Many of the couples I see in counseling are very triggered, very reactive in their relationship with each other. Intellectually, they are often aware of this, yet they are still so challenged in making changes and in becoming more loving with each other.
In order to give them a context for what’s happening, part of what I do (believe it or not) is explain to them the physiology of the human brain, particularly the lizard brain, which is part of our tripartite brain! Let me share some of what I say to my couples and perhaps you’ll understand my motivation in this.
In actuality, our brain is three brains! That’s what the “tri” means, as in “tri-angle” or “tri-cycle”. And each brain has it’s own system of logic, which is why we are often at odds with ourselves and feel torn and conflicted.
At the base of our brain is the part called the “reptilian brain” or the lizard brain. We share this part with all animals, including reptiles, such as alligators and lizards. The reptilian brain takes care of those things we usually don’t’ think about like heartbeat, digestion and breathing.
And more important to this article, it also is concerned with our survival. When we’re in danger, it will respond in one of five basic ways: fight, flight, freeze or play dead, submit or hide.
This protective design helps us to deal with physical danger, yet it also is activated whenever we are in psychological danger. And that is the issue in our relationships, our brain can’t really distinguish between physical danger and when we are being psychologically or emotionally challenged by a situation.
We use the same basic and primitive survival skills in “protecting” ourselves in our relationships: fight, flight, freeze (have you ever stared through your partner?), submit (okay, whatever you want, just don’t nag) or hide (go to another room, leave the house). All of this is done on an unconscious level, below the level of thought.
The second part of our brain is the limbic system, also known as the mammalian brain. We have it in common with all mammals and it is the part of the brain that allows us to experience our feelings. Again, the feeling of fear is connected to survival.
The third part of our brain, the cerebral cortex, is the logical part of our brain. It is five times bigger than the other two parts combined. It is where our speech, writing, math and thought come from. And it generally seems to shut down when we are triggered by highly emotional issues. It is bigger, yet slower than the lizard brain, and it surrenders control to the lizard brain when danger is imminent.
All three parts of the brain are processing information simultaneously. So, if I’m experiencing fear of divorce, I experience it as a deep survival fear through the lizard brain, I experience the emotion through the mammalian brain and I experience all of my thoughts and logic around it through the cerebral cortex.
The work then, is to help the three brains to coordinate and support each other in creating more than survival. This is the deep work of relationship and couples counseling, to help identify these triggers and defense mechanisms and to transcend them. This allows us to create a loving, open relationship with a greater intention to learn and grow then an intention to protect.
I hope that this brief explanation of the tripartite brain might help you to be a little more compassionate with yourself over your fears and your triggers.