Ever wonder why couples fight? One minute you’re happily caught up in the daze of love, gazing at your partner, thinking how lucky you are. The next minute, your partner says something that pushes your buttons. You feel triggered and talk back. Before you know it, you’re headed for the red zone! 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 WarI 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 VagusAccording 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 AllyMark 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 SafetyBack 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.
- Stop talking
- Rekindle intimate connection through eye contact.