Neuroscience explained: What does every couple need to know about the brain?
Things are very complicated up there. I will try to simplify a very complex system by saying that one way to understand brain structure is to think about it as having three sections: The higher brain, the middle brain, and the lower brain. If you are a neuroscientist, please and try not to cringe and if you are not a neuroscientist, please bear with me and read till the very end, at least twice. You are alerted, this is a long one.
At the base of the brain is the brain stem that we share with lizards, the lower brain. It controls the fight, flight or freeze reflexes, among other functions.
The lower brain is always on duty, scanning the environment for potential threats or danger, but the lower brain does not distinguish between psychological and physical danger. When partners don’t feel safe, they go into self-defense mode rapidly and automatically. Partners use threatening words, movements or facial expressions because the amygdala is ruling, not the higher brain. When the amygdala rules, memory and thinking fail. This is one of the reasons why highly distressed partners frequently don’t remember the same things, and attribute bad intentions to their partner. The brain in love generally results in self and mutual regulation: partners feel safe, at home, calm. But the brain at war is the result of self and mutual emotional dysregulation: partners who don’t feel emotionally safe don’t seem to be able to calm themselves or each other.
The middle brain
The middle brain is the limbic system that includes the amygdala which mediates the fear response, and the hippocampus, involved in memory, learning and emotional processing. The limbic system is the seat of fear, responses to stress and survival strategies.
The higher brain
The higher brain contains the prefrontal cortex (PFC) which is most developed in humans. The PFC is the seat of analytical thinking, planning, problem solving, and rationality.
The interplay between the lower brain and the higher brain is crucial for emotional self-regulation. But emotional reactivity is more primitive, more automatic and faster than self-regulation.
Our higher brain is built on top of our older, reptilian and mammalian brains and the older parts work faster than the newer, making it hard for us to believe that we are quite the rational creatures we think we are. As humans, we toggle between the operation or one part of the brain or the other. The PFC is not always operational, not always in control, not always online. The lower brain reacts as a reflex, floods our body with adrenaline (a stress hormone) and comes online especially when we feel threatened or are psychologically in pain.
The brain goes into lockdown
When we feel rejected, blamed, criticized or humiliated, the brain goes into lockdown and we use our survival strategies to cope. So, when we respond by either trying to dominate or disengage, we are trying to protect ourselves from pain.
We may not even be aware of our survival strategies and skills. They were developed early and they are fueled by the lower brain system. When a partner internal question such as: “Are you there for me? Can I count on you? Do I have to hide parts of myself to be loved?” is answered without a resounding “Yes!”, and instead with a “Maybe” or a “No”, we don’t feel safe, and this can trigger our lower brain response.
And when disagreements and disappointments fuel the anxiety of difference, some people feel threatened and resort to either disconnection, protests, or coercion. The problem is, what helps one partner get relief and feel momentarily better (shutting down, or attacking), provokes pain, in the form of rage or anger, in the other partner. No problem solving, information processing, listening, empathy, or rational dialogue can take place when the lower brain is activated. And yet, couples keep repeating the cycle even though it’s ineffective
When the pre frontal cortex stops operating
There is tension between the lower brain and the higher brain. As mentioned, the lower brain and middle brain sections are the seat of emotion formation and emotion processing, memory, survival. They are scanning for danger, acting as a reflex. It takes much less than a second for it to make an association with a painful experience that’s stored there, and it sets off the fight, flight or freeze response when it’s activated by threats. These lower brain systems don’t seem to differentiate between a bear in the woods and a spouse’s aggressive tone of voice or dismissing actions. They work faster than the higher brain system (the PFC); they hijack it, and take it out of operation. In those moments, the higher brain decision making process is not operational. But things get even more complicated.
Why do people keep repeating what doesn’t work? Emotional Dysregulation
The higher brain does have the capacity to regulate our lower brain systems. When that happens, we can think, plan, deal with anxiety and solve problems. But, the higher brain functions either on the basis of habits to conserve energy, or on the basis of choice, which requires intentionality, patience, and learning new habits of mind.
So, while the higher brain does give us the power of choice, most of us live on automatic daily habits. So, habits, emotions and implicit memories run the show in our lives. Not the thinking, rational, problem-solving, thoughtful parts.
We have so much history stored in our lower brain systems, that we get triggered because we are so interdependent with our partner. And, remember, the lower brain acts faster than the higher brain. This is also why arguments escalate so fast: “Wow, what just happened here?” “How did we get from 0 to 60 in a second?”. It may help to remember that when it comes to dealing with a human being, we are simultaneously dealing with a human, a horse and a crocodile.
Couples can become dysregulated by getting angry and raging, or by avoiding arguments, keeping a low volume so to speak, but feeling alone and neglected.
Doing something different is difficult because the structure of our brains makes it difficult for us, if not impossible, to engage in random actions. Our behaviors, thoughts and feelings are guided by patterns established through previous learning to which we automatically return.
The other reason we repeat behaviors even though they don’t work is because in order to change, we have to involve planning a new action, which is a higher brain activity. It means taking risks, growing, stretching out of the comfort zone, doing something different, something new. What if it doesn’t work? What if we get rejected or disrespected anyway? What if we don’t succeed?
Planning a new action (change) will trigger some kind of stored pain in our lower brain. So, our higher brains are not always in control, it takes enormous effort to create a new habit and we don’t think we have a choice, we think “this is the way I am”. No wonder we keep repeating the patterns in what is knows as the blame game.
When a human being falls in love, the region in the brain that lights up is the same as when someone is on cocaine, as demonstrated by the latest imaging techniques. We are wired to scan danger and threats, but we are also wired for connection, empathy and bonding. As time goes by, couples lose the new love feeling and either move from passionate love to grown up, mature love, or they go to war.
Relationships always deteriorate over time, even when there’s not a whole lot of damage, in part because the habits of mind take over, and couples become lazy, less kind, and more prone to habitual responses.
But love also turns to war because an adult intimate relationship reminds us of our conscious and unconscious injuries, and of our emotional dependency on our partner. We begin to tell ourselves stories that explain what’s happening and lower brain self-protection takes over.
In unhappy couples, each feels like a victim and blames the other. And each member of the couple feels justified. The power struggles make it hard for each to see the “dance of the amygdala” each of them created in the tension between connection and disconnection.
The PFC, the higher brain, is the last one to develop. We learn kindness, restraint, compassion, empathy and consciousness in the process of our development as human beings and it’s the only thing that distinguishes from other animals. Couples therapy can help too, of course. You don’t have to do this alone.
When couples therapy begins to work, people often get confused: “What should I be doing instead?”, “I’ve already tried everything, what else can I do?”. Confusion is a sign that therapy is working and priming the brain to make different associations and different connections.
If things go well, couples learn to tame their tantrums, deal with frustrations when they don’t get their way, and to handle crisis, anxieties, disappointments and disconnections. But when things don’t go well, couples regress, get triggered as the lower brain takes charge, all of it in a split second.
Do we really have a choice?
As I mentioned, the PFC gives us the power of choice. But it’s not easy. It’s easier to repeat the unconscious, automatic ineffective behaviors -attack or withdrawal-rather than using the effective ones. And most of the time the brain functions on autopilot. But stressful and dangerous situations alert and prepare the brain to pay attention and to learn. Stress provides an opportunity that triggers neural plasticity and is a key element in the success of therapy. Couples therapy provides that opportunity. There are many ways to regain some control. Every time we learn, experience, and practice with intentionality, we create new pathways. When we repeat a thought, a feeling, a word, a movement, we change our brains.
Some of you may be interested in the sources I used for this blog.
So, here they are.
- Loving with the brain in mind by Mona Fishbane
- The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Building and rebuilding the human brain by Louis Cozolino.
- Neuroscience and accessing the emotional brain. Lesson 8. Ellyn Bader. The Couples Institute.
- Working with couples with the brain in mind. Lesson 18. Ellyn Bader. The Couples Institute.
- Treating complex trauma by Mary Jo Barrett.
Thank you for making it to the end of this piece!
Think of couples therapy as a service in the same way that you think of any other professional service you need:
- You don’t put it off
- You want to find a professional who specializes in working with couples
- You look for someone who has experience with the issues that are of concern to you