One of the things that are most difficult for many couples to deal with are those moments when one or both partners just aren’t acting rationally or reasonably.
One person, for example, might be full of rage and accusations about something that leaves the other person perplexed, and at their wits end.
“All I did was to go dance with someone else at a wedding party, and she all of a sudden accused me of cheating and threatened to break up with me”, one person says. “I explained to her she was wrong and that I had no ill intentions but no matter what I said she wouldn’t believe me”. “It ruined our entire evening and we didn’t talk for two days”
This kind of scenario often leaves the accused party feeling totally at a loss. It is as if the gentle person next to them who can be so caring and loving, suddenly has turned into a monster.
Accused of feeling or thinking things that just aren’t true, the accused person often doesn’t know what to do. Without any clear rational response to a seemingly irrational reaction, the accused is often left with no response but anger, or a desire for time away from this person they suddenly feel no affection for.
“When you get like this I just can’t be around you”, the accused might say, or “I just can’t deal with all your emotional b**lshit!”
The couple might now not talk for hours or days, and each time arguments like this happen, the wedge between partners grows bigger and the sensitivities to triggers more acute.
Emerson Eggerichs calls it the “crazy cycle”, and each time you take another spin, you do more damage to the foundation of your relationship, and prepare the ground for the next one.
The accuser walks away feeling that their needs or feelings are too much to deal with, and the accused walks away feeling emotionally exhausted and helpless to do anything about it.
What to Do to Calm the Situation:
The best ally against the crazy cycle is knowledge about what brings it on.
What each partner needs to understand is that reason and rationality does not guide all our actions in a close relationship. In fact far from it.
Reason and rationality only reside in the most recent part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. This part of our brain is what distinguishes us from other animals and allows us to transcend our animal instincts, but it is by no means always in charge.
As Homo Sapiens, we are still part of the animal realm, and we carry with us both a reptilian brain and a mammalian brain that sometimes override our prefrontal cortex.
What we have in common with reptiles and mammals are our survival instincts and our ability to react quickly to sensory input that alerts our organism that we are in danger.
When we enter into close relationships, we are therefore not just in a relationship with another rational thinking human being, but also with the reptile and mammal that we each carry around inside.
Don't Dismiss Our Animal Instincts:
The reptilian, mammalian, and prefrontal parts of our brains are often in competition with each other, meaning that a prefrontal understanding can sometimes quiet down a reptilian instinct to freeze and “play dead”, but also that a mammalian instinct to flee can sometimes override and trump our rational perception that our partner in front of us is our friend and not our foe.
Multiple sensory inputs that often contradict each other thus vie for control of our organism and ultimately leads us to respond sometimes based on reason alone, sometimes based on pure emotion, and sometimes based on pure instinct.
Although it might seem like the prefrontal response to what is happening around us should be privileged, we would be severely disabled if we were not designed to sometimes have our mammalian and reptilian brains override our reasoning.
The reptilian and mammalian parts of our brains are able to receive and respond to input much faster than the “cognitive processor” of our prefrontal cortex, and by doing so can save our life.
The limbic system, which is part of our mammalian brain, can for example perceive a snake and interpret it as dangerous, even before we have rationally understood that there is a snake on the ground. In this way it can make us flee or prepare us for fight before any rational decision has been made about what to do.
The reptilian part of our brain can activate a similar response, which is needed when the higher order mammalian response is not effective. The reptilian brain can activate a freeze state in us that makes us go “numb”, causes us to faint, or makes us become separate from our bodies, and this can be highly useful when we feel paralyzed by danger and are in no position to flee or fight. By going numb we can endure great hardship with minimum pain until the situation has changed and we are no longer in danger.
Without these animal responses at our disposal, we would not be able to survive certain situations that we as human can be face with, and our emotional, psychological, and physical survival would be compromised.
How to Respond to “Crazy”:
The reason why so many couples get stumped is that they have not understood that the instinctual and emotional responses of their partner are part and parcel of being in a relationship. When we say “I do” to our partner, we don’t just say “I do” to their prefrontal cortex, but also to their animal instincts and their reptilian ancestry.
For the animal in each of us, getting close to others and depending on others for nurturing, comfort, and safety comes with certain dangers. We can lose the other person which would make us extremely vulnerable and unsafe, and we can feel extremely hurt and rejected, which would compromise our own sense of self and threaten us with our own emotional and psychological annihilation. Our need for a secure attachment bond to our partner and a sense of being valued and respected for who we are, are therefore potential danger triggers for the mammal and reptile within us.
When the reptile or mammal within us perceive a threat to our self-esteem or the strength of our connection to our partner, it reacts faster than our prefrontal cortex, and makes us feel and do things out of instinct and fear. It is in these moments that we can seem irrational and “crazy” to our partner because it is in these moment that we are not our cool, calm, and “rational” selves.
The Key to a Successful Relationship:
In any successful relationship both partners have to come to an understanding of each other’s animal instincts and emotional responses. If your partner’s behavior does not make sense from a prefrontal perspective, you need to ask yourself what the mammal or the reptile in them might be responding to.
Oftentimes a response that does not make sense to the reason of the prefrontal cortex, is a response that has been triggered by fear and survival. Only when we understand this and understand how to calm this fear and take away the threat to survival, will we be able to respond in a way that will bring the prefrontal cortex back in charge.
Why Reasoning Will Often Fail:
Oftentimes the response that is required to appease and calm the reptilian and mammalian mind in our partner, is not born out of reason. You cannot simply argue, persuade, or problem-solve your way out of it.
Oftentimes the response you partner requires is of a more emotional or visceral kind. Your partner needs to "feel" safe, or "feel" loved, or "feel" reassured. They need to see it in your eyes, feel it in your touch, or hear it from the emotional tone of your voice.
Accepting the Animal in Me and You:
By no means is it an easy task for a person to respond this way to their partner when they act seemingly irrational and come at you with attacks, for oftentimes the person who needs to respond is caught in their own animal instinct and needs a similarly calming response from the person who just attacked them.
Nevertheless, the first step to winning the battle against the animal insecurities that often create a wedge between partners, is to understand that we are all part reptile, part mammal, and part human, and that reason is not always king.
Once we accept this about ourselves and about our partner, we can begin to understand the seemingly "irrational" and "out-of-control" as part and parcel of an ancient alarm system that perceives and reacts outside of our conscious control and intent and calls for a different kind of response.
I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and emotionally-focused couples therapist in Houston Texas. I can help you defeat the "crazy cycle" and respond to the fear signals that often bring it about. Visit my website to read more about how couples therapy can help you.