Brain Science and Couples Therapy


Written by Anna Cordova, MA, LPC 
Somatic Psychotherapist at NC Center for Resiliency, PLLC
If you caught the first in this series of blog posts, you have already learned a little about the importance of sustaining a “couple bubble” in any healthy, long term, and committed relationship. In order to create and sustain this bubble (think of it as a “cocoon” that holds the couple together and protects each partner from outside hindrances), it is important to know a little about the brain, and specifically how your brain responds to conflict, and how it helps you stay connected.
The human brain is comprised of many structures that allow us to both survive and thrive, and either help us to create conflict, or peace in our partnerships. Stan Tatkin, author of “Wired for Love” refers to these parts of the brain as our “primitives” and our “ambassadors” respectively. You can also think or our primitives as the warring parts of our brain, and the ambassadors as the loving parts of our brain.
The primitive parts of the brain are conflict driven. These areas of the brain (specifically the amygdala, hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands, and “dumb” vagus”) are naturally geared to engage in battle, and operate automatically, and without our permission. They are designed to help us pick up threat signals, alert us to danger and react to stress. When couples fight, you can bet they are relying on these areas of the brain.
The primitives are defensive and quick to pick up on and perceive danger. For example, the amygdala helps a person notice their partners’ tone of voice, facial expression and word choice. Relying on our primitives means that we are scanning for possible threat, and once we perceive that threat, adrenaline and cortisol rush into the blood stream. These hormones are preparing us for fight, flight or even momentary freeze. This is often where couples remain stuck. Once the threat is perceived, and the body’s defensive mechanisms are primed, many couples find it hard to reconnect and repair.
However, when we are safe within the “couple bubble” we can more easily soothe the more primitive parts of the brain, and increase our ability to not only solve conflict, but avoid creating it in the first place. It is within the security of the bubble that we can begin to rely on our “ambassadors,” or the rational, social and civilized part of our brain. It is our ambassadors we must rely on to be in relationship successfully.
Our ambassadors include the ventral vagal complex (or smart vagus), the hippocampus, insula and orbitofrontal cortex, as well as the right and left brain. We can rely on these parts of our brain to slow us down, help us stay calm, and prevent overreaction— or even all out “war” with our partner. For example, something as simple as taking a slow deep breath when confronted by conflict stimulates the “smart vagus” which then exerts a calming effect on the entire nervous system. Additionally, the insula helps us to rely on intuition, or so called “gut feelings” and other bodily sensations as we interact with another person. And the right brain is what helps us to use vocal tone, eye contact and physical touch skillfully so as to connect with our partner, rather than avoid.
Couples can avoid conflict and sustain their “couple bubble” best when they utilize their ambassadors and put their primitives at ease. Stan Takin suggests that simply identifying moments when you are relying on your “primitives” in action can actually help you to engage your “ambassadors” and keep the peace in your partnership. Next time you are in conflict with your partner, consider making eye contact, having a gentler tone of voice, and using a loving phrase or two. You might be surprised to find peace admit the storm.
At NCCR, we are committed to using practices that help clients to regulate their own nervous systems, in order to create and restore coherence. Couples that learn to regulate themselves, and to co-regulate alongside their partner can experience healing both in their relationship and within themselves.
Anna Cordova is a body-centered and expressive arts therapist, as well as a registered yoga teacher. Anna has experience working in both private and community based settings, working with children, adolescents, teens, families and couples. Anna has extensive training in the field of trauma work, somatic experiencing, cognitive behavioral therapy, DBT, creative expression and mindfulness. She specializes in mood disorders, relational issues, attachment, eating disorders, trauma and stress related conditions. Anna is committed to the deep work of healing through the body and would be honored to assist you on your self growth journey.
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