How our brains work when we’re together, and stressed.

It seems more and more important to look at the powerful role our brains play when communicating, loving and arguing with your partner.

Partners can so easily get ‘hooked’ into repetitive arguments, then experiencing the exhaustive struggle of the familiar ‘dance’. This ‘dance’ culminates in the painful, unfulfilling finale you may well be familiar with and feel resigned to. The worst bit of all this? Knowing it’s only a matter of time before it all starts again.


Our current COVID-19 situation might be adding unwelcome fuel to the fire, but in our hearts, we know this is just another layer of difficulty, not the source of the problem.

Why does this unwelcome compulsive ‘dance’ keep going when, in our logical thoughts and reflections, we see how fruitless and pointless these cycles are.

 Let’s reflect on the writing of Mona Dekoven Fishbane, an American therapist and author of ‘Loving with the Brain in Mind’ (Norton), to help us find some answers.


Fishbane notes that we live in a time where we feel we are entitled to our rights being met, but are often not too eager to exercise the corresponding responsibilities entailed in balancing communication in intimate relationships (xxii-xxiii). It is a shared responsibility within the couple communication to develop the skills needed to understand each other more deeply.

We could say that the most successful and content relationships are those where both recognize the importance of the ‘collaborative alliance’, this sense of remaining curious to the thoughts and experiences of our partners, understanding the need to be mindful that we face the world and its problems together.

In effective relationships partners are aware of the value of constantly focusing on the qualities of love, tolerance, kindness, appreciation and generosity. Never have we needed these values more.


So how does it happen so quickly that we suddenly find to ourselves eyeballing our partners from across the kitchen, a sense of heated tension rising, feeling a sense of injustice, unheard and misunderstood?

We know oh so well that icy stares and clamped jaws take us in the opposite direction from all the values we most want to aspire to. What’s happening? What’s actually making it so difficult to get out of this place?


Fishbane suggests that ‘couples in distress activate each other in mutually destructive ways…both feeling defeated, not knowing how to get through to the other’. This place of frustration then leads to ‘power struggles, each trying to convince the other of the rightness of his or her position’.

At the end of these distressing episodes both partners end up feeling ‘dis-connected and discouraged’ (5). Further, Fishbane also confirms that many couples caught up in these negative cycles often don’t repair well after the conflict, so laying the ground straight away for the next exhausting round to take place.


Neurobiology helps us understand the dynamics of this blame game by reflecting ‘old brain’ skills that have helped us survive past dangers.

Now, we might not think our kitchen is a dangerous environment, but the heightened signals (eyeballing) coming through to the amygdala, the ‘old brain’ system, says otherwise. Hostility is what the amygdala immediately senses and our fight, flight or freeze responses are enacted.


Once that alarm is rung, the logical ‘thinking’ part of our brain, the frontal cortex, slows right down; if we need to run for our lives, we don’t want to be sitting around thinking about it. So when two people are shouting, two amygdales are activated and alarms are going off left right and center in both partners.


Our challenge is to try and understand the role our brains and hormones play and stand outside the ‘dance of the amygdala’s’ to grasp the dance steps happening, slow things down and aim to keep the front of brains engaged.


Our aim is to try and move ourselves back into our slower less reactive state, to help us remain calm, focusing on our breath, relaxing the body and, importantly, knowing that our bodily expressions and behaviors are directly impacting our partners. When one system calms, so does the other. It’s how nature intends it; once we know we’re safe, things are ok, our partner is back in communication, in connection, we can move forward.

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