Eliminate Blowups and Shutdowns

There can be significant and problematic differences between partners’ nervous system biases in energetic range. Some run high, others low. Some run hot, others cold. This will result in very different emotional reactions when triggered. One may be volatile, expansive, or over-the-top. The other may contract, go blank, numb out, or shut down. Think of these as “airplanes” vs. “submarines.”

Airplanes tend toward high energy states, vitality, dramatic emotional expression, yelling, interrupting, gesturing. Anger is a part of their language. Think of a hot-blooded, highly expressive Italian family, where excited emotions quickly arise and people frequently get loud.

Submarines are quiet and contained. Fighting is rare and emotional expression is minimal. Showing anger is foreign, and aggression is expressed passively. Think of a cool Swedish family where voices are seldom raised and good children should be seen and not heard. 

These two differing styles reflect how the arousal system in the primitive brain may be biased toward the high end or low end of the range. Many people can play in the middle range and go both high and low. Think of a piano that has both high notes and low notes. If we are over-biased, it’s like some of us ended with mainly high notes, while others have mostly low notes.

If we are on the high end of the range, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system runs the show, producing adrenaline and accelerated states of fight-or-flight. On the low end, our ancient parasympathetic branch induces self-numbing and the state of freeze.

If couples polarize over this difference, one person tends to blow up and the other shuts down. It’s important to recognize that neither bias is inherently better than the other. They both are self-limiting extremes and either can be damaging to a relationship.

Airplanes tend to get angry fast, blow up, and have a high pitch. They fly fast, nimble, and loud. They rapidly climb, spin, flip over, or circle. They are quick to take off and quick to land. The recovery time of an airplane can be less than half an hour from take-off to landing.

Submarines can dive into the lower emotional states like sadness, numbness, even depression. They plumb the quiet depths. They go slow, and are very slow to rise and resurface. It can take hours or even days for submarines to recover, as if coming up too quickly would cause “the bends.”

Airplanes appear allergic to those lower emotional ranges. They consider such states dangerous, like trying to fly underwater. Their systems seem addicted to adrenaline and dopamine highs. When relationship difficulties mount over time, airplanes can eventually be prone to blow up all too easily.

Submarines seem allergic to high arousal states like anger or passion. So when they get triggered, their nervous system slows them down and numbs them out, administering self-anesthesia. As relationship difficulties accumulate over time, submarines can become increasingly vulnerable to shutting down.

Ironically, the more submarines dive down, the more the very thing they try to avoid can show up. Jerry was allergic to anger and conflict. He tried to be nice and please everyone. He kept an even keel. But this backfired with his partner Sally, who only got more angry and volatile the more he seemed to skirt issues with her. She felt the need to drop depth charges to get a rise out of him. Polarizing over these different biases resulted in a Reactive Cycle.

But what if both partners have the same bias? While it can seem to be easier to be with someone who shares your bias, predictable problems can also arise.

When both partners are submarines, their mutual allergy to the energy found in anger can sap the juice right out of a relationship. Their ability to feel connected drops to a low due to the fear of rocking the boat. So while anger is minimized, so is the energy crucial for a sense of vitality in their emotional connection.

Couples may proudly say “we never fight.” But there is a cost for staying inside the comfort zone—even if both people share this arousal bias. People end up saying “I love you, but I no longer feel in love.” In the avoidance of uncomfortable feelings, actual issues fail to be recognized and worked through. Instead, partners’ nervous systems fall further into the primitive state of freeze. Ultimately all feelings get numbed—including positive feelings of shared joy and attraction.

Airplanes have a different bias, toward high arousal states and intense feelings. They are much easier with volatility than with the lower emotional states of the submarine. Two airplanes together love to fly high and share strong libidos. They don’t get bent out of shape when the heat comes on and fighting starts. Yet there are lines that get crossed, and in the blind irrationality of a volatile exchange, damage is incurred. It may look like airplanes have more versatility with intense feelings, but this is not the same as being skillful at dealing with emotional energy.

Both biases, up or down, have their liabilities. Instead of shutting down feelings like a submarine, a more volatile airplane throws it up and out, dumping it onto the other person. This leaves a mounting trail of emotional injuries that can eventually destroy a relationship.

If left to their unconscious tendencies, airplanes and submarines run into predictable Polarity Dances. Untended to, these can do untold damage to both parties. In all of Bill’s attempts to control outcomes through a strong show of feelings, he often unwittingly got results he did not want. Yelling might seem to momentarily control a situation. But with his wife Rachel, who always tried to appease him in order to stop his volatility, his short-term gains backfired over the long run. While looking compliant, Rachel was more of a submarine. Not signaling her distress in a way Bill could see it, she gradually shut down around him. But deep inside of her, an increasingly hopeless state ultimately culminated in her giving up, feeling very little, and then leaving Bill.

Volatile airplanes often end up saying and doing things that are destructive in relationships. The primitive part of the brain that goes into fight or flight takes over the conversation. It’s only knowledge of relating is “kill or be killed.” It has no empathy circuits. Drunk on adrenaline, airplanes can do things they later regret—that they later try to explain that they did not really intend. Yet those later apologies seldom repair damage already done.

Suppression or volatility can occasionally play constructive roles. Especially if it breaks your pattern. If you tend to be impulsively expressive, learning to stand back will represent personal growth and get the respect of your partner. And if you typically shut down, then really speaking up and taking a stand may be just the thing to break an impasse. When you get stuck in a recurrent pattern of one or the other style—you are acting from a very limited inner script.

Bill and Rachel acted out the typical Polarity Dance of airplane vs. submarine. Over time they polarized even more. The airplane that blows up will inevitably push the submarine into deeper and deeper waters. Fearing the airplane’s depth charges, the submarine may dive all the way to the quiet bottom of the ocean and, desperate for peace, stay there until they run out of oxygen.

And the opposite easily happens, that the submerged partner triggers escalating, destructive efforts by the volatile airplane, who gets desperate to break through the disconnect by engaging in more frequent assaults and drop even higher megaton bombs.

A key for this difficulty is for each type to stop making the other style fundamentally wrong. Then learn how to work together. Realize that both of you have to balance each other in some important way. And one of the most important and overlooked ways to do this is through direct physical contact. In neuroscience this is called co-regulation—where two nervous systems even each other out when they come into full-body contact in hugs or embraces.

Julie and Martin were a typical airplane and submarine, and their relationship demonstrated how big differences can initially attract us but then later can become big problems. Julie was quickly attracted to Martin’s strong and silent personality. She felt remarkably safe in his arms. The way his nervous system ran slow and calm seemed to quiet her more highly pitched and sometimes agitated system. Around Martin she felt grounded and solid. For the first time felt like she had a place to land. On the flip side, Martin felt positively stimulated by Julie’s vitality and animated ways of expressing herself. Being with her elevated his excitement about even little things and so life felt more colorful and wonderful in her presence.

As they fell in love, they were a highly affectionate couple. They frequently held each other and made physical contact—both in and out of the bedroom. In neurobiological terms, their nervous systems were evening out each other’s biases, and via body-to-body resonance, they met in the middle. Martin the submarine rose to spend more time on the surface of the ocean, and Julie the airplane had a solid place to land. Julie felt grounded and calmed in Martin’s arms, and he felt the affect of her vitality pick up his energy and enthusiasm.

But over time, because they did not have verbal or emotional tools to effectively negotiate little problems or differences, they fell into a Reactive Cycle. Gradually, influenced by their mutual upset, physical contact became less frequent. But they didn’t consciously realize that they were no longer balancing each other’s nervous systems out. So over time, as each was left adrift to their own biases, they fell into an escalating Polarity Dance of airplane vs. submarine.

Ironically, as couples start to do a Polarity Dance over their bias differences, they stop making as much contact. But this is the very remedy they both need to defuse their nervous system reactions. With airplanes and submarines, this becomes particularly acute. Yet it’s easy to remedy through direct body-to-body connection. This can be true for all Polarity Dances, and we will continue to discuss the positive power of physical contact.

Staying under cover to avoid rocking the boat is not the same as taking the high ground. Even if submergence into peaceful waters looks good compared to the more obvious destructive consequences of volatility—suppression generates huge negative consequences.

Making out-of-control, angry statements is also not the better option, compared to what may look like wimping out, staying illusive, or being aloof. You may be standing up for your truth, but the delivery you are using—including bullets and bombs—takes away from your message, and makes it impossible to be heard.

Each type has to grow. The submarine needs to stand up more, as the airplane stands down. Both need to come together and connect, giving each other a safe place to come up to and to land.