Fight or Flight – Why do we argue before we say goodbye?

It’s a funny thing about couples and travel. Currently, I’m on a smooth flight to New Orleans, but last night my beloved man and I narrowly escaped an emotional plane crash. Mindful Loving averted an argument that could have left both of us hurt, stewing, and disconnected for our whole week apart. What happened? Unexpected work issues made him 2 hours late for our last night together. I’d been looking forward to our romantic romp all day, and when I got his text 20 minutes after I’d expected him to walk through the door saying he still an hour away I flooded with negative emotion. And then I called him (which was a very bad idea). I let him know I was angry and hurt, and I didn’t use my nice psychologist voice. But then a miracle occurred. Instead of escalating the turbulence, I suddenly paused and said “I don’t want to fight. I’m going to hang up now and see you in a bit”. Why? Because I’ve seen this pre-flight movie way too many times before. And it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Years ago, I was in a long-distance relationship with a lover who lived a province away. The monthly flight to see him offered 90 minutes of delicious anticipation. I loved walking through the arrival gate and nervously scanning the crowd for his blue-eyed, salt and pepper good looks – eyes meeting eyes, the moment alive with possibilities. Time seem to slow down as I melted into his delighted smile and hungry embrace. Absence made the heart grow fonder – at least where greetings were concerned. Saying goodbye was another thing altogether.

We cherished our days together, laughing, playing, and connecting. And then it would come time for me leave the love nest and fly back home, placing 1000km between us. And somehow, subconsciously, we’d create that impending distance when we were still together. Invariably, the night before I flew, we’d argue. Someone would react defensively to a comment, and instead of making love, we’d be making trouble. Even lying in the same bed, the Rockies separated us. There was more than one cold airport goodbye, a sad and pointless ending to a wonderful visit.

We are vulnerable creatures, we lovers. In the act of exposing our heart and hopes, we also expose our fears and fragility. As soon as we leave the cave and enter the jungle of relationship our deeply conditioned brain starts to scan the environment for threats. Will you hurt me? Leave me? Love me even a tiny bit less than I love you?

Intimacy is a spiral, and as we fall more deeply in love we uncover layers of old stuff. Psychologically, each time we take a step toward trust, we also expose our underbelly. This can create a backlash of insecurity. We may then test this new level of trust, poking it with the stick of “will you still be here even if I act like a jerk?” before settling into the deeper bond between us. Attachment theory theorizes that we play out this dance of connection and distance based on our early childhood experiences of feeling loved or unloved, safe or unsafe. So what does that look like?

Over and over, we repeat the pattern of loving, fearing, leaving, and reconnecting. Essentially, I let you in, and then I get scared and push you away. Not on purpose – it’s not like I sat down with my iPhone memo app last night and wrote “tonight freak out on my sweetie cuz I’m feeling vulnerable, and being nasty is a great way to make sure he misses me when I’m gone” – but if we are mindless, it can happen anyway.

So are we doomed to forever repeat old wounds in our current relationships? Or is can some wise part of ourself pull us out of the free fall? Forget Wonder Woman. This is a job for Mindful Loving Woman. Last night, by applying mindfulness, I was able to observe my mind, rather than believing it. I was able to take control of my emotions, rather than have them run me over. I was able to scan my body and examine my experience, and see how physical tension was creating the fight before the flight.

And I was able to STOP. A quick mindfulness check told me nothing good could come of this emotional trajectory. I felt my contracted heart. I witnessed, with some bemusement, the nonsense emotions and thoughts that interpreted a work delay as some sort of evidence that my man doesn’t love me. And in that moment of awareness I saw clearly that I could choose suffering or I could choose happiness. I made a choice to soften my heart, let go of the story, and begin again.

Despite a bumpy take-off, my sweetie and I recovered and shared a beautiful evening together resting in the next level of love uncovered by the intimacy spiral. This morning he drove me to my pre-dawn flight as the sun nibbled the sky and lit our unguarded hearts. He kissed me goodbye at the aptly named security gate. Closeness re-established, we will both count the moments until we meet again. Simply, skillfully, and one breath at a time.

Mini Buddha For the sake of all beings, Wisdom, ComPassion, and Mindful Loving