Three Brains and a Partner
Three Brains and a Partner
of the most important aspects of the human experience that couples are wise to
fully understand is how brain physiology impacts intimate, committed
relationships. I see this as a core piece of information that will help
you make sense out of what is often both distressing and confusing to married
people. I also believe that this is one of the most interesting and
fascinating pieces of information you will find in relationship literature.
we have three brains and not just one.
The Hindbrain (The Reptilian Brain)
it or not, a part of our brain is similar to reptiles. It is located right at
the base of our skull in the back. It is the part of our brain that
controls our automatic functions (keeps our heart beating, controls breathing,
pumps adrenalin when needed, etc.). The hindbrain is constantly alert to
possible danger and when danger is perceived, it takes over.
instance, if you were to hear a sudden, loud, noise, you would have what is
called a startle response. In an instant, your heart rate would increase,
your breathing would become more rapid, your eyes would dilate, your mouth would
get a little drier, your adrenal glands would start pumping and you would
likely tense your muscles -- getting ready to run or fight or do something.
You would not consciously think and choose to do these things; they would all
immediately and automatically happen because the hindbrain kicked into activity
and went to work to make sure you survive.
The Mid-Brain (The Mammalian Brain)
second brain, like it or not, is similar to mammals. This is the part of
our brain that mediates or controls emotion. We generally do not think of
snakes or lizards as having emotion, but mammals (dogs, cats, etc.) experience
what we call emotion. They can be afraid, angry, loving, happy, etc.
Humans have a wide and rich range of emotion.
important thing to understand about the Mid-Brain is that our emotions are not
controlled by the conscious, intentional part of our brain (that's coming next).
The old saying, "Emotions have no brains" is true only in the sense
that we cannot consciously choose to feel any given emotion at a certain time.
Emotions "happen" while we are engaged in life. While they can
be understood intelligently and rationally, they cannot be "turned on"
in the field of psychotherapy where the goal is often to understand and gain
some control in regards to emotion, this is outside our choiceful or volitional
control. We can learn to manage and
understand and learn from our emotions; we cannot control them directly.
Our Mid-Brain (the mammalian brain) is in charge of that.
The Cortex (The Computer Brain)
we all have a cortex, the part of our brain that is conscious, intentional,
rational, and choiceful. It is the cortex you are using now as you read this
article. It is the part of us that can be self-aware, reflective, and
self-observant. It is the part of our brain that allows us to communicate
in complex languages and develop science, literature and art. It is the
part of our brain that makes us distinctively and uniquely human. Some
animals and perhaps porpoises have rudimentary cortexes, but the human cortex is
would be nice if the cortex controlled our lives and our marriages, but alas and
alack, that unfortunately rarely happens in the real world. Most
marriages are run on reptilian and mammalian energy.
The Old Brain
simplicity's sake, in this WEB site, we will lump the Hindbrain and the Midbrain
together and refer to them as "The Old Brain." It is
"old" not in the sense that it is out of date or not as valuable as
the Cortex (The "New Brain"). We actually are wise to learn to
deeply respect, value and honor the "Old Brain." But it is
"old" in the sense in that it is the more primitive part
of our Brain.
are two things every couple should know about the Old Brain.
The Mr. Magoo of the Brain Set
First, the Old Brain is the Mr.
Magoo of the Brain Set. It has a dimmed, fuzzy impression of the outside
world. Like Mr. Magoo, the Old Brain constantly confuses people and
events. Your Old Brain, not your New Brain will tend to confuse your
Partner with your Parent. The part of your brain that controls your
emotion and your "reactivity" is the Mr. Magoo "act alike."
While your New, Rational, Intelligent Brain clearly knows the difference between
your Partner and Your Parent, the brain that triggers and mediates your emotions
and reactivity and protective impulses constantly mixes them up. So if
your partner criticizes you and you had some history with a critical parent or
older brother or sister or teacher, your Old Brain may react emotionally and
reactively as though you were once again living with and dealing with that old
critic. This can happen even when you consciously know that your partner
is different than the old critic and you are now an adult, not a child.
This partly explains why suddenly
with our life partner, we can feel an intensity of feeling -- powerless,
fearful, helpless -- even though we intellectually know we are not powerless and
The "Timeless" Old Brain
The second thing that is important
to know about the Old Brain is that is has no concept of time. It knows
nothing about years, decades, and schedules. It lives in the "eternal
now." Therefore when something happens "now" that is
similar to something that happened years ago as a child, the Old Brain (that
controls emotion and reactivity) connects to the prior experience as information
about the present event, but does not experience the old experience as
"old." The emotion that was present then is brought into the
present experience and we experience the combined emotion of then and now.
The 90/10 Principle
This is why we talk about the 90/10
principle of relationships. Ninety percent of the upset, hurt, emotion and
reactivity we experience in our marriage is actually related to our history.
Only ten percent is related to the present event. Some theorists even
argue that 100 percent of "reactivity" is related to the past.
The Bad News
This then is the biological
explanation of why there can be so much intense emotion in relationships.
The Old Brain treats emotional risk as a survival issue and combines history
with the present and confuses people, events and time. Our partner can
raise their eyebrow in a certain way and we can feel a knife go through our gut.
Our partner can walk out of the room and we can feel a strong fear of rejection
or abandonment--even though the intensity makes no sense rationally. We
easily interpret our partners through the lenses of past hurts and
sensitivities. The biology of the brain, which was designed to keep us
alert and alive and safe, also keeps us very sensitive to our Imago Match -- our
husbands and wives and life partners.
The Good News
The good news is that brain
physiology also explains how and why marriage is the best and most powerful and
most effective place for healing to happen. If your partner gives you now
what you needed as a child or teenager and did not get, if your partner gives
you now what you needed when you were hurt as a child and didn't get enough of,
your Old Brain does not say, "Sorry, it's too late. I needed that 30
years ago not now" (The Old Brain does not distinguish between then
and now). The Old Brain also does not say, "Sorry, wrong person.
I needed that from my parents, not my partner" (The Old Brain constantly
confuses parent and partner). When you get now what you needed then, the
Old Brain says, "Yes, thank you. I can't tell you how wonderful that
This is why wise therapists and
this WEB site are showing couples how to be healing agents for each other
--because that is the place for the most powerful and effective healing to
The Old Brain and Danger
the Old Brain perceives risk or danger, pain or frustration, it knows how to do
five general strategies.
The Old Brain knows how to hide.
How do you hide in relationships? Not talking, refusing to share or
self-disclose, lying, keeping secrets. When I was in graduate school, one
of my professors told of an architect who build a secret room in his home and
did not tell his wife about it. Whenever, he was really frustrated, he would
just disappear. He really knew how to hide as a way of protecting.
The Old Brain knows how to
How do you fight? Argue, yell, out reason, withhold affection, refuse to
talk, get passive aggressive, blame, accuse, criticize, etc, etc, etc.
The Old Brain knows how to run.
How do you run in a relationship? Literally leave the house, go for a
drive, separate, work later and later at the office.
The Old Brain knows how to
"freeze." The twig snaps in the forest and
the deer freezes. Have you ever come home and sensed that something was
amiss and you were in trouble -- and froze. That is, decide to say nothing
or do nothing until you can assess the danger.
Finally, the Old Brain knows
how to submit. Submitting,
interestingly, can be a protective strategy. When a wolf
challenges the head of the wolf pack for leadership, there is a terrific fight.
Eventually, the losing wolf will roll over on his back an expose his neck to the
conquering wolf. The conquering wolf will place his jaws around the
submitting wolf's neck, but won't kill it. This act of submission saves
the wolf's life and the wolf pack remains intact. We suspect that the
reason many people stay in dangerously abusive marriages is this "old
brain's" impulse to submit as a way of
The Old Brain and Safety
When the old brain perceives
safety, the parasympathetic system takes over and in safety the old brain knows
how to do five things:
1. The Old Brain
knows how to mate. The sexual response occurs primarily in a place of
2. The Old Brain knows how to play.
3. The Old Brain knows how to nurture and be affectionate.
4. The Old Brain knows how to work and be creative.
5. The Old Brain knows how to sleep and rest and relax.
week hundreds of couples go into a therapist's office and share some version of
the following: Our sex life isn't working any more! We almost never
laugh or have fun with each other. Everything seems heavy. There is
virtually no warmth, few hugs, no compliments or appreciations. Nothing
seems to be working.
you were a marital therapist who understood about brain physiology, what you
immediately know about this couple or these couples? THEY ARE NOT SAFE
WITH EACH OTHER. When you are safe with your partner, warmth, playfulness,
affection and sexuality tend to emerge naturally. When you are not safe,
there is distance, hiding, criticism, fighting, etc.
physiology is a reality, a given that every couple must deal with. The Old
Brain cannot be controlled directly, but it can be understood and
"managed." It is essential that couples learn to create a
higher level of emotional and physical safety in their relationship.
WEB site, particularly the Couple's Workstation section, is dedicated to
teaching couples how to do this. If this article makes sense to you, be sure to
explore the membership benefits.
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