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The Brain and Relationship

  • The primary aim of the brain is to keep us alive.
  • It continually scans around for danger.
  • Only when it feels safe can it play, be productive, nurture, mate, think.
  • In the face of danger it closes all these down and becomes defensive.

The Brain Stem or ‘Reptilian’ Part of the Brain
This picks up danger and keeps us alive.
It scans, picks up the slightest thing, reacts instinctively, has no feelings.
It only has life/death responses – threat equals death.
Sometimes small hazards seem life threatening.
It has few memory cells and does not learn from experiences.
If you are still alive, you are successful.
It has no sense of time so it sees threats that are similar to years ago as happening now.
Example.  If there is a bang we blink.

The Mammalian Brain or Limbic System
This sees the world and has feelings – anger, fear, excitement: basic reactions based on those feelings.
Example. Our partner slams the door, we feel anger or fear and attack or hide.

These two ‘old brain’ parts above mean we have four basic reactions: Fight (Chimps, Lions), Flight(Chimps, Deer), Submit(Turtles, Clams), Hide/freeze(Dormice, Pheasants).

The Neocortex Part of the Brain
Acts like a computer – takes some time to start up.
Can plan – defend, plot, attack.
Example. The brain sees a threat(e.g. boss raises his voice); has a feeling – fear; the neocortex makes a plan of attack or defence(look at “situations vacant”).

The Frontal Lobe
This conscious part of the brain allows us to look at ourselves, to be aware of what we are thinking and feeling.
Example. My partner shrugs; I feel discounted and hurt; I think it means “You are no good”; I plan too criticise; the frontal lobe remembers that criticism was useless before. The frontal lobe decides to ask what is going on for him/her instead. 

The frontal lobe part of the brain is conscious in this way; it is very small, about the size of five peas.

So, in summary: if I clap in front of your face, you blink(reptilian brain). You may then get angry, “What did you do that for?”(mammalian). You may plan an attack – stalk me and jump out to say “Boo!”(neocortex).  Yet if I give you a warning that I am going to clap my hands, you can overcome all these and use your conscious brain to maintain good communication(Frontal Lobe).

So there is hope for relationships – we can choose to make our communications forewarned and conscious. In order to make this happen we can agree beforehand when we are going to talk and we can use the safe structure of Intentional Dialogue.

You might also like:
Intentional Dialogue,
Security in Relationships,
Stopping Arguments,
Our Needs,

With thanks to:
The Imago Relationship Training Manual
, Sophie Slade
Getting the Love You Want by H Hendrix,
The Neuroscience of Human Relationships by L Cozolino,

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