Mary and Roger came into my office for their first session. After the preliminary background information was gathered, I asked ‘So tell me what brought to come see me?’ Mary began explaining how they had been having more quarrels in the last few months and that these quarrels had been getting more and more mean-spirited. These yelling exchanges sometimes escalated to name calling and insults. ‘You would not believe how often he has called me a bitch!’’, Mary said, her voice rising a few decibels. Roger rolled his eyes. This facial gesture was not missed by Mary who said, ‘What? Are you now going to deny you said that here in front of Allan?’ I could see Roger’s face get a little redder. I was getting a chance to see for myself what these quarrels were like. Roger retorted in a higher pitched voice mimicking and mocking Mary, ‘No, I am not going to deny what I have called you! Just wondering if you would like to tell him the kind of insulting names you have called me!” I could see that I had to avert a war that was about to erupt in my office. I needed to help them de-escalate it so I said, ‘I can tell that it is really difficult for you two to even describe these horrible quarrels without re-living them and experiencing the anger and upset all over again. I want you to experience my office as a place where you can feel safe and not get into the same problems. Can you tell me how do these fights end?’ Mary says a little more calmly, ‘Roger shuts it down with, ‘I can’t take this, maybe we need to separate!’ and storms out of the room to the basement, watch sports and a have a beer.’ Roger’s eyes roll again. He then says, ‘Yes, I usually leave the quarrel first because there is no winning with her.’
Fighting can be very stressful for all couples. Our brains specialize in perceiving a threat cue and responding quickly to that threat. For Roger, Mary’s voice rising and criticisms of him, was a perceived threat to him to which he responded with his eye rolling. For Mary, who was re-living the experience of being called ‘a bitch’ in my office, she was already in a heightened emotional state. So when she saw his eyes rolling she perceived a threat cue and responding quickly with accusing him of planning to deny. The fast-acting parts of our brain, doesn’t care about specifics, calculations or anything that may be time-consuming. The survival instincts of our brains which have not evolved much in thousands of years are telling us DON”T GET KILLED!
Your Primitives and Ambassadors
Our brains’ survival skills can be at odds with maintaining love in our intimate relationships. In his book, Wired for Love, Stan Tatkin describes the two ways that our brains can be at odds as the Primitives and the Ambassadors. The Primitives are like ‘the beast within’, the survival reflexes that trump all other needs. He calls them agents of war (fighting or running away) and defeat (surrendering or playing dead). Here are the parts of the brain called Primitives and their functions:
|‘Danger! Watch Out!’||Amygdalae||Scans for threat signals indiscriminately (e.g. Words, facial expressions, voice tone, body language, movements etc.)|
|‘Prepare for Battle!’||Hypothalamus, Pituitary and Adrenal Glands||Release chemicals (cortisol, adrenaline) to the brain to signal the need to fight, flee or freeze.|
|‘Charge!’||Dorsal motor vagal complex (dumb vagus)||Reacts to stress or danger by slowing down the cardiovascular and respiratory systems to prevent bleeding out.|
How to Become Aware of Our Primitives
According to Stan Tatkin, when you become aware of the role of the primitives, you gain valuable insight into your relationship while putting neurobiology into practice. He suggests that the next time you are trying to resolve a difficult issue with your partner you try this.
While sitting across from each other so you can observe both yourself and your partner closely, see if you can recognize any signs in your partner of the three of stages in the chart above. You might see reddening in the face, furrow brow, dilating pupils or hear a change in voice pitch. You may notice use of strong words or exaggeration. Make note of these and share with each other.
Fortunately for our relationships, we also have the Ambassadors who are the more evolved aspects of our brain which serve the social and loving functions. They interact with the Primitives of our brain and support them when it comes to survival. When threat is detected, the Ambassadors check and re-check all relevant information for accuracy. They use their intelligence to sustain peace and foster harmony and long lasting relationships. They weigh the options and plan for the future. They keep us in relationships. Being part of a family, a tribe, a group or a community is also survival protection. They calm fears and cool tempers within us and between us and others. We need the Ambassadors to keep us alive and thriving as much as we need the Primitives.
|‘Calm Down’||Ventral vagal complex (smart vagus)||Exerts a calming effect by slowing the cardiovascular and respiratory systems|
|‘Reflect on the Past’||Hippocampus||Short and long-term memory and controls anti-stress hormones|
|‘Attend to Your Gut Feelings’||Insula, Right Brain||Awareness of bodily cues related to empathy, attachment and social emotional processing|
|‘Integrate with Logic’||Left Brain||Processes detailed information and integrates into complex meaning|
|‘Let’s keep the peace’||Orbitofrontal cortex||Serves as the moral and empathic centre keeping the Primitives and Ambassadors in check.|
How to Engage Our Ambassadors
Most of us don’t really notice how our voices sound to our partners. We don’t really take the time to pay attention to the rate of our breathing. We may not know the tone or even the volume of our speech. We usually operate as if on auto-pilot. Tatkin suggests that when you slow down and engage your ambassadors, you gain a wide range of options.
Next time you are with your partner, experiment and play with these suggestions and observe what happens:
- Modulate your voice: louder and softer, slower and faster
- Whisper to each other
- Take a deep breath before you speak
Now ask each other which tone of voice you liked and which might trigger Primitives.
Couples can make more love and avoid war when their Primitives are put at ease. By becoming aware of your own Primitives and your partners, you have a better chance of engaging your own Ambassadors and helping your partner engage theirs. This way you can de-escalate conflict and learn how to have difficult conversations peacefully.