Liz and Tom have been together for several years and have two children. They don’t know how they got here but now it feels like they don’t know each other anymore and they are continuously arguing about the chores and who’s more tired. “But we were not supposed to be that couple, we used to get along so well and have fun together”. Today there is very little fun in their life as a couple. For sure they take care of their parental duties and have fun with their children, but the love they used to have for each other has diminished. Tom often has often left the house wanting to cool things off a bit to avoid arguing but this has made Liz even angrier and she thinks: “He doesn’t even have the guts to face this and sort it out”. The more Liz then complains about Tom’s behaviour, the more he withdraws and the vicious cycle repeats to the point of Tom having now dropped the “D-word” in the heat of a moment. They are both desperate to save their relationship but confused about how they could get back on track.
We are wired for connections and loving relationships. We need each other but at times it feels that we cannot be with each other because all of us are carrying our neurobiology systems and these are connecting with others. We are not the rational, measured and even detached individuals we may like to think we are when we are in relationships. In fact, we are quite the opposite.
This post is about understanding how our neurobiology impacts our relationships. Below you’ll see Stan Tatkin’s TED Talk explaining exactly how we are guided by our neurobiology and particularly the primitive areas of the body-brain that are to do with safety as well as love and sex. Sue Johnson (2008) one of the main developers of Emotion Focused Therapy for Couples therapy states that like babies are wired for seeking safety from parents, we are the in the same way in relationships too. We can thrive in the world when we feel that our partner has our back but if we feel “blanked” or dismissed by our partner, we may feel totally lost, confused and low over time.
As Tatkin explains that the primitive parts of our brain focus on detecting a threat in our environment, whether physical or emotional and the body memory holds on to any experiences that may be threatening, therefore we may interpret our partner’s certain behaviours as rejection. You may think that it is better not to argue than to argue in a relationship, but in fact, Tatkin states: “As a conflict avoider you will appear threatening to your partner”. If your partner is emotionally unavailable and rejects you, this will fire up in your safety / danger detectors in your body-brain and you will perceive your relationship as unsafe. “Our relationship can survive fights but it cannot survive a loss of safety and security.”
Johnson explains that we are biologically programmed to make a fuss and “raise our voice” in somehow (babies do an attachment call / cry to get caregiver’s attention) to alert our partner to reassure us. If our partner either “blanks” us or responds in a dismissive and rejecting way, the cycle continues. In fact, Tatkin explains that even a sideways glance (e.g. when in a car) can be viewed as threatening and any arguments should not be held when side by side, e.g. in a car as direct eye gaze is used to co-regulate.
What were your immediate thoughts about what happens in your relationship? Are you and your partner engaging in a communication dance that is threatening to your safety systems? I’m planning to write another couple of posts on relationships to look at the different ways in which couples engage in unhelpful and emotionally threatening patterns of expressing their safety needs, and then how to create more emotional safety in your relationship. If you would like to be notified of the future posts, sign up here for the news.
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*The case mentioned above does not refer to any actual past or present clients but is a collection of stories I have heard over the years.
Sue Johnson, (2008). Hold me tight.