Your Brain & Your Partner

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Your partner isn’t the problem, at least not as much s you think, but your BRAIN is! Imagine that. And the irony is that your brain is just doing its job! Alright, so here’s the deal: We have not just one, but three brains. One brain in particular–the limbic brain, otherwise known as the mammalian brain–often gets in our way when managing conflict.

First Things First–A Nano View of the Three Brains:

The Reptilian Brain is the brain responsible for keeping us alive without having to think about it. It manages body temperature, pulse, respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, and many other autonomic functions.

The limbic system, or mammalian brain, is informally referred to as the three “F” brain—fight, flight, and sex (you get my point). It is the center of all emotions, and contains all the pleasure, pain, and addiction centers. This brain, however, is the culprit that gets in the way of managing conflict. The limbic brain is what allows us to react without having to think.

It’s how we automatically snatch our finger away from a hot burner without first having to determine whether or not we are at a barbeque. It’s a survival mechanism, and is responsible for the bulk of our reactivity. More on that later.

The third brain, the cortex, the largest of the three brains, occupies the space just beneath the skull. The prefrontal cortex, a portion of the larger cortex system, often referred to as the CEO of the brain, evolved from the limbic brain.

The pre-frontal cortex portion of our grey matter is responsible for deductions, reductions, decision making, thinking, abstracting, etc. Located right behind the forehead, this part of the brain is crucial for effective conflict management, as it is the part we literally think with.

The three brains do much more than I have outlined, but for our purposes here, this is all you need to know for now.

Now back to the limbic brain. This brain operates within us like a scanning dish—it is always on the lookout for danger. It stores and records every experience we have ever had. In a sense, it also rates our experiences. In other words, an intense past experience may trigger an intense reaction in a similar contemporary experience.

How the Limbic System Works and Why it Matters:

The limbic system senses danger—that’s its job. When danger is perceived or sensed, a particular part of the limbic system relays a signal to the adrenal glands to send adrenaline to the prefrontal cortex. Why? Because then the adrenaline shuts down the pre-frontal cortex, thereby inhibiting it from thinking. The body is further readied for action, which will generally result in one of two alternatives: standing ground and fighting or taking flight. In some situations, an individual may freeze.

One way to understand the relationship between the limbic brain and the prefrontal cortex is by way of ratio: the degree of limbic activity is usually inversely proportional to prefrontal activity. The more reactive (limbic) we are, the less we are in thinking (pre-frontal cortex) mode, and vice versa.

Therein lies the problem with regard to managing conflict: the limbic brain’s job is to be in opposition to the pre-frontal cortex’s job. Given that our brains are built to be at odds with each other makes trying to operate under stressful conditions and managing conflict understandably and predictably difficult! It often results in you, or your partner, saying or doing something inappropriate in a knee-jerk fashion.

The Limbic Brain and Managing Conflict:

Think of the last conflict you and your partner had that did not go well. What the conflict was about doesn’t matter for our purposes here, but how you conducted yourself matters a lot. Your discussion probably started off on a reasonably good note, but maybe it degenerated in to a mess. One or both of you yelled, got over-the-top-angry, maybe left the room, or said some things you would take back if you could, or accused, blamed, or called each other names. The list of ineffective behaviors is long.

Those ineffective tactics may be motivated by fear, or any feeling you find too painful to tolerate. The limbic brain will do its job to protect you in those instances. The resultant ineffective behaviors ultimately push your partner away in an attempt to reduce or eliminate the undesirable emotion. But, the conflict has not been resolved, it’s still there, ready to rear its ugly head in the future, actively or passively.

Couples frequently tell me, and each other, that they would have been more effective “if only he/she would not have…” Fill in your own blank here with whatever button of yours got pushed. The problem is, blaming your partner for your ineffective/reactive behavior makes your partner responsible for it, but your partner can’t change your behavior—only you can do that. Regardless of who pushed your buttons, when you take responsibility for your own ineffective behavior, you can change it. Simple as that.

With that in mind, you can then make a decision to calm the limbic brain so that you can INCREASE THINKING, AND REDUCE REACTING when in conflict. Ultimately, each partner must assume responsibility for their own effective, ineffective and reactive behavior.

How to Calm the Limbic Brain:

Simply knowing the role of the limbic brain isn’t enough. Now, you need to know how to calm it down. Many couples report the following three exercises are very helpful.

First, before you begin your talk about the issue bothering you, describe for your partner how you plan to comport yourself. You might say, “…honey, this is really a loaded topic for me, so this time I’m going to remain outwardly calm even if I’m not feeling calm inside. And if I get angry, rather than screaming at you, instead I’m going to report to you that I’m feeling angry, or hurt. I will speak in a softer voice; and instead of rolling my eyes after you recap what you heard me say, I will let you know if what you heard matched what I was trying to convey. And rather than calling you names, which I always regret afterwards, because I know that’s like throwing gasoline on a fire, instead I’m going to tell you what I am feeling.”

Second, state your goal or goals for the talk. Stating goals lets your partner understand your motives. It’s likely you each have different goals. In my office the other day, one highly reactive couple stated the following:

He said: “Believe it or not, my goal is to listen, and not give any solutions to you, because I know you feel angry when I do the fix-it thing. I guess my real goal is to show you I care about you by showing you that what you have to say matters to me, and the best way to do that is for me to listen, while you talk.”

She said: Thank you, your goals make me feel safe. My goal is to give you a chance to understand what I am saying by leaving room for you to recap what I’ve said, because my deeper goal is get out of my own way, and take responsibility for being understood. And, if you don’t hear what I was trying to tell you, I’ll say it again, in a different way,
rather than criticizing you for not getting it.”

Third, if you feel activated, and unable to achieve some calm, call for a time out. There is nothing wrong with taking a break, collecting your thoughts, and soothing your emotions. Activation not only comes in the form of feeling over-the-top-angry, you might experience yourself unable to think clearly, fumbling for words, or crying. After all, don’t lose sight of the fact that the limbic brain inhibits the pre-frontal cortex from doing its job: thinking.

If you cannot think, it is very difficult to express yourself in a way that will increase the odds of being understood. A time-out can dramatically reduce reactivity. By the way, there is nothing wrong with crying, or any other emotion in and of itself. There is a problem only when the intensity of the emotions precipitate ineffective behavior, and/or, they reduce your ability to think. Before the time-out begins, agree on a specific time to resume the conversation.

Those three methods for reducing reactivity are effective for both practical and neurological reasons. For practical purposes, they clue your partner in to what you want, and pave a clear path for making the discussion emotionally safe for both of you. Furthermore, when goals of any type are made verbal or explicit, the odds for achieving them go way up. Employing these methods also sends a direct message to partner that you are taking responsibility for your side of the street.

Neurologically, these methods send positive commands to the pre-frontal cortex. That is important because recent brain research suggests that the brain does not respond so well to ‘negative commands.’ A negative command comes in the form of telling yourself what NOT to do, rather than what TO do. When you focus only on what NOT to do you create another problem: not clarifying for yourself what to do instead. Therefore, turn your WILL NOT command in to a what-you-WILL-DO command. Now you have something to work with because the pre-frontal cortex is adequately engaged.

That is exactly what the couple above did when they used the first method for reducing reactivity. They each described the behavior they wanted to stop, and then verbalized the behavior they were going to replace it with. By the way, their discussion went very well!

Understanding the brain’s role in conflict management is new. Putting effort toward understanding the relationship between the limbic brain and the pre-frontal cortex, and managing them effectively, will net you much greater return on investment than struggling to control your partner’s behavior. Bottom line: when the limbic brain hijacks the prefrontal cortex, now you have some ways to reverse it.

Now it’s time to give your brain a positive command. Repeat after me: “In my next discussion with my spouse/partner, rather than trying to get my partner to behave in a particular way, I instead will manage my own behavior by reducing my own reactive (limbic) brain using any or all of the three methods I am now aware of.”

This takes practice, perseverance and the desire to put the necessary effort toward being the partner and person you aspire to be. You will never regret doing any of that.

©Copyright 2010 by Jim Hutt, Ph.D.

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