War or Love: Flaws of The Human Brain in Relationship Conflict

Your brain on love

Stan Tatkin, PsyD proposes that the human brain is built for survival first and love second. This means we are wired for war more so than we are wired for love.

Reactive ConversationMature Dialogue
Chris: I get pissed off because you’re never listening to me. You finish my sentences and tell me what I’m thinking.

Avery: But when you talk, you go on and on for 10 minutes.

Chris: You don’t interrupt your brothers like you do me.

Avery: My brothers and I can have a conversation. You just talk on and on and on and I’m supposed to sit and listen attentively. Pshh.

Chris: I am angry when I get interrupted. Could you please let me finish what I want to say?

Avery: Getting interrupted is rude. And you tend to talk a lot, so I lose track of what you’re saying. Could you pause so I can catch up, and make sure I’m clear on what you’re saying?

Chris: You’re right. I do talk on and on. It’s something I learned from my mother. It makes sense that it’s difficult for you to listen. Is talking less like this better?

Avery: It is. Now, what problem were we discussing?

It’s easy to see our tendency for war in conflict. Couples either have a reactive conversation where they verbally attack each other, or they have a mature dialogue that demonstrates their love for each other. The difference lies in the part of our brain that is active during conflict conversations.

According to Dr. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner, the brain has two systems.

The first system is automatic and reactive. This system dominates the brain when it senses a threat. It forces you to react when you’re crossing the street and a car runs a red light in front of you. It does so without asking you for permission to do this. You would be dead if your brain paused and asked, “Should we jump out of the way of this car?

This first system is what Tatkin calls your “primitives,” because it’s an older brain designed to keep you safe. It’s responsible for the fight, flee, or freeze response.

brain on love
It works like this:

  1. Alarm system goes off when something appears threatening.
  2. It prepares the body to fight, flee, or freeze to protect you.
  3. You attack, run, or play dead.

In other words, you’re emotionally flooded. When you’re overwhelmed like this, you’re brain doesn’t care about being nice or friendly. It wants to survive, and it does so by trying to win arguments.

A telltale sign of emotional flooding is when couples fight about the same thing over and over again. They fight tooth and nail, debating facts and exhausting their energy without ever getting to the root of the conflict.

When our primitives take over, we fail to see different ways of dealing with the conflict. We become inflexible in our position. We dig more into our trenches and fight for our position. We throw verbal grenades and shoot nasty looks at our lover in their trench.

Luckily for you and me, there’s another system.

The second system is the more evolved part of the brain that allows us to socialize. When it’s working (and the first system doesn’t shut it down), we can love deeply. Tatkin proposes that it’s wired for love. He calls this part of the brain “Ambassadors” because they interact with others in a humane way.

This system allows us to do the following:

  1. Be introspective
  2. Keep calm during conflict so you can talk it out
  3. Take your partner’s perspective into consideration so you can empathize with them
  4. Enables you to stay emotionally connected

The problem is that this system drains energy, and requires more intentional thinking. This extra effort and focus is another reason why the brain prefers to use the “primitives” over the “ambassadors.”

But here’s the beauty of our “ambassadors:” The more we strengthen their ability to remain present in difficult conversations, the more they keep the “primitives” at bay. Thus making it the easier to accept influence and find win-win solutions.

How to Stop Being Adversaries and Become Allies

Couples who fight well go on a journey to resolve conflict together.

“Look, we’re going to find something that works for both of us”

“We’re in this together.”

They can also be firm and stay connected by saying things like, “Your opinion matters to me, and I’m not budging on this aspect,” or, “I understand how you feel, and I think you’re being a little greedy. I also think you’re aware of that.” These couples are able to be honest, and are willing to tolerate the discomfort required to find a win-win solution.

If you find yourself fighting with your partner and start to feel stuck or overwhelmed, do the following 11 tricks. These steps will calm your “primitives,” and allow your “ambassadors” to take over the conversation:

  1. Sit Down and Talk Face-to-Face. When you fight over text, the phone, or from different rooms in the house, it increases the chance of your “primitives” dominating the conversation, says Tatkin. When you’re looking at each other’s faces while you argue, it allows the “ambassadors” to keep you present and more open. Tatkin advises couples to sit no less than three feet apart.
  2. Talk Kindly. Dr. Gottman’s research was able to predict how a conversation would end with a 96% accuracy, based on how it started in the first three minutes. If you start a conversation critically, your partner’s “primitives” will step in to protect them and attack you. Learn how to talk kindly here. A helpful way to do this is to start your conversation by naming five things you appreciate about your partner. This helps keep your “ambassadors” in the driver seat and waves what Tatkin calls the “Flag of Friendliness.”
  3. Focus on Feelings, Not Facts. Fights in relationships are not so much about the facts, but rather how the events made us feel. If you notice you’re fighting over who said what and when, take a break. Tatkin says that when this happens couples are engaged in “Blah-blah-blah” warfare instead of connection. To resolve conflict, you must connect by understanding the feelings this event created and what it meant about you, your partner, and the relationship, before you try to resolve it.
  4. Take a Timeout. Tatkin advises partners to “shut up” in the heat of an argument, because when you’re flooded, the things that are going to come out of your mouth will be garbage. You can take a preventative step to stop the cycle of attack-counterattack by agreeing on a signal or phrase that stops the conversation and gets you back on track. The only way this works is if both partners agree on the signal and take ownership for changing course, rather than calling each other out.
  5. Talk Slowly and Softly. When a couple is in a heated argument that isn’t going well, they speak more quickly, and often speak over each other. Sometimes they both began to talk louder. This signals to the “primitives” to prepare for war. Instead, talk slowly and softly. Your tone of voice will help keep the conversation from escalating.
  6. Be Concise. Condense your side of the issue into one sentence so your partner can understand. When someone talks too long about an issue, it can feel like an avalanche is coming down a mountain. This can cause the “primitives” to step in. Instead, say something in one sentence, and have your partner reflect it. Doing this keeps your partner at your side as you journey into the hurt feelings of this particular event.
  7. Stay Calm by Breathing Deeply. When you take deep breaths, you regulate your nervous system. This gets you closer to the deeper feelings you have about the problem and opens you up to connecting with your partner. Here is a Ted Talk on how to breathe properly. When I notice my “primitives” are dominating the conversation with my partner, I’ll pause and practice tactical breathing to ground myself.
  8. Express Love. Dr. Gottman discovered that stable marriages have five positive interactions to every negative interaction during conflict. So when you’re fighting, add in positive comments. “I really love you and sometimes I get frustrated about this because…” “I know you have my best interest at heart, and I know we are going to resolve this.”
  9. “Yield to Win.” In conflict, it’s likely that your partner is expecting push-back, so when you put your side of the conflict on hold and get curious about their experience, it disarms their “primitives.” You can do this by asking open-ended questions such as, “This seems really important to you. Can you help me understand why?” Dr. Gottman calls this “yielding to win.”
  10. “Lead with Relief.” Offer reassurance when you see your partner react to something, and acknowledge your role to help your partner stay calm. Tatkin calls this “Leading with Relief” because it calms the “primitives.” You can do this by saying things like,
    1. “I had no idea that you were so bothered by what I did. I’m sorry I made you feel that way.”
    2. “I know this is a hard conversation and I want us to have a relationship where we can express our feelings without worrying that it’ll ruin our relationship.”
  11. Think Relationship Enhancing Thoughts. How you think about your partner impacts how you’ll respond to them. During conflict, remind yourself of how much they love and care about you. Tell yourself how this difficult conversation is a sign you deeply care about each other, and that it will improve your relationship. These thoughts will help keep you calm and present.

The 11 tricks above will help soothe your nervous system and keep the “primitives” at bay. The more times your partner and you have a mature fight that keeps both your partner and you calm, the more you train the automatic part of your brain to trust your “ambassadors.”

So when the next conflict happens, your “primitives” are not going to jump in to protect you. They have faith built on experience that you are not threatened, and that you can get your needs met.

By skillfully implementing these into your conflict conversation, your partner and you are more likely going to have mature dialogue that expresses warmth and love, instead of highlighting each others’ inadequacies and imperfections.

With Love,

Kyle Benson

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Kyle Benson

Kyle Benson is an Intentionally Intimate Relationship coach providing practical, research based tools to build long-lasting relationships. Kyle is best known for his compassion and non-judgemental style and his capacity to seeing the root problem. Download the Intimacy 5 Challenge to learn where you and your partner can improve your emotional connection and build lasting intimacy.
War or Love: Flaws of The Human Brain in Relationship Conflict