Here's how it happens: You've done something piggish -- something stupid and selfish and insensitive. She's pissed. So you argue. And you make things worse by trying to defend yourself.
Sometime during this heated exchange, you actually think about what you've done, consider it from her perspective, and realize, Jeez, I was a total jerk. So you apologize. You make it sound as if you mean it because you almost do.
She accepts and gives you a "but don't ever do that again" parting shot with a flare of the nostrils. You start to feel pretty pleased with yourself -- got off easy this time, you realize. That flare of her nostrils has even made you think about the possibility of makeup sex.
Then she suddenly dredges up an argument the two of you had about another jerky thing you did years ago, the time you forgot to do X or the time she caught you doing Y. And it has nothing to do with the jerky thing you just did. You barely remember it. But she remembers every detail and is raring to go over it again in all its ugly minutiae, just when the tension was dissipating.
What put her in such a foul mood? (And why have you found yourself in the same state on occasion?) It's not that she's unconsciously trying to torpedo the relationship. It's not because she derives some obscure pleasure from fighting. It is simply this: Her limbic and autonomic nervous systems are operating at different speeds.
It all has to do with the psychologist-philosopher William James. (Yes, your personal life is about to be improved by the insights of some 19th-century dead white guy who gets university buildings named after him.) James speculated about how the brain decides what kind of emotion we're feeling. Something happens, and your brain figures out its emotional response -- anger, elation, arousal, terror, whatever. Then your brain tells your body how to respond -- increased heart rate, faster breathing, goose pimples, erection, whatever. These responses are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which is involved in bodily functions that are involuntary, or automatic (that is, autonomic).
Makes sense. But James came up with a nutty idea that reverses the direction of all this. He believed that your body's autonomic response, not your brain, determines the emotion you think.
In James's view, your brain assesses the situation so quickly that there isn't enough time to become consciously aware of how you should feel about it. Instead, your brain canvasses your body to see how it's reacting to the outside stimulus. So, conscious emotions don't shape your autonomic bodily response, but rather your autonomic response shapes the conscious emotion you feel.
Weird stuff. Seems ass-backward, and it did to a lot of James's contemporaries. His theory was ignored for decades. But today, researchers are finding that James's notion is turning out to be true in many ways. Your autonomic nervous system may not quite determine the exact type of emotion you're feeling, but it has tons to do with emotional intensity.
There's all sorts of evidence for this now. Studies on quadriplegics -- people who not only are paralyzed but also get no tactile feeling coming in from their bodies -- show a strong blunting of emotion. The same goes for people with diseases that affect the autonomic nervous system. Though they have normal tactile sensations and can experience pleasure, anger, and fear like anyone else, they have no involuntary bodily responses. If they're frightened, their hearts don't race and their skin doesn't get clammy. If saddened, they don't cry. If angered, their muscles don't tense up. And they feel less emotion than normal.
Experimental manipulations show this as well. If you force someone to make a certain emotionally strong facial expression over and over, he'll start to feel an emotion that agrees with the expression. For example, depressed people who are asked to repeatedly make big, booming smiles usually begin to feel better. In an experiment done years ago before there were laws against this sort of thing, researchers secretly injected volunteers with adrenaline, the main hormone that mediates emotional arousal throughout your body. What happened? They experienced more-intense emotions. When some of these subjects went into a waiting room with someone (secretly part of the experiment) who acted extroverted and gregarious, the adrenaline-juiced subjects became much more outgoing than did volunteers who were injected with only saline. When the adrenaline-injected subjects entered a room with an angry, abrasive person, they too became angrier than the control subjects did.
Perhaps the clearest example of James's theory in action comes from one of the most common pharmaceuticals prescribed today, one used to control emotions. Suppose you're worried all the time -- can't sleep, can't concentrate. A physician might prescribe an antianxiety drug for you, a minor tranquilizer. Meanwhile, over in, say, the Meadowlands, a running back for the New York Giants who was injured in practice is complaining of miserable muscle spasms before a big game.
So the team physician prescribes a muscle relaxant. Amazingly, the muscle relaxant and the antianxiety drug are the exact same medication (something like Valium or Librium). Why does one drug work for both problems? Well, as William James theorized, your brain is telling you you're bat-**** anxious because your tense muscles are telling that to your brain. Take some Valium to decrease muscle tension. Wait a few hours. Your life will still suck just as much as it did, but thanks to the muscle relaxant, you'll be loose as a goose. And somehow, you conclude, "Well, if I'm feeling like Jell-O, maybe things aren't so bad after all." And you feel less anxious.
So, hurray for Professor James -- the intensity of the emotions you feel is shaped by the autonomic events going on in your body at the time. But what does this have to do with your girlfriend's raking you over the coals for something that happened years ago, just when it seemed your fight was over?
It has to do with the different speeds at which your brain and the rest of your body operate. Suppose you're walking in a crowd. Someone bumps into you from behind, really hard. Butthead, you think, turning to snarl at him. Then you see the dark glasses and cane and realize, Oh, he's blind; that's why he bumped into me. Not a big deal.
A thought turned on and off in 2 seconds.
Another example: You're playing racquetball, and your thoughts are changing many times a second -- Move to the left; he's going to angle it; no, he's not; reach out far. . . . Your emotional evaluations, which are controlled by a part of the brain called the limbic system, are changing just as quickly -- Man, I'm playing well; Damn, he's going to blast it past me; I stink; Wow, amazing, I'm totally awesome at this; Argh, no I'm not. . . .
Your limbic system moves and switches gears almost instantly. But the autonomic parts of your body move like a freight train; they build speed gradually and take a long time to come to a stop. Adrenaline is secreted, your heart speeds up, your sweat glands activate. And though the thoughts that prompted these changes have come and gone, it takes a while for adrenaline to clear your bloodstream, for your heart to slow down, and so on.
So you've done that jerky thing, and she's pissed. This is a cognitive event for her -- her cortex is thinking, This was not appropriate behavior on his part. Her limbic system is ruminating, He's a real jerk, and I'd like to strangle him. Pretty quickly, this also turns into a bodily event for her as her autonomic nervous system triggers her heart to race and her muscles to clench in fury.
Finally, you apologize. As a cognitive event, it's over with. The neuronal pathways can reverse pretty quickly. But the bodily responses are still chugging along. And here the ghost of William James comes to destroy any hope of makeup sex. Even though she knows it's over, her heart is still racing, and the adrenaline is still there, telling her it doesn't feel like anything is resolved. And her mind finds an explanation for these contradictory feelings: Hmm, I know he apologized, but since I still feel agitated, there must be something else that I'm upset about. Ah, I know, it's that insensitive thing he did 3 years ago . . . what a jerk. And she's off and running.
Naturally, there's a sex difference that makes things worse. Consider sexual arousal, which is also regulated by the autonomic nervous system: On average, men become aroused faster than women do, and women stay aroused longer, which explains why afterward she wants to hear you say whispery things, when all you want to do is order some kung pao chicken. And while it's not as well studied, it appears that under all kinds of nonsexual circumstances, the autonomic nervous system returns to baseline more quickly in men than it does in women.
So what do you do about this? How do you stand up to the locomotive that is your autonomic nervous system? Well, there are all sorts of clunky time-out tricks to try: Before you fire back, take a deep breath, or stop and count to 10, or pull a Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners -- "Pins and needles, needles and pins; it's a happy man who grins."
Make a rule with your girlfriend or wife that you must argue sitting down -- this simple act slows the flow of adrenaline. Or use cognition as ammunition: Discuss this autonomic-arousal business with her so you can both short-circuit that stress-hormone surge before it takes hold: "Hey, are we having a William James moment here?"
Relationships can be contentious enough without your glands suckering you into inventing problems that don't exist