Is the moment where a trained character not being able to control their “fight reflexes” or whatever ends up hurting an innocent bystander or loved one a real thing? Like somebody sneaks up on you from behind and you just elbow them in the groin or something? Or flip them over? Then you’re like, “Oh shit babe, don’t scare me like that”.
I did this to my now ex-boyfriend when I was fifteen and a freshman in high school. We were at my house, in my kitchen. He came up behind me with the plan to hug me (bear hug style) and, before his arms had even gotten around me, I elbowed him right in the gut. Full strength strike with a full extension and he walked right into it. The arm went out and came right back into his stomach, aimed at his diaphragm. He coughed, bowled over, and it took about five full minutes before he recovered.
After asking if he was okay, my exact response was: “You can’t come up behind me like that.”
The one aspect you’re missing in this whole scenario is you think this is a fear based response. It isn’t. I wasn’t scared, and neither are the characters you’re describing. Fight reflexes are hardwired responses to specific movements occurring within your environment, movement happening or beginning within your peripheral vision. I actually had the widest peripheral vision out of my entire science class when we measured in the eight grade due entirely to my martial arts training. The goal of this training is to see the movement coming before the motion begins. You’re trained to see it before it starts and respond immediately. In a fight scenario you have tenths of a second between blocking a hit and getting struck. If you want to stop a blow, you need to go when they do and get there before they reach extension. You don’t wait, you just go.
The key to understanding what happened with my ex was the bear hug. He was behind me, his arms were out and coming around my body. My training dictates a response before his arms get a chance to lock in, so my reflexes kicked in. There was no emotion involved, it happened because that’s what I’d spent ten years training my body to do. The training worked exactly as intended, the only difference was the person it happened to. What we got was a false flag, but in the same scenario where I was actually in danger I’d have responded the same way. I’d have started the fight with the would be attacker bowled over, unable to breathe, derailed by what happened, and at my mercy. The battle over before it had a chance to begin, which is what we’re training to do.
Starke’s had a few of them himself, but has been able to stop himself before following through. His friend’s father, a Vietnam vet, once grabbed one of their mutual friends by the throat when he failed to announce himself before walking into the room. Starke’s friend’s father was up out of his chair, turned around, and had his hand around his throat before he registered who he was looking at. According to Starke, he didn’t apologize.
This isn’t PTSD or mental illness. This is the training we were given working as intended. When you’re in a situation where you need to move without consciously ordering your body to do so, which is the beginning of most fights, your reflexes take over. The difference between victory and defeat lies in the first initial tenths of a second before the fight begins.
The only difference here is context. You go flashing your hand in the peripheral vision of someone with combat training and you may end up with a response you weren’t expecting, even when that person is someone you love and who loves you. (And you shouldn’t be flashing your hand in their peripheral vision if you love them.)
The fear response is going to come for your significant other. There’s a vast gap between consciously knowing your loved one can hurt you and experiencing it first hand. My ex-boyfriend was a jock who played soccer. He used to overpowering other male teens if he got into a brawl. However he justified it to himself afterwards, he got wrecked by his 128 pound girlfriend without ever having the opportunity to defend himself and he had to live with the knowledge she could do it again if she wanted to. He didn’t look at me the same way after that. It is one thing to consciously understand, another to know they can hurt you, really hurt you in the blink of an eye, and another after to know they just might on accident. Your safety is gone, and you might experience the vertigo of being unable to exert control over your situation. There are plenty of real life relationships which end due to this problem.
If you’ve never been thrown before, you might not understand how terrifying it is. If you’ve never been thrown full force into a hardwood floor, you definitely aren’t going to grasp how much it hurts and how out of control you feel when you’re significant other is standing over you going, “oh, hey.”
The response you’re going to get is not, “oh my god, what have I done” either or intense remorse. It’s more “oops” and “don’t do that.” We all knew exactly what we were doing when we did it, we just didn’t remember who we were doing it to. For the person without these trained reflexes, this response can seem cold and unfeeling. Like their significant other doesn’t care they just hurt them. From the combat SO’s perspective, their significant other did something incredibly stupid and they’d rather they didn’t do it again. They worked very hard to develop these reflexes and incorporate them into part of their identity. There is no switch to turn them on or off. They’re always on.
Now, these ingrained fight responses are avoidable if you recognize that they’re there, they will happen, and you take steps to avoid triggering them. This can be as simple as “please say something before you walk into the room” or “let me know you’re there before you tap me on the shoulder” or “tap me on the waist instead” and “don’t hug me from behind.” The more serious the person’s experiences, the more necessary this becomes. The reflex can be consciously restrained, but it takes genuine effort to cut yourself off at the pass before you follow through. There’s mental pain involved, and you spend a great deal of time after the fact fighting the ingrained reaction off.
This is part of why it’s easier for two people with combat training to date each other than date someone without combat training. Their SO is aware of the situation, shares it, understands their limitations, and will work to circumnavigate without needing to talk about it.
Starke and I do this with each other, and we haven’t ever had a problem.
Media will often play this trope for laughs, which is a problem. Or roll these fight reactions into PTSD or mental illness, which is also a problem. Or they’ll have the combat SO be disingenuous in their reactions like you were suggesting to show how dangerous they are.
The mixed up part of this conversation that’s difficult for non-martial artists or combat veterans to understand is it’s much easier for you to avoid tapping me on the shoulder than it is for me to avoid throwing you if you try tapping me on the shoulder when a hand moving in that specific way within my peripheral vision is a motion I’ve spent ten years re-training my response to.
If you care about your SO, you shouldn’t ask them to fight themselves in order to be around you.
Remember, the non-combat SO initiated the situation. They acted first. They violated their SO’s boundaries. The only difference here between a combat and a non-combat SO is the ability to preemptively physically stop someone from violating their boundaries without requiring a verbal response. The combat SO wouldn’t have responded the way they did if the other person hadn’t initiated. If you are in a relationship with someone, you need to respect their boundaries and what they are comfortable with.
If your SO is someone who’s ingrained response is to throw someone when they sneak up behind them, then you should not only know not to sneak up on them but have enough empathy to understand this action is a violation of their personal space. This is also a violation of the trust their combat SO places in them. The non-combat SO is not the victim of their partner’s uncontrolled violence or experienced an intentional desire to do them harm. They acted first. They shouldn’t treat their combat SO’s combat reflexes like a light switch where exceptions can be made. In this situation, the non-combat SO is actually the one not respecting their partner and in the wrong.
The moral of this story is that when I was fifteen my then boyfriend violated my physical boundaries, did not let me know his intentions before acting, did not ask if his action was okay with me, and took an elbow to the gut for his trouble. I didn’t feel remorse at the time for knocking the wind out of him, I still don’t now. Ultimately, the response stuck with me. The action convinced fifteen year old me that maybe I didn’t want him touching me after all, which is what led to our break up. And, in the end, I was the one who broke up with him.
That said, in my whole life, I’ve only ever experienced my combat reflexes getting triggered in a way where the response was immediate three times.
People aren’t props. The main issue with this trope in fiction where the set up is supposed to lead to intense remorse from the combat SO which results in a cute scenario after is that the non-combat SO violated their SO’s boundaries. They don’t really care about them, or not enough to respect the other person’s experiences. If they repeat, they definitely don’t.
If your knee-jerk response is “but I shouldn’t have to change my behavior” then you shouldn’t date them, period. If they’re out there intentionally hurting you that’s different, you should run away fast. However, everyone has their boundaries. Learn to respect them before intentionally triggering someone with combat training.