'Emotional brains' versus 'talking heads' in intimate relationships

We are all emotional as well as intellectual beings. Our brains are superbly designed to read and respond rapidly and accurately to emotions - we rely on this for our survival, as well as for connectedness and security. According to neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegal, when we are emotionally flooded - that is, we have a strong emotional reaction to someone or something - a disconnect takes place between the emotional part of our brain and the part that controls reasoning, planning, reflecting and so on. This is why it is important to focus on stopping, breathing deeply and calming ourselves down when we have 'flipped our lid' - this restores our capacity to think and feel at the same time (that is, our thinking and feeling brains become connected again).

In our most intimate relationships, we often don't understand this well. We become emotionally flooded, then get upset that our partner is telling us to 'be reasonable...just think about it this way...', not realizing that in that moment the part of our brain that could do that is not accessible to us. Conversely, we may become frustrated when our partner is begging us for reassurance and comfort, when we can see so clearly that if they just did something about the problem, then they wouldn't continue to need this from us!

It takes a lot of skill as well as awareness to learn that when we are in our 'emotional brain' we need to calm ourselves down before we can try to address a difficult issue. It takes a similiar level of skill and awareness to know that when our partner is upset, we need to talk to their 'emotional brain' - tune into how they are feeling, listen and validate with respect, and withstand the urge to launch into giving advice or trying to solve the problem! If we do that, we've become just a 'talking head' - reason and problem-solving separated from emotional atteunment and connectedness. 

Next time your partner 'flips his/her lid- try to tune in emotionally, holding back the impulse to offer advice, tell them to stop it etc. You may do this by having a guess at how they are feeling (you sound angry.....), offering empathy (it sounds like you've had a rotten time at work today) or validating their experience (no wonder you're so upset after the day you've had!). If you do this well, you will help your partner quite quickly to calm down and reconnect to their thinking brain. Only then might you offer suggestions about how to solve the problem, or better still, ask your partner what their thoughts are about the best way to deal with it (after all, once their thinking brain is accessible again they are likely more than capable of generating their own solutions!).

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