If you’ve been in a relationship, you probably know that relationships are hard. But did you know that what makes relationships hard has more to do with primitive reasons and your brain than how compatible you are?
I’m a huge fan of the work of Stan Tatkin, not only because I’ve trained in his PACT approach to couples therapy, but because I use his teachings with the couples I work with in my practice every week.
So I was thrilled to discover that Stan recently did a TEDx talk. In his talk, Stan shares from the perspective of neuroscience to shine a light on why we fight, how to fight fair and how you can give your relationship a fighting chance.
Check out his TEDx talk by watching the video below or scroll down to read the transcript.
Relationships are difficult. Everybody knows that. Most people think it’s because of money, sex, kids, work, or who picks up the socks. Some people think it’s because we’re just not right for each other or we don’t have enough in common. Look, it’s not just you or him or her. There’s actually nothing more difficult on the planet than another person. Think about that. We’re all difficult. We all come to each new relationship wanting easy.
We also come with our fair share of unresolved painful experiences from previous relationships. Between love and work, love is by far more complex and challenging. Now, much of the reason for this is based in our automatic neurobiological reflexes. Let me explain.
Let’s start with that fancy neocortex of yours. The high cortical areas, for simplicity sake, let’s call them your ambassadors. Your ambassadors are very smart. Deliberate, but slow. They’re very expensive to run. They’re really good at planning, predicting, organizing, languaging, and if I may be frank, they’re really good at making shit up. When you think of logic and reason, think ambassadors.
Now, the subcortical areas of your brain, let’s call them your primitives. They’re very fast, memory-based, automatic, and very cheap to run. They’re involved in love and sex, but also threat detection by scanning for dangerous faces, voices, gestures, movements, as well as dangerous words and phrases. When you think ‘flight or flight’, think primitives.
Thanks to your primitives, your day is ninety-nine percent fully automatic. Your ambassadors love novelty, but they have to offload newness to your primitives in order to conserve resources. You can’t possible run your day with your ambassadors in full gear. You would fry your brain.
The primitives use something called procedural memory, otherwise known as ‘body memory’. It works like this. You learn to ride a bike, and in the beginning, your primitives and ambassadors are in full gear to learn this new skill; but very soon your primitives are going to automate bike-riding without much need for your ambassadors. It goes into procedural memory. Pretty neat, huh?
Okay, so now you fall in love with someone, and again your brain is lit up. You want to know everything about them. You want to touch them, taste them, smell them. You can’t get enough of them. You are high on drugs … nature’s drugs, not those. Dopamine for wanting more, or adrenaline for focus and attention. Testosterone for, you know what. A distinct drop in serotonin so you can perseverate and obsess. You are neurochemically addicted.
You spend all your time together for weeks and months, and you get serious. This is when the fun begins, because very soon your brain is going to automate this new person, and theirs is going to automate you. This is supposed to happen. It’s what the brain does in order to function. It’ll make your relationship feel a lot easier, and it will lead you to your first really big mistakes because you think you know each other already so you stop paying attention. You stop being fully present.
Your primitives are relying on procedural memory to run your relationship, and that memory includes everyone and everything of an emotional importance in your life. That primitive brain of yours is going to read your partner’s thoughts, feelings and intentions through that memory lens. It’s kind of like this.
Why are you giving me that look? I didn’t give you any look. Why are you using that tone of voice with me? What tone? Stop it. What? That. What? Okay that’s the sound of two nervous systems misfiring, and that is our nature. That will happen. It will be a problem if you don’t understand your automatic brain.
As a couple’s therapist, I can tell you that fighting in and of itself is inevitable. There is no relationship without conflict. In fact, if you are a conflict-avoider, you will appear threatening to your partner. The real problem isn’t that you fight. It’s when you do, one or both of you threaten to leave the relationship. A relationship can survive fights. What it cannot survive is loss of safety and security.
Communication, memory, perception: all error-prone. Human communication, even on a good day, is terrible. We’re mostly misunderstanding each other much of the time. When we feel good, we don’t care that much, and when we don’t feel good, we care a whole lot. When stress goes up, human communication gets a whole lot worse. Memory is unreliable.
Memory is faulty, folks. In a fight for whose memory is right, you’re probably both wrong. Your perceptions are like fun-house mirrors. Your perceptions are constantly being altered by your state of mind and your memory. They’re constantly playing tricks on you. If we assume that our communication, our memory, our perception is the real truth, that’s hubris. That will get us into trouble.
Now before I go on, I want to be clear about threat. If you are in an abusive relationship you must get out. I’m not talking about ‘big T’ threat, only ‘small T’ threat, the kind that we have to deal with day in and day out as we bump up against each other and we fight. Why do our fights spin out of control? Well, it’s because real-time is too fast, and when we feel threatened, we act and react with our primitives. Our ambassadors actually have no idea how we’ve gotten to this place, so it makes shit up. “I’m right dammit, and here’s what sounds really good to prove my point.” You really have no idea what you’re talking about, but you sound so confident.
I want to get to the fun part here. Since all of you literally carry around your own neurobiology lab with you wherever you go, here are a few experiments you can run in the comfort of your own home. The next time a relationship moment turns tense, change your position. Go eye-to-eye and face-to-face. Notice what happens. Oh and by the way, if you tend to fight a lot while driving in the car, it’s because you’re side-to-side, and a glance is a threat trigger. That’s why you should never fight in the car or on the phone or while emailing or while texting. We’re visual animals and we need our eyes in order to regulate each other’s nervous systems.
I want you to understand that what I’m talking about here happens to everyone, regardless of personality, previous experience, relationship experience or trauma. No angels, no devils here. We are all capable of becoming threatening even to those we love, and we’re all capable of making huge mistakes and errors in communication, memory and perception. All of us. The decision to be in a relationship, the decision to be in a committed relationship; loving, secure functioning; means being in the fox-hole together and protecting each other from the dangers out there. It’s not just about getting our own way. We’re supposed to have each other’s backs.
I’ve seen far too many relationships end before their time because people cannot get this simple concept. Our major job is to protect each other and make each other feel safe and secure. The world is a dangerous place. It’s always been so. Right now it feels a little scary. If we don’t have each other’s backs, who will?
Thank you and good luck with your relationships.
About the speaker, Stan Tatkin
Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, is the author of Wired for Love, Your Brain on Love, Love and War in Intimate Relationships and his latest book, Wired for Dating. He has a clinical practice in Southern California, teaches at Kaiser Permanente, and is an assistant clinical professor at UCLA. Stan developed the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy® (PACT) and together with his wife, Tracey Boldemann-Tatkin, founded the PACT Institute for the purpose of training other psychotherapists to use this method in their clinical practice. Find out more at his website www.stantatkin.com and www.thepactinstitute.com