Primitives and Ambassadors

13 Oct

My son just got stung by a wasp while atop a ladder painting our house.  He flailed at the wasp totally forgetting that he was high off the ground.  This is what happens in marital fights: each person is fighting for personal survival, forgetting that they may be injuring the one person on the planet from whom they most need love and understanding.


In Wired for Love, Stan Tatkins writes: “…partners at war say and do things that are decidedly unfriendly.  Each time they fight, they tend to recycle the same complaints, the same examples, the same theories, and the same solutions.”  Tatkin explains that the couples are functioning with their “primitives,” the parts of their brain designed to keep them alive and safe.  The amygdalae register danger, the hypothalamus declares war, and the adrenal glands pump the body up into fighting action.  All of this bypasses the brain’s “ambassadors,” those parts of the brain that are capable of slowing down the situation, realizing that we should “make love not war,” send some friendly messages to your partner to help him or her calm down, and have a calm, constructive conversation.


I often see couples rehashing the same arguments while reverting to familiar patterns of blaming and defensiveness.  When I help them understand that they literally can choose which part of their brain they want to use with their partner, they often will choose to do those behaviors that will help calm their partner: listen well, communicate understanding, or express concern for the partner.  This is consistent with the proverb, “A soft answer turns away wrath.”