I have been in practice long enough to see many couples and families develop over the the past thirty years. While there are countless stories over a full range of of topics, one that greatly interests me involves divorce.
Many couples and individuals have come to counseling after divorcing fifteen, twenty or twenty five years earlier. Most are quite happy in their current lives and marriages. Many, however, have looked back on their previous marriage with one very powerful observation: Their original divorce did not need to happen!
What an astounding realization! Not only was I impressed by their honesty, I was also amazed they could look back on their divorces and understand them in a completely new light.
So, what is this all about? As I spoke with these couples it became clear to me that they were looking at how they previously managed emotional reactivity, and how that dovetailed with divorce. Every couple has to manage conflict, but the business of managing emotional reactivity, which is part of managing conflict, is not easy.
Knowledge of how the brain works and how to use the brain to one’s advantage is critical to managing reactivity, especially intense reactivity.
Specifically there are two brains that come into play when managing reactivity.
Those two brains are the prefrontal cortex, and the limbic system.The prefrontal cortex and the limbic system are often referred to as the logical and emotional brains respectively.
Here is a quick overview: the prefrontal cortex is the brain that allows us to make decisions, reductions, inductions, calculations, etc. The prefrontal cortex is the CEO of the brain.
The limbic system, otherwise known as the mammalian brain, is the center of all emotions. The limbic system possesses all the pain centers, the pleasure centers, and is the part of the brain that has a very unique connection to the prefrontal cortex. It is the fight-or-flight-brain, among many other things.
Here is how the two brains work in concert: when the limbic brain is activated, it sends an amount of adrenaline up to the pre-frontal cortex commensurate with the degree it wants to inhibit pre-frontal cortex functioning. In short, adrenaline inhibits the pre-frontal cortes from thinking.
Those two brains, in effect, operate in opposition to one another. It is a survival function that allows us to take action without having to think first.
Another way to think about these two brains is that they often function inversely. When limbic activity is up, pre-frontal cortex activity is down, and vice versa.
In practical terms this means that the limbic system will inhibit an individual from thinking clearly when they are feeling intense emotions. That is why in the middle of a heated argument people may say and do things they wish they could take back--sometimes that includes divorce.
The one thing that is very important to understand about the brain and conflict, is that the limbic brain always wants relief. And the fact that it wants relief is not enough: it wants relief NOW! The lengths to which an individual will go to get relief can include divorce.