Biology has played a cruel trick on our relationship. Although our partner thinks we’re responsible for most of the troubles in our relationship, it’s not us. It’s our biology.
To be more accurate, it’s the primitive parts of our brain. These are our reptilian brain and our mammalian brain/ limbic system. They work so closely together that together they’re called the primitive brain parts within us. They’re the animal defenses in our brain and body, hard-wired by evolution to focus on safety.
Our primitive brain
Our biology has evolved so that we have three parts to our brains. The order in which they developed via evolution are:
First: The reptilian brain – appeared 230 million years ago (dinosaurs, birds, lizards). The oldest part of our animal brain.
Second: The limbic system or mammalian brain – appeared 200 million years ago (shrews, dogs, cats, horses). The second-oldest part of our animal brain.
Third: The neocortex – the newest part – appeared 1.9 million years ago. It’s our thinking, logical, rational, observing part. It’s what distinguishes us from animals.
The primitive brain has evolved over hundreds of millions of years to become expert and automatic in two things:
- avoiding risk – pain, discomfort and threats
- seeking safety – food, shelter, sex, comfort and pleasure.
Our knee jerk reactions
Avoiding pain and seeking safety/pleasure are our knee jerk, automatic, unconscious reactions. They are hard-wired through evolution to ensure our survival by keeping us alive and safe. Our animal survival responses fall into five categories:
- Fight – vigilance, makes us angry, judgmental, mistrustful, self-harm/self-sabotage, controlling, suicidal.
- Flight – escape, makes us distance, avoid commitment, be ambivalent, indulge in addictive behaviour.
- Freeze – fear, makes us frozen, terrified, wary, phobic of being seen, causes panic attacks and fainting.
- Submit – shame, makes us depressed, ashamed, passive, appease, be a “good girl”, caretaker, self-sacrifice.
- Attach – needy, makes us desperate, cry for help, crave rescue and connection, be innocent/naïve, want a protector.
Our primitive brain in relationship
When we are fearful, threatened, stressed or triggered in our relationship, our primitive brain is wired to respond automatically and unconsciously due to a process called neuroception. This occurs 24/7 and is our animal brain’s way to distinguish if situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening. The brain does this instantly and automatically, in a fraction of a second. It’s a physical, bodily reaction, which then sets off emotions, thoughts and behaviour.
Our brains are always scanning people and situations for safety or threat. When threat is sensed, even minutely, we react quickly. So quickly and unconsciously that we often don’t know what prompted our reaction. The cause of these reactions are often called triggers.
Triggers can be thoughts, memories, sensations or something we see, hear, smell, taste or touch, often on a subconscious level. Without being taught about this process, we’re not aware of what triggers us because neuroception is constantly operating. So if we feel unsafe, we’re just constantly reacting. This is the filter through which we experience the world, our relationship and our sense of safety or threat, as explained by Seth Porges.
Our reactions to triggers feel like the truth, but they’re not the truth. They’re felt senses, body and emotional memories, encoded in our primitive brain remembering to what happened to us in our past. The past can be as far back as our early childhood relationships to our carers, or more recently in our adult life. They are primitive, unconscious, automatic reactions to events which have happened but are not actually happening now. Watch Peter Levine working with a man with PTSD body memories from being in Iraq.
No distinction between past and present
When our primitive brain is triggered, it cannot distinguish past from present. Because we don’t feel safe, it seeks urgent and immediate relief from the distress which is felt in the present. And it kicks us into one or more of the five knee jerk reactions above. It hijacks us into reactions. All animals have these, and we are refined animals due the evolution of our thinking, observing brain.
In relationship, our reactivity can lead to fighting, fleeing, freezing, appeasing or clingy reactions which block us from responding in adult, appropriate ways. These primitive reactions hijack our thinking brain and can trigger us into being verbally abusive, avoiding our partner by distancing, numbing ourselves via addictions, being silent, becoming resentfully compliant or desperately needy. Relationships in which we don’t feel safe are not healing. They badly impact our physical, emotional and psychological health.
All these built-in reactions in our primitive brain prevent us from accessing our mature, adult, coping selves to appropriately deal with our relationship. They block us from speaking up respectfully and maturely to defend important values.
It’s reassuring to know that these knee-jerk reactions are designed to give us rapid relief from pain, fear or threat. The fact that they make us and our partner more miserable doesn’t make any difference to the primitive brain. Remember reptiles don’t think about cooperating. They focus on “kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.” There’s no guilt, self-doubt, or compassion in our primitive brain. It’s all about the five knee jerk reactions above.
Our observing brain in relationship
However, our biology also evolved the neocortex, the logical, rational, planning, hypothetical thinking, observing part of our brain. This is the mature part of us that can be mindful, dream, imagine a better future, feel compassion and desire to cooperate with our partner. This part needs to be online if we want to develop a teamwork approach to relationship. Being a good team is what a healthy relationship is all about. To do this, we need to practice calming down our nervous system, being mindful of our thoughts, feelings and sensations and engaging our observing brain.
Our observing brain is the mature, adult part of our brain which developed around 1.9 million years ago. And so it’s much younger in evolutionary terms than the primitive brain. It’s the part of us that Janina Fisher calls the “going on with normal part” of the self. Importantly, this is the part that is our professional self, the parent, the part with special talents or social skills. It navigates our daily lives. And it can be trained to help us relate much more safely and with compassion to our self and each other.
Learning to create safety in yourself first is vital
So it’s important to know that until we learn self-soothing skills to keep our self and then our partner safe, the primitive and the observing parts of our brain keep battling with each other – within us and in our relationship. Creating safety in yourself is the first order of business. Learning to identify and manage our physical reactions to our triggers gives us a “superpower”. We get back in control of our self. This is a hugely important skill to learn in relationship.
It’s like flying in a plane. We must put on our own oxygen mask first or we can’t help others. If we’re unconscious in a plane, we’re no good to anyone else. The same is true if we’re trapped in our unconscious, automatic triggered reactions in our relationship. If we’re not conscious of what we’re doing, we’re likely to hurt our self and our partner. Below are some suggestions for calming our brain and our self by Seth Porges.
Sadly, in many relationships our primitive brain and its unconscious reactivity dominates. It is a fact that in relationship we all struggle to tame our primitive brains, especially when our partner triggers us. And it is inevitable that our partner will trigger us, as Terry Real explains. Learning to manage our triggers is the work of successful relationships.
Your relationship to yourself and your partner doesn’t have to be a hopeless struggle. You can get help from experienced relationship counsellors. And especially ask for help in learning how to calm down your own primitive brain and nervous system, so that you can be safe and calm for your partner. There are simple body-based skills you can learn and practice based on the latest science in trauma treatment. Make sure to ask if your counsellor is trauma-informed.
If you’re interested in winning this struggle with yourself and your partner and in learning research-based skills to develop teamwork, call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 421 961 687. You deserve the best trained coaches if you’re planning to invest time and money in your relationship. If you’re not ready to book an appointment, call us on 0421 961 687 to book a FREE 15 minute phone consultation to discuss how we may be able to assist you.