The Brain’s Take on Relationships – A bit of Neuroscience


Did you know that the area of neuroscience has important implications for mental and relational health? Let’s practically explore some of what neuroscience has taught us about how we do relationships! While this is a highly complex topic, and the technicalities are not the focus of our topic today, I do want to expand a bit for you to better understand that this emotional, relational stuff is complex and part of how we make sense of it is in how the brain works.

For our purposes, we are going to lump the brain into two main pieces: the automatic functioning portions, which we will call Autopilot, and the rest of consciousness as the Cortex.

Autopilot controls automatic functioning and reactions, such as breathing, blood flow, the startle response (including fight/flight and freeze) etc.  The Autopilot also mediates feelings and emotion.  We actually do not choose our emotions, for example I don’t choose to be scared, lonely, or in love.  No matter how much I try to force myself to feel the emotion of love (for example), I cannot control when and how the emotion rises and falls. (I can have a great amount of influence on it…. that is a totally different topic.) Or if I were to convince you that the building you are in is burning down, your Autopilot would mostly take over your reactivity based on your level of fear and preparation.  So in short, Autopilot controls reactivity and emotions.

In contrast the Cortex is the computer aspect of our brain.  It thinks, symbolizes, chooses, is conscious and self-aware.  The Autopilot and Cortex compliment each other in how and the amount they work.  The higher the level of emotional hijacking or reactivity (as autopilot takes over at a high level), the more and more difficult it is to access our thinking, logic and reasoning (the cortex begins to shut down).

Have you ever had a time of conflict with someone you are close to and you find that your body is all clenched up? You have a difficulty finding the right words? You might stutter or feel an intense need to leave the area or conversation, or you say things in the “heat of the moment.” All of these are examples that show that as body reactions and tension goes up (as autopilot takes over), my ability to think clearly and in a logical, linear, way goes down (the cortex functioning decreases.)

So… how does this relate to relationship conflicts? First, it is important to note that as my Cortex functioning decreases, I become more and more defensive, more self-centered in my thinking and reasoning, and less likely to listen well.

When reaction and negative emotions strike there are two general ways of interacting with that pain or frustration.  There are verbal constrictors….. hold it in.  And verbal exploders….

In the work of Gray Brainerd,  he talks about this in terms of Turtles and Hailstorms.  Now, we all have the capacity to be both a turtle (constrict, just take it, let’s not fight, or withdraw from conflict) or a hailstorm (let me tell you about what went wrong, let’s fix this, I need you to listen to me), but under relational conflict we will tend to lean one direction or another.

Turtles believe their job is to create and maintain peace.  They retract and are less verbal during conflict.  They don’t want  to fight about small stuff, and they focus on relationship peace.  Turtling is an expression of respect as well as an attempt at protection from the hailstorm. “I never start fights,” “I keep things calm,” “I don’t hurt my partner.” People who are turtles tend to have a history that includes hurtful criticism.

Hailstorms believe it is their job to solve or fix the problem.  They express out, expand, and can express too much in a given situation.  Hailstorms can feel like they need to share every thought that enters their brain, and they highly value resolving the issue. “I keep us together,” “I am the one who cares,” “I am the feeling one.”

A very interesting fact is that most of the time Turtles and Hailstorms find each other.  They create a sense of balance, actually this also creates components of healing relationship that challenges us to grow our underdeveloped areas.

Think about your own conflicts… Are you more of a turtle or a hailstorm?  And your partner is a?  See most often we find each other!  It is normal for one partner to be a hailstorm and the other to be a turtle.

Hailstorms need to manage their push to be verbal and give space for their partners to respond.  They also need to offer respect and encouragement and not express every thought that comes up.  Make it safe for your turtle to come out of their shell. It is okay to request something, it is not okay to demand it. They need you to listen to them!

Turtles need to show the hailstorm that they are paying attention and care about the issue by opening up and staying verbally engaged. By investing in the issue that is important to the hailstorm, you will help to calm the storm. They need you to interact and share your thoughts! By interacting they feel like we are on the same team.

The turtle and hailstorm concept is an easy to relate to example of part of why conflicts are confusing in relationships. We both are asking for what we need by giving what we are comfortable with. We both need to grow and stretch towards developing a more balanced style of working with stress. Understanding both your perspective, as well as your partner’s tendencies (hailstorm or turtle) can provide insight on how to address the tension and ultimately overcome.

Remember, we can be a healthy, happy, and stable couple even if we do not agree. Find ways to maintain your own self-respect, offer your partner respect, and balance the integrity of the relationship. Both of us need to have emotional safety and acceptance in this relationship.

How does this concept relate to your relationships? What do you need to do to stretch and grow your under-developed areas?

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