It’s so easy to argue with your partner, even though you love him or her. You might think you and your partner are abnormal, bad at arguing, or maybe not even right for each other. But it’s likely you’re a typical couple. There’s nothing wrong with you. Turns out, your brain is to blame.
Wired for War
I hate to break it to you, but couples fight because the human brain is wired primarily for war and survival, not for love and lasting romantic relationships. Your brain is good at keeping you alive and bad at love.
In his book, Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship, Stan Tatkin dives into the undeniable biology behind love and what it really takes to sustain it.
“Love and war are both conditions of our human brain. Arguably though our brains are wired first and foremost for war, rather than for love. Its primary function is to ensure that we survive as a species,” Tatkin writes.
Tatkin’s approach to improving relationships starts with a better understanding of how our brains work. The human brain is an expert in threat perception and threat response, picking up on any sign of danger.
In the context of a romantic partnership, Tatkin notes, these threat cues might include your partner’s oh so familiar sigh or eye roll, that grating tone in their voice, or the way they “stonewall” when their pissed at you. The brain is primed to alert to these “danger signs,” and before you know it, your brain has switched into “enemy mode.”
These parts of the brain are referred to by Tatkin as the Primitives. Primitives are survival-focused, wired for war, fight or flight, and quick to identify potential danger, and to act. Examples of your Primitives are the amygdalae which picks up threat signals, the hypothalamus which signals your body to fight, flee or freeze, the pituitary and adrenal glands which release stress chemicals, and the dorsal motor vagal complex, or dumb vagus which I’ll tell you more about below.
Your Primitives don’t care about your happiness, your partner’s happiness, or the long-term effect of your actions. Their laser-focus is keeping you alive.
Logically, you know your partner’s eye-rolling is NOT a life or death threat. But to your primitive brain the input is received like you’re a caveman being chased by a tiger, only the modern day threat is rejection and abandonment by someone you love.
While you may rely on physical strength, speed, and agility to outrun a tiger, you can rely on your not-so-primitive brain power, referred to as the Ambassadors, the evolved and social part of your brain, to learn how to disarm yourself and other humans. The hippocampus, insula, orbitofrontal cortex, and ventral vagal complex or smart vagus, are all examples of Ambassadors. These parts of your brain work together to calm down your cardiovascular and respiratory systems, control anti-stress hormones, provide awareness of your physical mental and emotional cues associated with attachment, empathy, meaning making and communication. In other words, they are the “grown up” parts of the brain that help you make wise decisions and keep the peace.
Dumb Vagus/Smart Vagus
According to Tatkin, part of our primitive response is dictated by what’s called the “dumb vagus,” or dorsal motor vagal complex. Despite its label, the dumb vagus is essential to our survival as it initiates life-saving physical responses in the event of a serious injury, responses such as lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and signaling the release of pain killing hormones.
In a true life-threatening situation, the dumb vagus might literally save your life! However, it doesn’t use much discretion when deciding what’s life-threatening (a stab wound) versus what’s probably not (getting blood drawn). An emotional injury, Tatkin says, may also trigger the dorsal vagal complex, causing us to in effect to shut down. When couples fight, the dumb vagus can respond to an emotional threat like a perceived or real betrayal or abandonment by lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, slowing down digestion and melting the expression right of your face leaving you looking stone cold.
Fortunately, the human body is adept at finding balance. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ll find the “Smart Vagus,” or ventral vagal complex. It’s similar to its dumb counterpart because it too slows us down. “However, instead of overreacting and shutting us down, it enables us to hold our head above water and below the stratosphere, so to speak,” Tatkin says.
The body moves back and forth between the dumb and smart vagus, based on your needs. This is referred to as our social engagement system, and it can either work well for relationships or against them.
All of this makes sense, but how does it relate to your own relationship? Let’s look at it through the lens of an average couple.
Meet Mark and Ally
Mark and Ally have been a couple for two year and recently moved in together. They started couples therapy because of the increasing frequency and intensity of their arguments. In this session, we discuss what led to their latest blow-up and the role their brains played in the disagreement.
Here’s what happened the week before the session…Mark’s three closest business school buddies are in town for their annual get together—without their partners.
Ally appears tense and her voice is sharp as she expresses her resentment to Mark about how the partners are intentionally not invited to the event. She feels excluded from what she calls “their tight little B-school crew.” She’s anxious and jealous that Mark will soon be taking off to Tahoe for the weekend without her.
She’s especially uncomfortable because she doesn’t care for Keri, Mark’s female best friend. Ally describes Keri as “one of the guys,” yet she still feels threatened by her. Keri is dominant and opinionated, especially when it comes to what she thinks is good for Mark.
Mark appears defensive in the face of Ally’s clear distaste for his closest friends. His cheeks are flushed and his tone is loud and serious as he assures Ally that Keri likes her, and that nothing bad is going to happen over the weekend. He expresses his frustration at what he considers her illogical jealousy, and he ruffles at the notion of being controlled and not able to get away on his own. He sees his independence being threatened, as well as his ties to his buddies from school.
Despite their arguments, both agree the trip will go on as planned. The couple barely communicates all weekend and continues their hard feelings into the following week. By the time Mark and Ally arrive for their couples session, they are on seriously rocky ground.
I can see that Ally is shut down, in the throes of the dumb vagus response. She walks in slowly behind Mark and slouches down in a chair, instead of next to Mark on the couch. Her face is pale and drawn. She looks down at her hands and won’t look at Mark.
Ally has taken the threat to their relationship to heart and is terrified that she can’t trust Mark. She explains the story about the Tahoe trip to me. She’s talking about how Keri ignored her in her own home, and the rejected invite to Seattle, when she suddenly pauses and turns to face Mark.
“I don’t know what it is between you and Keri,” Ally says. Mark’s brain receives this as a threat cue. His jaw tightens and his cheeks flush.
“I don’t know why we have to keep doing this,” Mark replies tersely.
Beneath the anger, Mark feels hurt that Ally doesn’t trust him. They’ve been together for two years, and he’s never given her any reason not to trust him. At the same time, he feels defensive of his friendship with Keri. He doesn’t want to have to choose.
“How could you actually think I have something going on with Keri? I trust you. Why can’t you trust me?” Mark’s voice gets louder.
Ally covers her face and begins to cry. “See, this is what he always does. I can’t do this! I’d rather be alone.” Mark throws his hands up in exasperation.
This usually loving couple is at war. They’re both defending their positions and not able to let their guards down long enough to see the other’s side. I ask them both to take a few deep breaths, and ask Ally what she’s experiencing.
“I feel like a scared animal. I want to run for the hills, but I’m trapped. I’m frozen,” Ally says.
Mark looks surprised that Ally is threatening to leave the relationship. But it makes sense to her because leaving the man she loves is safer than risking being abandoned or rejected by him.
When I dig deeper, I discover that Ally’s father cheated on her mother when Ally was in middle school. His affair broke their family apart. So Ally anticipates that there will be infidelity in her relationship and is on high-alert for any signs of trouble.
Moving Toward Peace and Safety
Back to Tatkin, he says that in order to argue in a healthy, productive way, you must take responsibility for managing your partner’s Primitives. However, doing this is not easy, and that’s where couples therapy comes in.
In couples therapy, my job is to observe a couple’s reactions and help them strengthen their own awareness to disarm their Primitives and get their Ambassadors online. Here are three techniques recommended by Tatkin.
- Wave the flag of friendliness.
Tatkin says sometimes the best idea is to avoid the argument altogether. Of course, couples fight, but either partner can head it off, if they know how.
If you feel your insides mounting up to wage war, wave the flag of friendliness. Using your smart vagus, you can take a deep breath and carefully consider your next words or actions. Other Ambassadors come into play here, allowing you to see things from you partner’s perspective.
For example, in the case of Mark and Ally, Mark can step up and wave the flag of friendliness. After Ally threatens to leave rather than get hurt the way her father hurt her mother, Mark pauses. He internalizes what she’s said, something he didn’t know about her before. He feels a rush of compassion and empathy for her, and her behavior makes much more sense to him.
He waves his flag by saying, “I’m so sorry that happened to you, Ally. I didn’t know. But that’s not me. I’m right here. I love you, and I’m in this for the long-haul.”
- Stop talking
One of the major reasons couples fight is because they don’t know when to shut up! Say you and your partner haven’t avoided a fight this time. You’re in the thick of it, shouting over each other. No one is being heard. Petty, cruel words are flying. The best thing you can do is stop talking.
Tatkin writes, “What comes out of threatened partner’s mouths is garbage, useless blather whose only purpose is to fend off attack or aggression. It’s as if our brains are interacting amygdalae to amygdalae, with no evidence of flexibility, complexity, creativity or contingency.” Nothing good or productive will come of this argument. Your best bet might be to stop it in its tracks.
“Recognize that your primitives are threatened and nothing of interpersonal value can come out of your mouth until your ambassadors are back online,” Tatkin says. Try to diffuse the situation with something simple like, “I’m sorry. I’m not helping things right now.”
Remember, you’re both in primitive mode, and Primitives don’t process complex phrases. Use short and sweet phrases that get to the point and convey love and friendliness. Get directly to the point of the disagreement, removing the focus from all of the other baggage that tends to crop up when we argue.
- Rekindle intimate connection through eye contact.
Nothing can bring us back to the present moment like eye contact. Ever heard the expression “I was so mad I was seeing red”? When we’re in primitive, protective mode, we often don’t truly see the person in front of us.
By tapping into the up-close visual stream, you can move out of history where old wounds live and into the present moment. Taking the time to see the person in front of you, your loved one, can help you see that you are not in harm’s way. Tatkin says this simple method works by “short circuiting your brain’s predisposition for war.”
In couples therapy, I ask a couple to turn toward each other and look each other in the eyes. For Mark and Ally, I know that looking into Mark’s face will help her move out of the past and see the love in his face and eyes.
Ally’s face softens, as does Mark’s. From this place, Mark is able to access his Ambassadors and again offers the flag of friendliness by saying, “I’m not going anywhere, Ally. I know you feel hurt by this, and I’m sorry. I want to put you first.”
Here’s how the magic of eye contact works, according to Tatkin: “Meeting another person in close proximity, your brain is predisposed to take in the face: the fine, smooth muscles of the face as they shift and change, the kaleidoscopic fluctuations in skin tone, the eyes dancing and the pupils opening and closing in tune with your buzzing nervous system as the two of you interact….A few minutes of sustained gazing can lead to relaxation, a sense of safety, and full here-and-now engagement.”
By employing the eye contact technique, along with a softer vocal tone, and words of togetherness and understanding, the Ambassador side of your brain and your partner’s brain enters the picture. It is this part of the brain that will pick up on your partner’s cues for help and empathy, and enable you to accept their offers of friendliness and love.
Next Steps: Seeking Couples Therapy
Many couples need help in learning to fight fairly. If you or your partner didn’t experience role models of healthy conflict as children, it might be especially challenging to set aside the warring brain, or to even accept the concept of a healthy argument.
The good news is you don’t have to struggle through it alone. You can get help, and it’s perfectly normal to need help. Relationships are hard work, and couples therapy can help you create more connection, safety, and security in your relationship.
Tatkin developed PACT, Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy, a method SFWT practices with couples in therapy. In PACT, we recreate situations that cause tension and arguments in your relationship, while paying close attention to verbal and nonverbal cues. This allows us to work through those feelings in real time, and it allows partners to pay close attention to each other’s signals in a less charged environment.
Illustration by Alicia Tatone