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Couple's Net

By Chandrama Anderson

E-mail Chandrama Anderson

About this blog: I am a LMFT specializing in couples counseling and have lived in and around Palo Alto since 1969. I worked in high-tech at Apple, Stanford University, and in Silicon Valley for 15 years before becoming a therapist. My background i...  (More)

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"How Can We Be Happy Again?" Part 2

Uploaded: Feb 11, 2014
Today I am going to answer Help's question of "How Can We Be Happy Again?" by talking about our ability to calm and soothe ourselves and each other, and have loving, connected conversations. I'm going to use a lot of brain terminology within context, but without much definition, so if you want, you can look up the terms online.

When couples are not getting along, it's common for us to fight, flight or freeze. This always makes things worse because one partner's actions can cause the other to react into fight, flight or freeze and now we're on a downward spiral. These negative emotional reactions bounce back and forth between us. I call this "limbic or emotional ping-pong."

A variety of parts of our brain control our reaction or response to our mate. Our goal in being a happier couple is to respond to our partner.

We have survived as a species because we, though the amygdalae, recognize danger, in 1/200ths of a second (including a spat with our spouse). This triggers the hypothalamus into releasing the chemicals we need to fight, run, or freeze.

Tatkin calls these our "primitives," and acknowledges that our brains are inherently more suited to war than to peace.

The great thing is that as the human brain developed, we ended up with a pre-frontal cortex, which we can choose to activate and use, even in times of stress. This is where the "ambassadors" come in, as Tatkin calls them.

The orbitolfrontal cortex is responsible for several functions that can lead to peace in the land: The right side accesses intuitive and non-verbal social cues, and empathetic and bodily awareness; the left side makes use of verbal and logical cues and can process the meaning of words. The latter involves the choice to bring the orbitolfrontal cortex online -- to respond -- which is a slower brain process than reaction. What this means in plain English: the ambassadors use the social, rational and sophisticated aspects of our brain.

So what can we do to invite in and live with more ambassadors than primitives?

Through our own act of deep breathing, we can call upon our inner resources (and the ventral vagus complex) to calm us down. Next, three of the best ways to bring our ambassadors online with our partner is through eye contact, tone of voice, and touch.

By now, you are probably noticing that what I am describing is what we have control over. No matter how much we wish we had control over our partner, the truth is that we do not. Hopefully she will choose to work on bringing her ambassadors to the marriage. Hopefully he will bring his ambassadors online, practice deep breathing, make eye contact, talk in a kind tone of voice, or reach for physical (non-sexual, at the moment) contact to help the two of you to re-group.

Connection is made through our right brains, and talking things over through our left brain functions. We need both.

Start noticing your ambassadors and primitives in action. Don't judge, don't be harsh on yourself (or your partner) while you are learning and practicing. Try saying, "Hmm, interesting, we're playing emotional ping-pong. Guess my primitives are at work. Let me take a few deep breaths to calm myself, and then I can find my empathy and change my tone of voice." Or, "I see I am making eye contact and touching her hand instead of raising this issue into a fight. Guess my ambassadors are at work. Oh, she's smiling at me now!" See "Wired for Love" on page 41 for a sample ambassador conversation.

I know this sounds good as you read it. I know this is happening in hundredths of a second in real life. I also have faith in you, and I know this can be done, and you can turn your lives into an upward spiral that leads to happiness.

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