If you’re anything like I used to be, the last thing you want is to be touched by your partner when you’re fighting. It used to be that if my partner and I were fighting, and he would reach out to me in any way, I would pull away. I’d also cross my arms, maybe even turn my back to him. And glare. I had a really good glare that I developed in childhood when I was mad at my parents.
But I’ve been practicing a new way to fight.
Danger & The Reptilian Brain
There’s a good reason why we tend to pull away during a fight: we don’t feel safe. More specifically, our reptilian brains sense danger—life or death type danger– and our autonomic nervous systems go into fight or flight mode. Why does the reptilian brain get triggered when we’re fighting about who does the dishes? Because this primitive part of our brain has been programmed since birth to be triggered when our attachment needs aren’t getting met. In other words, we feel safe when mom is giving us food and shelter and love, and an alarm sounds when our needs are not getting met…because ultimately, an infant dies if a caregiver does not meet their needs. Fast forward a few decades and the kind of attachment bond we have with our romantic partner mirrors the attachment we had with our primary caregivers. When that bond is threatened, the alarm sounds and we fear for our lives.
We all know that a fight with our significant other is most likely not a life or death situation. So what we need to do is override our reptilian brain’s message and tell it to keep calm (and fight on). But fight in a different way: not as if we’re reptiles, or helpless infants, fighting to save our lives, but calmly and with all those great faculties that come with the more evolved parts of our brains: the ability to be loving, empathic, generous, curious, caring, gentle, rational, and thoughtful.
Love & The Limbic Brain
Enter the limbic system. This is the part of the brain responsible for our emotional life. It’s the part of us that distinguishes mammals as more evolved than reptiles; that makes us want to have dogs for companions more so than crocodiles; and that makes falling in love so delicious and heartbreak so painful.
When we hold hands and look at each other with soft, loving eyes, we trigger a beautiful process called limbic resonance. Limbic resonance is the attunement of one person’s internal state to another’s. It’s the mindreading of the emotional system—emotion reading if you will. Limbic resonance is how a mother knows what her baby needs. It’s what makes it possible for a flock of birds to fly together as one…the whole flock turning left with no particular bird in charge. When we are in limbic resonance with someone we love, we intuit their internal state automatically.
Importance of reading others
Since birth, we have been practicing reading people– their facial expressions, the look in their eyes, their energy. Why? It’s a survival skill leading to safety and belonging but more importantly, to gobs of information about the all important internal state of another. We underestimate the importance of reading others, but we also know that those who are good at it are successful: better parents are attuned to their kids, better business owners attuned to their clients, better orators attuned to their audience. But this skill is a forgotten one when it comes to romantic love. When we fight with our significant others, we often tune them out instead of tuning them in.
When we choose to tune them in instead, we have the opportunity to understand them more deeply. For example, the truth about why I get upset when the dishes aren’t done isn’t about the dishes at all. It’s that it reminds me of my chaotic, messy house growing up due to my mom’s alcoholism…and it leaves me feeling yucky because it stirs up the old implicit memory of what my life was like at that time. When my partner understands that about me, he’s much more likely to do the dishes to help me heal the wound left from my neglectful mother. When we understand our partner’s humanness…their vulnerability, their emotional bruises…then the work of the couple becomes about healing rather than fighting.
So, you choose. You can fight like reptiles, unconsciously fighting just to stay alive. Or you can choose to breathe deeply, take your sweetheart’s hands in yours, look lovingly at him or her with soft eyes, and bolster your connection through limbic resonance. When we are resonating with each other, we remember that we are safe and that we love each other. Our impulse to protect ourselves by attacking the other is forgotten and our impulse to be tenderly caring returns. In limbic resonance, we have the ability to correct the reptilian brain’s mistake: I am not in danger, I am in love and I want to stay in love.