Michael Boyle Therapy


Therapy that works. #wholehearted by design.

Do you argue with your partners?

Win-lose is the way of the “surviving mode” of the nervous system

Win-lose is the way of the “surviving mode” of the nervous system

Do you argue with your partners? Your kids? Or with anyone else for that matter?

When the surviving mode of our nervous system is activated we automatically become selfish. That’s natural. We can’t help it. Survival mode = self preservation at all costs - including your loved one’s feelings. It’s not a choice, its automatic and built into the part of your brain that is preverbal, subconscious, primal, and fast to act without thinking. In fact, we didn’t want that pesky overthinking to slow us down with a saber tooth tiger approaching our tent, so we evolved the surviving mode to “turn off” the part of our brain that thinks more clearly, rationally, and inclusively of the feelings and needs of others.

So, perhaps you can already see where this article is going?

If you are upset, you are in surviving mode. If your partner is upset, she or he is in surviving mode. If you are both in surviving mode you are both going to be selfish and act in 1 of 3 ways at a time, perhaps switching in and out of, and reversing roles between: fight (being angry, aggressive), flight (being fearful) and freeze (withdrawing, hiding, checking out).

In surviving mode you are BOTH in a win-lose mentality. My win is her loss. Her win is my loss. At least that is how we PERCEIVE it. The complications of “projection” when we are in surviving mode are inevitable. The “negativity bias” built into this part of the brain will have us filter for reasons to justify why we should remain in surviving mode. This part of the brain is not concerned in the least with being happily in love. It’s ONLY priority is to protect from loss and all too often it recognizes that the best defense is a good offense and we can get really nasty with the one’s we love.

Eventually someone gains the upper hand and even if the loser concedes under the guise of compromise, in surviving mode arguments there is always a “winner” and a “loser” - or so it may seem. The win-loss dynamic might lead to a temporary solution and I suppose in some twisted sense if the wins and losses balance out there can be some sense that the relationship is on par. But, even if this is the case, surviving mode arguments are exhausting and leave us battle weary. If the wins and losses aren’t balanced and someone is usually on top, then resentment will build. We become ever more selfish and disconnected because whether we are winning or losing our surviving mode is on, and its job is… self-preservation… at all costs… eventually the relationship.

And, let’s face at, as someone who is good as “winning” arguments, if I check in with my best self I really feel shitty about it. Who really wants to win at their partner’s expense?

Fighting until the other person concedes can’t be seen as a good result, even if you get your way. Sounds childish right? We do it all the time - us big brained adults. Love can be defined as “happiness based on the OTHER’s thriving”. Neither of us can thrive if we are in the surviving mode because quite plainly we are not in the thriving mode of our nervous system. In actuality, what appears to be a win-lose dynamic is actually a LOSE-LOSE. And if kids are around to watch the drama unfold: its lose-lose-LOSE.

So, what’s more effective?

First each individual in the dynamic needs to take 100% responsibility for the state of their own nervous system. There is no getting around this. Even if you are “right” about why you are upset, it doesn’t matter. It really helps for both partners to understand this philosophy and to have made emotionally sober (i.e. when NOT upset) agreements that because arguing in surviving mode is more than futile, it is harmful, each partner needs to take and give whatever space is required to get into thriving mode. There are lots of methods for getting into thriving mode in the video library of my FB page. Including this one that explains the ins and outs of the surviving and thriving mode.

You can invite the thriving mode by asking yourself open ended questions (which activates the prefrontal cortex and starts to move you away from the limbic system and brain stem where the surviving mode predominates), such as “How can we both win? What’s the win-win here?” At first the question won’t feel genuine. Remember it won’t feel genuine until you activate the thriving mode of your nervous system! But, when you do, it will feel totally natural… it will be like, “duh, of course I want us both to win, I love her and she loves me.” So, keep practicing your various #psychotherapytools for turning on your thriving mode until you feel open, loving, and have a sincere desire for both of you to thrive.

More good news - included in the hardware of your thriving mode operating system is the capacity for creative thinking, thinking outside the box, feelings of safety and connection, empathy and compassion… so when you both are in this mode even though you might not yet know what the “win-win” looks like, you will enjoy discovering that through a rewarding exchange that will undoubtedly take you as individuals and your relationship to a higher level of being!

Please utterly convince yourself that until you get to this higher place within yourself arguing, “processing”, “hashing it out” is more than useless, it is truly harmful for all concerned. You need to convince yourself of this now because when the neurochemicals of fight, flight and freeze are coursing through your veins, your better judgement will seem like a distant, foolish voice compared to your righteous insistence on surviving at all costs. I suggest to some couples in counseling that they make an arbitrary agreement beforehand to take turns being the one who walks away at the onset of the battle, which serves as a reminder to both not that the one walking away doesn’t care, but they that they care enough to go get a hold of their nervous system and not come back to the table until ready - really ready - for a truly positive result.