The Neuroscience of Couples Therapy

smoke from a volcano looks like ripples in a brain, smoke alarm, neuroscience, couples therapy

It may surprise you to learn that neuroscience has a lot to say about the issues that bring couples to therapy.

For instance, it can tell you why your spouse reacts the way he or she does.

It is as simple as the fight, flight, freeze response in the brain. Which, of course, is not simple at all.

Our brains are hard-wired to sense danger and protect us. It is thought to hark back to the days when humans lived in close contact with wild animals and had to be prepared to protect themselves from being attacked.

The dangers we face today are more likely to be from other humans. And more likely to signal emotional rather than physical danger, although that is not a given.

A part of the brain called the amygdala is the first to sense danger.

It acts as a smoke alarm sending signals throughout the body via the sympathetic nervous system. It releases adrenalin, the heart beats faster, breathing speeds up, the muscles tense. You are ready to run or to fight. If neither of those are good options you may freeze, literally unable to respond.

When your spouse makes a cutting remark, gives you ‘the look’ or uses a certain tone of voice, it spells danger to your wellbeing and your amygdala goes into action.

You go into defend/attack mode. Your reaction activates your partner’s amygdala and the fight is on. What began as a reasonable disagreement may escalate into a full-blown argument complete with name-calling, screaming and cursing.

If you have been conditioned to fight or you are a survivor of childhood abuse, it can happen so fast you don’t know what hit you. And neither does your partner.

However, if one of you is hard-wired to run rather than fight, the argument might be aborted when the partner who hates conflict leaves the room or the house, or simply refuses to engage.

All well and good you say, except nothing is resolved. The wired-to fight partner is driven to fight harder and longer. And eventually, all that’s been held in explodes. Or the “peace” that the conflict avoidant partner longs for turns into a frozen silence that can last for hours, days or even weeks.

The need to navigate life together finally breaks the silence or ends the fighting. Until next time.

So, is your marriage then at the mercy of warring amygdalae?

Not if you as a couple are willing to do the work to learn emotional regulation and communication skills so that disagreements don’t turn into huge fights. Not if you risk staying with the conflict rather than running. Not if you risk sharing your thoughts and feelings. Not if you can put yourself in your spouse’s shoes and accept him or her as you want to be accepted.

At this point, your brain chemistry gives you a helping hand.

When you feel safe and connected your brain triggers the release of oxytocin and serotonin helping to solidify a sense of safety and belonging. Having these hormones on board slows down the fight/flight response, giving your rational brain time to choose how you will respond. Even better, you are much less likely to feel threatened in the first place. Your amygdala will be able to save its firepower for real danger and you will be able to relax and enjoy life together.

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