How The Primal Brain Damages Relationships

Before I became a parent, I had a vision of the type of parent I wanted to be.

I thought I would be someone who would talk “to” his kids –not down to them.

I would treat them like “people”, with kindness and respect.  They were small people, sure; but they were still people.

Because of this I figured I wouldn’t need to raise my voice or yell, and I definitely wouldn’t ever do anything like spank them.  Instead, I would be patient.  I would explain things to them, and use reason when dealing with them.


Man was I ever naive.

Nice idea in theory, but in practice?  It doesn’t necessarily work.


See, kids are still learning how to interact with the world around them, and they are just learning about their own emotions.

Sometimes kids (mine included) will have tantrums.  And experience has shown me that during time of high emotion (such as during the heat of a tantrum) there is no reasoning.  There is no logic.

In those moments, they are simply REACTING, and are completely out of control.

After the moment has passed and they have calmed down, THEN I can talk to them.  That is when they will be able to actually hear me, and reason will kinda/sorta/maybe work.

In a heightened emotional state though, reason has no chance.



I see this a lot in life.

Times where people do things and make choices that leave me dumbfounded.  Often I’m left wondering “what the hell are they thinking?”

And that’s just it.

Sometimes people aren’t thinking.

Sometimes people WILL made decisions that are absolutely TERRIBLE, and have long term ramifications that seem so obvious I can’t understand HOW people could possibly make the decisions they do.

But maybe in those moments people aren’t actually thinking.  Maybe in those moments they are just reacting, and aren’t actually CAPABLE of understanding the implications of their choices.


The Primal Brain

Now, a bit of a disclaimer here.  Usually my posts have a fair bit of research to them, and I have facts to support what I’m saying.

For this one, I’m kinda flying by the seat of my pants and throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.  So hopefully this makes sense to someone other than me.  Maybe there is data to back it up, maybe not; but it still “feels” right to me.

I first started thinking about this stuff when reading up on anxiety, and the fight or flight response.

The fight or flight response is something we’ve all probably experienced at one point in time or another.  It occurs when you are in a situation that you feel threatened, or uneasy, and it’s largely a physiological response.  Biology takes over, and (as the name implies) a person gets ready to either stand and fight or run away.  It’s a survival mechanism that is built into our DNA.

I’ve seen this described as being part of the primal, lizard, or reptilian brain.  And it’s described as follows (from

Our most primitive piece of brain anatomy is responsible for basic functions (i.e. breathing, heatbeat) and primal instincts (i.e. survival, dominance, mating).


Think about this for a moment:

Survival, dominance, mating.

All of these things are kind of important, and they are also things that often get people in a TON of trouble!!!

In each of these areas, you hear stories where people sometimes do things that they never believed they were capable of – sometimes for good, but usually for bad.  And when these things happen, those who know them look at these people and struggle with reconciling the action with the person.

Abuse, affairs, murder even.  The term “crimes of passion” is used to describe actions someone took because of a strong sudden impulse, but was not premeditated.

In these cases, I think the primal brain is at work.

To be clear, I don’t think the idea of people reacting to the primal brain means they aren’t responsible for their choices.  They still are – ALWAYS.

But this does highlight the importance of people being more responsible for their own emotional state (more on this below…).


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I think this idea of the primal brain and certain instinctual behaviors being able to override logic and reason (and the ability to think through consequences) is supported by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy is an idea about human motivation and personal growth.  In it he breaks down different levels of needs, with the fundamental ones at the bottom and the “higher level” needs at the top.  One of the primary ideas is that we need to be in a position where our lower level needs are being met before we can move up the hierarchy to the higher level needs.



Taking a look at the bottom level (or basic needs) you have things needed for survival, followed by a need for safety and security.  And although it’s not depicted on the chart I have here, often sexual instinct is seen as a need that sits at the level of basic needs.

Psychological needs such as love and intimacy are next, which means they can’t be met until our physiological and safety needs are met.

This makes a ton of sense.

Love and intimacy is based on trust, and when issues occur in relationships that break down trust usually the sense of intimacy soon breaks down as well.


Coping Mechanisms

Any regular readers will know that I talk a lot about coping mechanisms.

Over the past few years I’ve come to believe that the coping mechanisms each individual brings to the table are probably the most important things that contribute to the success and longevity of the relationship.

So what are coping mechanisms?

Well, here’s my take on it…

Our coping mechanisms are the default behaviors we exhibit when confronted with threat or conflict.  These behaviors are our automatic responses, and are probably a combination of nature and nurture.  Although there may be an inherent component to them, they are also learned behaviors.

Going back the Fight or Flight response, I think everyone’s coping mechanisms fall someone on a spectrum, where we have aggression and anger (fight) on one side of the scale, and we have withdrawing or shutting down (flight) on the other end of the spectrum.

BOTH of these approaches are TERRIBLE for both individual health and for relationships.

The way I see it, both extremes of fight and flight are responses of the primal brain.  In both scenarios, someone is simply reacting to a situation, and during those moments they are incapable of reason, logic, or thinking of consequences.

But these responses aren’t either/or, they sit on a spectrum.

So a goal we should ALL have is to work on our coping mechanisms.  We should work on regaining control, and not letting our primal brain take over.

If we are someone who reacts with anger when things go wrong, we need to learn to control that.  If we are someone who shuts down and withdraws when times are hard, we need to learn to work with other people and stop retreating into ourselves.


As kids, we are learning the world around us and learning to manage our feelings and emotions.  And sadly, some of us don’t really learn that very well.

But the key word here is learn.

Shutting down and withdrawing, or becoming aggressive and angry in the face of perceived threat or challenge is never the answer.  We should always strive to find a way to push back the primal brain and respond with reason.  Because caring, compassion and empathy are all higher level functions; and they require us to be able to stay in control

Our coping mechanisms, no matter how broken, can always be improved.

And in many cases our very relationships depend on it.

16 thoughts on “How The Primal Brain Damages Relationships

  1. Hey!
    Just to fill you in: what we call the “reptilian brain” is also called the limbic system and has influence over our emotions and memory. There brain communicates with chemicals and electrical impulses like our peripheral nervous system. I’m sure you remember that neurons have dendrites and axons, and one dendrite communicates with another over a small space called a synaptic cleft.
    When some stimulus happens- whether its a loud noise that makes you jump, or someone yelling at you will have that information moving “upstream” to the PFC (Prefrontal Cortex) so that you can then act on or not. Its the PFC that is the reasoning/thinking part of us. If someone throws a punch at you, you will likely duck first (impulse). The next action is up to the PFC.
    This is the interesting part…The upstream communication only has one synapse to jump, while the down stream communication (from the PFC) has at least 2 synapse to jump. The more synapse, the longer it takes for the message to get to where it needs to go.
    That’s why people “act without thinking” , and why one of the things people say when you are angry is to wait 10 seconds. So your reasoning brain can have time to make a better action.
    Our connects are not super well established from our PFC to our limbic area when we are young, it takes years for those connections to get strong (or at least establish a pathway that is easier to go down. ) .. that’s why children go cra-cra sometimes.

    Our coping mechanisms are a weird mix of us having emotions and not knowing what to do with them. So often – anger, sadness, whatever- is something to get over. So when we know we aren’t supposed to fell this way or that way, (but we cant help but feel it) we come up with covert ways to express emotion without having to take responsibility for them.
    Passive aggressiveness, lying, or just explosive anger at everyone/everything (severe cases), ..or attacking other people because you fell that is the only way to get heard, and getting flooded and shutting down are also “coping mechanisms”.
    I absolutely agree that as we grow up we need to learn to not let our emotions control our behavior.
    It would be ideal to learn to acknowledge them, let them give us the input of what to avoid or go towards and as a way to understand ourselves, and be able to let them go so that we can act in a way that is more aligned with our values.
    I think its a work in progress.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lindsey, thanks for the info. You know, I should really just reach out to you for some of the science behind things because you know WAY more about this stuff than I ever will.

      I like your comment here:

      “I absolutely agree that as we grow up we need to learn to not let our emotions control our behavior.
      It would be ideal to learn to acknowledge them, let them give us the input of what to avoid or go towards and as a way to understand ourselves, and be able to let them go so that we can act in a way that is more aligned with our values.”

      Emotions are good – we need to accept and embrace them. But we should only let them influence our decisions and actions, and never let them control us.


  2. Another wonderful and insightful post and thank you. I agree with your assessment and in some ways you have answered something for me which up until now I have struggled with…and that is the “how”, how does anyone betray a spouse to the extent that people do? How to they lie repeatedly to you and to themselves? The primal brain makes so much sense and given what I know of my H I can actually see in his actions of that time, everything you touched on in your post. His primal brain, and in part mine (the retreat part to an extent) have been so active during our times of struggle…I strive daily for higher level functions and to respond with reason. Taken one step further, look at our society and the world at large…primal brain…its everywhere…

    Love your posts, honestly I get something out of every one of them:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad it made a degree of sense, because I wasn’t sure if it would.

      To me it does kinda/sorta answer the questions of how people do things that you just can’t begin to understand. For me, for pretty much everything I do there’s a part of me that thinks through the implications of my action, to me, my children and others around me. And that part of my brain acts to steer and influence my actions BEFORE I make them.

      It’s mindblowing to me when people do things that just seem so selfish/self-absorbed that they don’t seem to care at all about whether or how they hurt others. I really struggle to get that.

      Then I think about raising little kids, needing to help them understand and internalize right and wrong, and how when someone is in a highly emotional state logic and reason goes out the window and they are just reacting. And to me, all the pieces kind of fit.

      Some people are just sociopaths who don’t care about others at all. But I don’t think most are like that. Instead, it comes down to emotional maturity/intelligence, and learned behaviors.

      Liked by 1 person

      • emotional intelligence, moral code, strength of character, those are the things I think that must be critically missing in those that cheat….I am sure some are sociopaths, but I think majority are just immature, selfish and lack strength.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I disagree with your definition of coping mechanisms. By saying they’re our instinctual reactions you’re implying we don’t have control over them. Rather, I think our coping mechanisms or skills are how we choose to respond to our instinctual reactions to stress or threat. Everyone has the urge to throw an all out, toddler style tantrum at some point. That’s the instinct. However, we usually don’t succumb to those urges. That’s the coping skills.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll have to go back and correct what I wrote. Further on in the post I *think* I commented on coping mechanisms being learned, and because they are learned we can always learn a better way. Kids will have tantrums, until they learn some self control. Some people never really learn that self-control, but that doesn’t mean then can’t.

      I have to admit, this post was a bit of a rush in terms of writing/editing etc.

      As I said, I’ll make some corrections/clarifications. Thanks for pointing that out.


    • I’ve tweaked it slightly. I think “default behavior” is maybe a better wording than instinctual. Because I do think they are the things we fall back on without thinking. But as you said, we CAN control them (if we choose to), and they are also learned behaviors.


    • “*However we usually don’t succumb to those urges.”
      Speak for yourself :D! .. Just joking…Would it be believed that, in part, I was trying a different approach? (One that obviously didn’t work.)

      I think Drew’s examples of fight or flight- that of going into attack mode, or withdrawing completely are ways that our minds deal/cope with emotions that seem overwhelming. Gottman dose name them as styles of communication , so in that sense they are coping mechanism.
      If you read the article link I posted above it goes into the neurobiology of emotion and emotional regulation.
      What is termed “fight or flight” is an autonomic response, that is beyond our control. I mean, the adrenaline and cortisol, ect- all of that is beyond our control.
      Learning to identify what is happening in your body, and using your knowledge and understanding can guide what happens next.
      I do think a part of becoming an adult is learning about your emotions and regulating them effectively.
      Responding back to the impulses/urges is exactly what the PFC does. It is very much learned. Including both adaptive and mal-adaptive coping skills.
      Over all I think an important idea to consider is that its not that we need to restrain or repress our emotions. We should get to know them and what they are telling us, and then learn how to deal with the issue that is creating them in constructive ways.
      I don’t think the western culture has a good relationship with emotions. They either seem to be seen as things that get in your way and need to be controlled, or they are seen as the thing that gives you ultimate meaning and identity.
      Neither views are really accurate or helpful.

      Liked by 1 person

      • This, 100%:

        “Over all I think an important idea to consider is that its not that we need to restrain or repress our emotions. We should get to know them and what they are telling us, and then learn how to deal with the issue that is creating them in constructive ways.”

        Emotions are good, and emotions are healthy. We should never try to suppress them, but at the same time we should never let them control us. We aren’t just these passive bodies, adrift on the raging sea of our emotions. We ALWAYS have a choice in how we respond to external stimuli.

        An interesting thing about the fight or flight response…

        I don’t believe it IS beyond peoples control. I’ve read some pretty fascinating things on it, and talked to some people with serious anxiety issues.

        One book I have listed in my recommended reading is “Monkey Mind – a memoir of anxiety” by Danial Smith. He had anxiety issues most of his life, and as you said – the fight and flight seemed like a response that was out of his control.

        However when he finally “beat” his anxiety with the help of CBT, it was working with a doctor who taught him that is WASN’T actually an autonomic response. There was actually a small moment between “event” and “response”, and during that moment he would realize that there was an “internal critic” that was driving the response.

        He learned to first listen to, and then to silence (largely) the internal critic. And by doing that, he was able to change from someone who’s life was controlled by his anxiety to being someone who will always HAVE anxiety, but is able to stop it from controlling him.

        A close buddy (Gandalf in these pages) has also “recovered” from serious anxiety, and learning to listen to and then silence the internal critic was a very important component of his recovery.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t read Monkey Mind, but I have heard it referred to (so maybe should check it out.) I don’t the premise as you described it is wrong at all, and I actually debated to include a sentence about how we can control our perception of what is threatening (so not get into the HPA cycle- that creates fight or flight.) But decided against it, because it just seemed to complicate the sentence.
        Our brain development is so intricate, and fascinating. The PDF goes into this a bit. About how certain stimuli pre-disposes not only the chemical response, but the view of the world that produces the chemical response. It is all so overlapping and multifaceted. Its incredibly interesting stuff.
        But the coolest thing is that the development never really stops. We can learn how to react and respond differently, and literally change our minds.
        Amazing, amazing stuff.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This makes sense to me. It is perfectly reasonable to say you can teach yourself to react differently. It takes a lot of effort(as if takes someone with anxiety a lot of effort to retrain the brain to NOT have a fight or flight response in certain situations) but the more you work through your reactions in an alternate way, the more you will find it to be second nature when issues arise once again.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like how you refer to it slowly becoming second nature. I think that’s important.

      You have to believe that something is possible, and then be willing to work at it. And once you do, over time you will internalize it – which is when it becomes second nature.


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