The Relationship Wizard
As some of you might know, my wife Crystal and I, along with two other women, Rosemary Skinner and Cynthia Ballard, have a live Facebook show every Wednesday 1-2, called Soiree Lifestyle Series 2020. It started last year in response to Covid, with a focus on lifestyle, relationships, and entertainment, but we are now on our 40th episode. This week’s speaker is Irene Moore Davis, sharing her knowledge of Black History in the Windsor-Essex area.
With Family Day and Valentine’s day coming in February, we decided to feature relationships this month, so next week I’ll be talking about a) the importance of communication in relationships and b) why it can be a challenge. The last week of February we are having Dr. Harville Hendrix and his wife Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, the creators of Imago Relationship Therapy, back on the show for a second time. They are the pre-eminent marriage and relationship therapists in the world and we are honored to host them.
Communication in a Relationship
Why is communication often difficult in a relationship and why is it so important? I’ll tackle the first question today and the second on Thursday. I know it sounds simple but I think safety is the key to having a great relationship, as well as making all communication work. I’ve stressed for years how important safety is in any relationship. I am not talking about physical safety, which has to be a given, but rather psychological and emotional safety.
Why do I say that? Because of our human brain. As you read this or listen to it you are using the rational, intellectual, cerebral cortex part of your brain and typically that is what you might think of when I mention the human brain. However, scientists tell us that our brain is also made up of the midbrain and brain stem, as well as our upper brain. They further explain that what we call the brain stem, we share with all animals – birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles, and it operates in us pretty much the same way it does in them.
Primary Function of the Brain Stem
The primary function of the brain stem is to keep us alive. It asks the question: is it safe or is it dangerous? And if dangerous, it will defend itself, using the reactive responses of fight, flight, or freeze. The genesis of the brain stem in animals goes back 500 million years – it has a long track record of survival. You won’t fool it. Its primary response is: “Shoot first, ask questions later”; remember, for your brain stem it is a matter of survival. If it errors, it will error on the side of shooting first, not asking questions, as that takes too long.
So, going back to the difficulty sometimes in communication, if I don’t feel completely safe I’ll defend. (that is a 500 million-year-old legacy). The problem, of course, is that your partner isn’t a saber tooth tiger, but your brain stem doesn’t know that, it just senses danger and so goes into survival mode.
Communication Gets Intensified
The problem in communication gets intensified, when you understand that for the first two years of life, most of a child’s learning is right brain and non-verbal. The cues to danger are tone of voice, gestures, expressions, touch, etc. and the child develops his or her coping strategies – the fight, flight or freeze response, based on those cues. Communication becomes difficult in a relationship when the old brain part of me, senses danger – be it a look, a tone of voice, or gesture – even vaguely similar to a cue from the past. Remember for the brain stem, it is survival. My body goes into its defensive stance, triggered by the survival response of my old brain, making good communication difficult.
Does this make sense? I know it sounds simple, but we often don’t give credence to the job our lower brain does for us. It is, after all, just trying to keep us alive and in my case, has done that for a long time. I am certainly not knocking my old brain – if I am out on the 401 I want it to be on high alert. At the same time, I don’t want it running my relationship. The bottom line – safety becomes all-important in any great relationship because if you don’t feel safe, you will defend; it is as simple as that. On Thursday I’ll explore why safe communication is so important in your relationship.