When we are caught up in a conflict with our partner, we all can get upset and triggered, resorting to self-protective reactions of anger, defensiveness, resentment, over-explaining, criticism, pulling away, or shutting down.

If we have a history of trauma, it makes our protective reactions even stronger and more rigid, because at some point in our lives survival depended on them. We build protective armor that serves to make us safe. However, that armor also cuts us off from connection, care, and potential healing. It is hard to hug and love someone in a hard armor. A psychologist and developer of the Polyvagal Theory Stephen Porges noted: “Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others replacing patterns fo connection with patterns of protection.” ​

Protection mode
Gets activated when we feel threatened.
Emotions: Anger, frustration, resentment, etc.
Action: Criticize, defend oneself, attack, explain, withdraw, pull away/distance.

Connection mode
Possible when we feel safe.
Emotions: Vulnerable, softer feelings
Action: Open to sharing and listening, reaching, receiving.


So how do we switch from the self-protective mode to connecting mode? It all starts with awareness. Slowing down, noticing, and being able to self-reflect when we are getting upset is the first step toward change. By slowing down, we can take a moment to self-regulate and choose a different response. We can choose to activate our protective armor or to lean into connection and share our feelings in a softer and more vulnerable way.

In couples therapy, especially Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, we breathe awareness into tight places of constriction, tension, and defensiveness, learning to become curious about what lies underneath. A therapist can help slow down the process of escalation and to tap into the power of connection, allowing the old armor to slowly melt away.