Train Your Brain To Be a Better Spouse Want to improve your marriage? Try taming your "Lizard Brain." BY KATE STEWART, PH.D.
Our brains are like plastic and can be molded with a little work.
“ Our memories are not stored like computer memories. They have numerous associations and judgments stored with them, often negative, which we ourselves have created.”
Here’s a typical scenario: You and your spouse have been looking forward to spending the evening together. You get home early and begin dressing for dinner at your favorite special restaurant. The phone rings. It’s your spouse telling you they have been asked to stay late to prepare for an upcoming client meeting. You feel a flash of anger. Suddenly you find yourself thinking that perhaps your spouse is not as disappointed as you are. Now you’re really angry. You answer, "Fine! I didn’t want to go anyway!" Your spouse, who is as disappointed as you are, withdraws. You sense some rough times ahead.
Lizard or Leader?
Do you sometimes act this way? Are you, like me, sometimes a lizard—someone who sometimes responds to your spouse emotionally with anger or withdrawal, for instance? Do you wish you were in better control of your responses? Do you wish you could rely on yourself to interact with your spouse more lovingly, with more understanding and patience?
That’s what I want. And so I spent a good part of the last year researching what we know about the brain and what we can do to control our emotions. I’ve learned a lot and I want to share two things with you today: Every one of us has the ability to improve our relationships by training our brain and doing so is not difficult.
Your brain contains areas that are often referred to as "Lizard Brain." These are the older, deeper parts of your brain that evolved early in our prehistory. Lizard Brain protects you from threats and helps you take advantage of opportunities. For instance, Lizard Brain decides whether you should run or fight when you meet a gangster in a dark alley. Lizard Brain urges you to snuggle with your spouse when you need comfort and to initiate sex when you’re feeling sexy. Lizard Brain is also the part that blows up when your children test you or withdraws or responds in anger when your spouse speaks harshly to you.
Poor Lizard Brain gets a bad rap. After all, it’s only trying to protect us. You can see there are times when we couldn’t get along without it. However, if that’s the only part of the brain we used when interacting with our spouse, we’d be in deep trouble.
No, your emotionally charged Lizard Brain is balanced by your cooler, wiser "Leader Brain." Also known as the prefrontal cortex, your Leader Brain makes decisions, reasons, makes judgments, plans, uses critical thinking and has empathy.
These two parts of your brain usually balance one other. But when Lizard Brain is triggered by some threat or temptation, Leader Brain takes a backseat—and Lizard Brain often sabotages your best interests. It’s known as impulsiveness, willpower failure, or plain old immaturity. Have you ever snapped at your spouse and regretted it? Have you remained stubbornly silent, pouting instead of resolving an issue with your spouse? Have you done things in the moment that you knew would hurt you in the long term? Yep, your Lizard Brain was at work.
Here’s my message: You can improve your relationship by training your brain—and it’s not as difficult as you might think.
Train the Lizard
Neuroscientists, psychologists and spiritual leaders document many things we can do to tame Lizard Brain and strengthen Leader Brain. This is just one, but it’s a good one.
Our memories are not stored like computer memories. They have numerous associations and judgments stored with them, often negative, which we ourselves have created. For instance, you remember past arguments with your spouse not as they actually occurred. Your brain stores certain parts of those memories, along with a wealth of associated emotions. When you recall such memories, you also experience the negative emotions associated with them. While the event did happen, the associations are your own creation. You can choose to disassociate them. Here’s how.
Close your eyes. Breathe deeply and relax your body. Think of a memory that makes you feel happy—maybe a sense of being cared for by someone you love, maybe a time you achieved something of which you were very proud. Feel the good emotions. Hold on to those emotions.
Now, while experiencing those good feelings, bring to mind a memory of your marriage that makes you feel angry or hurt. Hold them there in your mind together—the upsetting memory and the good feelings. You can do this. Let the good feelings wash through your body even while you picture the memory.
The more often you do this practice, the more quickly the negative associations disappear. The guilt, the pain—which doesn’t serve you—will be gone. And they won’t be triggered by future incidents that your brain used to see as similar to that memory.
Your brain is plastic. Like your marital interactions, your brain can be molded. Remember, we are only victims of Lizard Brain thinking if we choose to be.
Kate Stewart, Ph.D. is an author, executive coach, and certified mediator. She recently founded the web-based Personal Success Toolkit—the most comprehensive, personalized resources available to define and achieve success...on your terms. Learn proven techniques to improve relationships, define personal success, and overcome procrastination and impulsiveness at www.goldscaffold.com. Dr. Stewart also authors a blog at www.myscaffolds.com.