top of page

Your Brain, In a Fight With Your Partner 101

Discussion about traumatic events/circumstances invariably contains the role of "flight, fight, or freeze" responses, the reactive defaults to perceived threats. For these we can thank the part of the brain known as the amygdala, which is the only part of the human brain to be fully “online” when an infant is born. This latter makes sense, if you think about it, as survival of species was dependent on a being’s ability to immediately perceive threat and activate the body to escape from danger. Human beings were “good at this” and that’s why we’re still here.

What’s not yet developed at birth, however, are the parts of the brain that help mediate, interpret, and manage information from the amygdala; to an infant, everything experienced inside the body (hunger, thirst, gas) or in the external environment (a loud noise, a cold draft, a mother’s unhappy face) feels threatening and prompts a baby to cry out. If the care- giver does a reasonably good job of responding to these cries and soothes the infant sufficiently most of the time, the neural networks that form in the brain create a healthy template for the baby’s future capacity to regulate emotions and behaviors.

When primary care-givers do NOT do a reasonably good job soothing the infant most of the time, that template is instead set for future mental health difficulties including affective, mood, substance use, eating, and personality disorders, all of which share a common core of emotional dysregulation. Primarily in intimate relationships as adults, people learn the extent of the wounds they may carry from these early sub-optimal interactions with the social environment when they are “triggered” by their lovers and uncharacteristic, disproportionate, and/or regressive behavior comes spilling out, escalating the conflict out of control.

As the oldest part of the brain—and the one whose sole purpose is to respond to distress—the amygdala (let’s call it “Myg” to make it seem friendly!) is the storehouse of emotional memories of which an individual may or may not even be aware. Myg also can’t differentiate between past and present, so when Myg is notified there’s trouble, it can’t distinguish between today’s recurring argument with a partner over thermostat settings, a car accident that happened twenty years ago, or a loud thunderstorm that awoke us last night.

When intimately coupled partners begin to fight with each other, Myg is alerted by the emotional activation occurring in their individual brains and a neurophysical cascade—soaring heart rate, flushing of face, increased vocal volume, shortness of breath/feeling one is holding their breath, stiffening of the neck, shaking—is prompted. The triggering of these somatic responses is known as “diffuse physiological arousal” (DPA). When DPA is present, “thinking straight” is literally impossible because the prefrontal cortex (PFC)—that part of the brain that reasons, organizes, and tells you to calm the f*** down before you say something devastating that can’t ever be “unheard” by your partner--is corrupted by the highly aroused nervous system.

Compounding the universal “Myg effect” is the personal emotional history each partner in a relationship carries with him or her. Because of the emotional enmeshment that accompanies intimate relationships, which tacitly presumes a level of mutual caretaking more extensive than others with whom we might be close, conflict with these partners can be the crucible from which wounds from our early lives surface. Such wounds—of which one may or may not be aware--impact the speed and intensity of, and the nature of the collateral damage that might result from, our individual patterns of reactivity.

When the uber-version of trouble communicating--fighting--brings couples into therapy, it is often the case that well-intentioned individuals have lost their way in cycles of reactivity sparked and escalated by this sort of neurobiological response to a subconsciously perceived threat. A first therapeutic step in such cases is the cultivation of increased awareness of each partner’s somatic responses to interactions with each other, and enhance each partner's ability to engage personal emotional regulation strategies when activated. From there, increasing awareness of and nurturing compassion for a partner’s potentially traumatic history—the source of the interpersonal vulnerability so triggered in conflict--are important objectives for therapy.

Elisabeth Ihlenfeld


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page