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  • Mark Napolitano MS LCPC

How Understanding Our Non-Conscious Brain Can Deepen Relationships

Updated: Feb 16


For many of us, getting ‘into the weeds’ of what explains our behavior, can be enormously helpful in improving our lives. Particularly, when the target of improvement are our most intimate relationships. I believe any way we can increase our knowledge of how we humans work, only moves us closer toward the change we wish to be.


Focusing on how we take in information is a good place to start.


For most of us we experience the world in a cause and effect manner. This or that happens, and then we react, or not (which is also a reaction). When we consider our interactions with our partner it doesn’t seem much different, yet if those exchanges have developed into conflicts and hostilities it becomes important to get at their root cause. The place where we may find some answers to this would be the emotional life of our non-conscious mind.

This is a part of brain where emotions and memory have combined since birth, to regulate our nervous system, either up or down, in the face of perceived safety or threat in our

environment.


Let’s first be aware of a typical internal chain of events that we all experience throughout our day, in fact every moment, although most take place without much conscious awareness. These are simply the continuous flow of our emotions, thoughts, and requisite actions (behaviors). These mechanisms allow us to monitor our surroundings and let us know what we need to respond to from moment to moment. Understanding how they unfold in our relationships could allow us to manage their trajectory, thereby intervening at crucial moments to avert conflict and bolster connection with our partner.


Feelings intertwine with our thoughts, and produce actions.


In general, we’re pretty simple creatures in how we interpret our world, except our bigger brain always makes us the central player, making it very clear to us that our interpretation of events is usually the most correct (even when it’s not), rather than someone else. This unfortunately can inhibit our ability to understand our partner (friend, colleague), non-judgmentally, placing them second in line when a need is requested, and potentially contributing to relational harm.

The past is prologue.

We all carry around an emotional reservoir that is unique to us. It generally is composed of all the good and bad stuff that we’ve experienced in or life, (and generally the bad stuff sits in front). As we move through the world we are constantly scanning the environment, non-consciously, for anything that resembles that good/bad stuff we carry around. Now when pleasant past experiences are triggered by the environment we feel safe, no worries, everything is fine, consequently when hurtful, fear-based ones are sensed we may feel unsafe, initiating internal questions, I’m I ok? Did I do something wrong? How should I react? This is what is most commonly understood as a fight, flight, or freeze response.


Let’s say your partner comes home from work and doesn’t greet you, no hello, how are you, nothing; for you an emotion/feeling might be triggered let’s say 'hurt', or not-safe, a thought might arise, you don’t care about me, is this relationship sound, this could easily then lead to a protective action, perhaps anger or distancing. Our mood may noticeably shift, from glad to mad, because we’d rather not feel the hurt, it becomes much easier (using anger in this case) to just avoid it, perhaps adding to previous resentments and fueling this, and future conflict.

Notice how this whole chain of events starts with emotion. What if we flip the word ‘hurt’ for ‘safe’ what would the new chain look like? After a warm, interested greeting from your partner; I missed you today, tell me how your day went, how might you respond? Here the greeting triggers emotional safety. Your thoughts easily do the math and arrive at; you get me, you care, culminating in a desire (action) to move closer.


What can we do?


If we were to begin to be more curious about our behavior or perhaps become aware of the circumstances in which our partner experiences ‘hurt' we might wonder if it could be our failure? Our inability to engage? Or even the hint of an angry tone in our voice? Then perhaps we could become more aware of our partner’s internal trigger and respond differently. Thereby preventing the hurt/not safe trigger and replacing it with the ‘safe’ one, drawing them closer. Certainly, we would wish that our partner would become just as aware of our internal (non-conscious) triggers so that they could show us the same empathy they wish from us. And in doing so would begin to change the negative pattern of interaction toward one of warmth and connection. It all begins with a conversation.



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