Great book- I strongly suggest getting it if you would like to understand what is happening to the brain when your partner is not feeling safe. It has implications for politics and business, but the book is about romantic relationships.
Attachment concepts and what happens when we don’t feel safe during a conversation:
The right side amygdala picks up on dangerous facial expressions, voices, sound, movements, and postures.
The left side amygdala picks up on dangerous words and phrases.
Your amygdalae grab all of the information and do not analyze it - your body prepares for something vaguely like war.
When the amygdalae have sounded an alarm, the next in the chain of command jumps to attention: the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus is responsible for getting our mind and body ready for action. It directs the pituitary and adrenal glands to release chemicals necessary for action. The glands are messengers and foot soldiers under the direct command of the hypothalamus.
The fast acting adrenaline amps us up and gets us ready to flee or fight, the slower-acting cortisol helps us adapt to stress by reducing inflammation and damage in our body. The continual balancing act between these chemicals feeds messages back to the hypothalamus -should we continue to fight? Is it time to withdraw the troops?
The call is made “ready the troops” just in case.
Couples at war have certain telltale, behavioral signs. Some partners get very excited, others become slow, sleepy, or even collapse. They tend to recycle the same complaints, the same examples, the same theories, and the same solutions.
The dorsal motor vagal complex lowers our heart rate and blood pressure and signals the hypothalamus to dump pain relievers. It is not discerning or subtle in its response to threat. It can be triggered by emotional injury and threats in addition to physical injury. They can respond by shutting down.
Blood leaves our face, our muscles lose their tone, our ears ring, and our stomach hurts. We slump, drop, collapse, and sometimes even faint. Gone is our sense of humor, our perspective, and our life energy. We descend into a valley of darkness, where it seems, no one, not even we ourselves, can hurt us.
The depressed body and brain go into energy-conservation state, and stay there “high” on the body’s natural opiates.
The ventral vagal complex slows us down. Instead of overreacting and shutting us down, it enables us to hold our head above water, and below the stratosphere, so to speak.
Taking a deep, slow breath, particularly a slow exhalation, stimulates the ventral vagal complex.
Without the ability to calm ourselves down in this manner, physical proximity with another human being would be time-limited at best, and romance would be short-lived.
The hippocampus handles short-term and long-term memory, controls anti-stress hormones, and tracks location and direction.
The insula provides awareness of internal bodily cues (for example, gut feelings) including cues associated with attachment and empathy.
The right brain is nonverbal and intuitive. It specializes in social and emotional processing. For example, empathy, as well as body awareness.
Left brain is verbal and logical and it specializes in processing detailed information and integrating complex sounds and word meanings.
The orbitofrontal cortex serves as the moral and empathic center, communicates with all parts of the brain, keeping everything in check.
The hippocampus is significant because it is involved with placing relationship events in time, sequence, and context. It helps us encode and playback who did what, when, and where, and with whom.
The amygdalae are the prime culprits in disabling the hippocampus during times of war. This is why we have memory difficulties when we’re arguing. Constant arguments can literally cause our amygdala to grow larger and stronger and cause our hippocampus to shrink. Constant reassurance and co regulation of emotion helps exercise the muscle of the hippocampus.
The insula is responsible for our ability to attach to another person, to have an orgasm, and to feel disgust. The social chairperson of our brain is the right hemisphere of the brain. It carries imagination, artfulness and overarching sense of things. It is speechless, yet elegantly communicative in other ways. A great deal of our humanity, our empathy, and our ability to connect comes from this part. It is by far the expert on all things social, including reading facial expression, vocal tone, and body language.
The skillful use of vocal tone, direct eye contact and touch are all the workings of the right brain. It is superior at picking up social cues of distress and responding to them, effectively, especially through nonverbal Actions or interactions that convey friendliness and warmth. These qualities are the couples’ greatest antidote to “war.”
Nonverbal connection can go a long way to keeping love alive. We know that it is not sufficient.
The left brain understands the importance of detail and precision. It has the gift of gab and can be quite the little chatterbox.
The orbitofrontal cortex is powerful and influential, connected with almost every part of our brain. It sets the stage for love. It is because of this cortex that we are able to be curious about our mind, and the minds of others. It is our moral and empathic center, and it can communicate with all parts of the brain.
I can talk down/soothe the amygdala. It allows us to feel empathy. The basic inability to empathize may point to a poorly developed orbitofrontal cortex. Drug use, medical reasons, trauma can make it not fully develop.
One solution is for partners to wait until they have calmed down enough to be able to make even the slightest gesture to help one another.
At first, it is enough to simply recognize that your amygdalae are sounding an alarm. This alarm may take the form of your heart racing, palms sweating, face burning, or muscles tightening, or you may notice yourself suddenly becoming weak, slouched, nauseous, faint, numb, or shut down. In later chapters, I will discuss more techniques that you can use to calm down. (Wired for love)
Notice when your “ambassadors” (the part of you that is diplomatic and calming ) step up to the plate in support of the relationship and give them credit. Invite those parts of yourself to step forward whenever their warmth, wisdom, and calm are needed.
Identify your partner’s triggers and ambassadors in action, as well. You might notice them during an argument before your partner to notice them. Find non-threatening ways to let each other know what you have noticed. Do this as close in time as you can to the actual incident. This way you are better able to protect the relationship.
Imagine what your relationship would look like if you applied the practical aspects of this, in addition to knowing the brain science behind what is happening. I am guessing we would all take things less personally and accommodate one another instead.