding to you has anything to do with their lived experiences and perceptions. Who will now and forever try to blame you for the way that they feel will blame you for the way that they respond to you. Well, I wouldn't yell if you X, Y, or Z, well, I wouldn't ignore you if X, Y or Z. And these are the relationships that need boundaries, to keep you safe in relationship with that person. 

And I think a point worth making here for you to be self reflective of in the way that you have your response patterns. And also to make sure that you are letting them take accountability for them as well and not making excuses for their behavior simply because of your awareness. There is a difference between intent and impact. When I have been upset and yelled, my intent was not to hurt or to push away my husband. When I've even yelled at my toddler, my intent was not to scare him. But the impact of that behavior was that I did just that. My husband did not intend to leave me feeling hurt and alone and abandoned as I navigated some of the hardest things I've ever been through in the last couple years. But the impact of his lack of presence, and his insistence on avoiding conflict did absolutely that. 

And so yes, we are all responsible for managing our own emotions. But when we have chosen to be in a loving partnership with somebody looking at and taking responsibility for impact, whether intended or not, is vital to the health of that relationship. But what if you are in a partnership with someone who is unwilling to take ownership of their impact? Again, maybe it's a parent, a friend, a sibling, maybe it's your wife, or your husband? Boundaries, my friends, it is time for boundaries, you do not have to stay in relationship with or in conversation with somebody who is yelling at you, if that doesn't work for you. If conversations about weight or body size caused you to get defensive or to shut down, and maybe you've asked them to not bring it up, your boundary can be that you hang up the phone, you walk away from those conversations. We oftentimes start with a request, please don't do this. But a boundary is how far you will go to keep yourself safe. Boundaries are always about what actions you will take in response to them yelling, them bringing up topics that don't feel safe for you. 

A client was recently talking to me about how in conversation with her mom, she was saying things like, you know, you don't care about me. If you did, then you would do this for me. You don't love me if you did, you would do that. For me. Friends. This is emotional manipulation. And if you hear things like this from a parent, I am willing to bet that your default response is either appease or shut down. Because if you are having to navigate that emotional immaturity from your parent as an adult, you likely had to navigate it as a child as well. So this client and I had a conversation around her mom's default responses for the purposes of giving her my client context, to not take the things that her mom is saying So personally, so that she didn't default to her old default response patterns of fun. And by doing so, she has been able to set boundaries in that relationship that work for her, even if her mom is unhappy with them. And because she has learned how to source for a sense of self and safety within herself. She is much more open Hey, if somebody else isn't perfectly pleased with her, she has given herself the capacity and cultivated this skill of having her own back, which has made her more resilient and resistant to that default appease, right, that's, I'm gonna, I'm just gonna say yes. So you're not mad at me, she has cultivated the capacity within her system to say, I'm going to say no. And even if you're mad at me, I know I'm still okay, I know, I still have worth and value. 

And I think this goes without saying, but I'm going to say it anyways, if your partner or anyone in your life is verbally or physically abusive, or negligibly, shut down or avoidant, you can simultaneously have compassion for the fact that they've likely experienced really hard life circumstances to have created such well worn or intense survival responses, while also not excusing the result of those behaviors, do not use awareness of a response pattern to be an excuse to ignore abuse or even mistreatment. And if you've had to, or find yourself in a situation now, where you have to shut down or appease to keep yourself safe, you can do so without shame, your system is protecting you. But please, please, please, please, please take steps to remove yourself from that situation and that relationship. 

Whatever their default survival response is, in any situation, even if they do not consciously choose that response. They are responsible for the impact of it in situations and relationships and the consequences that follow. And the same applies to you whatever your default survival responses in any situation. Remember that although you do not consciously choose that response. You are responsible for the impact of it in situations and relationships. And all the awareness in the world will never, never, never, never make them or you the perfect partner or parent or friend. So the other part of this is inevitably the ability to return and repair. And we're going to talk more about that in next week's conversation.

And before jumping into the three tangible takeaways, I want to quickly tie in what these conversations have to do with anxiety, depression, nervous system regulation, so much of our humaneness, our well being and our hurt revolves around our connection to or disconnection from other humans. What we talked about last week, and today, and then more so next week, when we talk about this concept of return and repair can help you to source for a deeper sense of context, choice and connection in relationship with others. All things that our nervous systems sources for when assessing for safety. And as you step in and take nervous system regulation seriously, it gives you the capacity to stay more grounded to stay more resource so that you can show up and navigate relationships in a way that feels more in alignment with the way that you want to show up in the world. 

All right now for today's three tangible takeaways. Number one, understanding your partner or others. Default survival responses can help you to not take things too personally build a stronger relationship and or set needed boundaries for navigating that relationship. So take a moment to identify what you think their default survival response patterns are. 

Number two, I want to reiterate, if your partner or anyone in your life is verbally or physically abusive, or negligibly, shut down or avoidant we can you can simultaneously have compassion for the fact that they've been through hard things to make them this way, while not excusing the result of those behaviors. Do not use awareness of a response pattern to ever be an excuse to ignore abuse or mistreatment. So taking a moment to reflect Are there any relationships in your life right now that you need to step away from? Or to set some serious boundaries in? And if so, what are they? Do you need support in navigating that? Where might you find that support? 

And number three, all the awareness in the world will still never make them or you a perfect partner, parent, friend, sibling. And so the other part of this is the ability to return and repair which we will talk more about next week. 

Thank you so much for being here. Until next time, friends, take care of yourself. Take care of each other And I am sending hope and healing your way. 

Thanks for listening to another episode of The regulate and rewire podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and leave a five star review to help us get these powerful tools out to even more people who need them. And if you yourself are looking for more personalized support and applying what you've learned today, consider joining me inside Rhys, my monthly mental health membership and nervous system healing space or apply for our one on one anxiety and depression coaching program restore. I've shared a link for more information to both in the show notes. Again, thanks so much for being here. And I'll see you next time.

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