Couples Communication Fix: Bethesda Couples Counselors Can Help
Your “Lizard” Brain: How Communication Problems are Marriage Killers and What You Can Do to Stop It
Dede is troubled. She has been at a local bookstore nearly every night the past week. She knows if she stays late enough, by the time she gets home, her husband will be asleep and she can avoid him yet another day. If she avoids her husband, then she gets the much-needed peace she thinks she needs in order to survive her marriage. We see this all the time as Bethesda couples counselors.
Some of you may completely identify with Dede. If you are struggling with issues in your marriage or relationship with your partner, it may feel natural to run away from the issues that are frustrating or painful to talk about–this is what we see every day as Bethesda couples counselors. Others might not recognize Dede’s response at all, thinking that the best way to resolve the issue is to fight, tooth and nail to get what you think is right. Still others might pull the “silent treatment,” freezing up and shutting off all communication with a partner.
These reactions are primitive, natural responses that your brain instinctually provides for you to try and keep its self protected. A human’s brain is wonderfully complex and highly calibrated to make complex decisions. However, in the center of your brain, a primitive area called the basal ganglia, also known as the “reptilian complex”, can override your well-thought ideas and make you respond instinctively. In an instant, our Bethesda couples counselors might witness the lizard brain wrecking havoc in a relationship–could it be doing so in yours?
The reptilian complex makes up the primary portion of the brains of birds and reptiles. They respond with instinctual behaviors of dominance, protecting territory, performing rituals, and acting with aggression. The reptilian complex sometimes takes over our well-intentioned behaviors, creating a “lizard brain”; forcing you to respond in a certain way to protect yourself.
Understanding the Lizard-Brain
The lizard brain is important; it keeps the auto-pilot functions of your body going so you can use the more advanced functions of your brain to do the complex work. It keeps you breathing regularly, it governs your natural reflexes, and keeps your heart functioning at an unconscious level. There is no way your neocortex, or the reasoning part of your brain, could possibly keep up with all of these functions. The reptilian complex is the body’s personal protector but sometimes, it goes into overdrive, forcing the brain to act in certain ways that may not be beneficial to your relationship. This is where our trained Bethesda couples counselors can help you spot your lizard and help you become aware of how it impacts your relationship.
How does a lizard brain show up in a romantic relationship? Our Bethesda couples counselors can attest that your lizard-brain has two modes: safe and unsafe. When things are going fine, the reptilian complex keep things running on auto -pilot. However, when conflict or danger happens, the lizard-brain launches into overdrive and provides your brain with three options:
1) Freeze – The lizard-brain is telling the rest of your brain to stay still and not react. If you just got into a fight with your spouse or your partner makes you stressed out, the freeze functions says, “Shut down. Don’t talk. Don’t move.” The following types of behaviors suggest a person’s reptilian complex is acting in freeze mode:
o * Ignoring Questions or giving the “silent treatment”
2) Flee – Similar to Dede’s situation, the flight mode is telling her to escape from what bothers her. This can be as mild as changing the subject in a conversation or avoiding eye contact. Severe flight mode would be having an affair or hiding away from your partner. At Bethesda couples counselors, we don’t suggest that you try to chase your partner if his/her lizard is running away. You can capture a lizard but it will want to run away again. Instead, you must become a source of safety, inviting your partner in a way that his/her limbic system (lizard) knows is okay to relax.
3) Fight – Somewhat self-explanatory, the fight mode involves yelling, criticizing, and emotionally or physically abusing another person.
So what are you supposed to do when every fiber in your being says to fight, freeze, or flee? What do you do when your partner’s reptilian complex causes him or her to react instinctually? The first thought might be to override the lizard-brain by doing the opposite behavior, but because the reptilian complex is so ingrained in our nature, it will never go away. Its job is to protect, always. Instead, we need to encourage our lizard-brain back into safe mode.
Communicating with Your Lizard-Brain
As Bethesda Couples Counselors, we recognize that an ailing relationship has complex causes. Our interventions are designed with a sophisticated understanding of your brain’s natural response to stress and how to help you relax and make the right moves to get things working again. In order to get your lizard-brain back to safe mode, we use several key skills that help you and your partner’s brain to relax.
You can start right now by listening to our free audio recording by one of our Bethesda couples counselors, Keith Miller, called How to End All Forms of Criticism.
Ending criticism and improving your relationship doesn’t happen overnight and isn’t always easy, but our professional and experienced Bethesda couples counselors can help you start.
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