Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD, LMHC

Psychotherapy, Sex Therapy, Couple's Counseling, Addictions Counseling, Psychological & Psychosexual Assessment and Polygraph Testing


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Safety in Relationship

Patrick McGinnis, LMHC


Most people believe that human beings have only one brain. Actually we are heirs to an evolutionary process which has gifted us with three brains. The first brain developed in reptiles and is called the brainstem. This brain is responsible for keeping the body systems functioning. We don't have to remember to breathe, know how to digest food, or adjust various chemical or hormone levels. These are some of the functions of the brainstem. When threatened a reptile reacts to protect itself.


The second brain to develop is called the limbic system (or mammalian brain). It is understood to be the seat of emotion. When mammals feel threatened, they also react to protect themselves through fight, flight or freezing. When mammals feel safe, they are more likely to play, nurture each other, or to mate.


When human beings are threatened, we also react in one of the three basic forms. For instance, if you took a walk tonight and were suddenly confronted by a 90-pound mastiff, growling, menacing bared teeth, laid-back ears, hair standing-on-end, you are likely to have an almost instantaneous reaction. Your body will be flooded with chemicals designed to energize you for protection, correspondingly your emotions will change to match your usual protective pattern (anger, fear or numbness). This is an animalistic reaction to a threat.


As human beings you are blessed with a third brain: the cerebral cortex. This brain is the seat of logic and reasoning. It has the power to override the reaction of the two lower-brains. Instead of blindly reacting to a threat, you have the capacity to respond rationally. In the example cited, you might take the time to notice that the dog is securely chained and safely out of reach. As you proceed on your walk, the changes that occurred in your body will gradually return to normal.


If our relationships feel threatening in some way then the fight-flight-freeze reaction kicks in. This is the root of much interpersonal conflict. We can easily be overwhelmed by the strength of our need to protect ourselves and habitually forget that the higher-brain can make more rational choices. Some relationships feel so unsafe that partners stay in a perpetual state of threatened arousal (walking on eggshells, or feeling rageful). The first thing that must change in most relationships is an installation of safety with one's partner.


This is done through learning structured communication skills that focus on getting both partnerís needs met when frustrations occur, and the elimination of physical violence and other escalating behaviors. When couples learn how to be safe with each other, the lower-brain reaction (play, nurture, or mate) results.


As the relationship becomes safer, a higher purpose for the relationship can emerge. Mutual healing within the couple-ship and how to achieve it will be discussed in the next publication.


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Copyright © 1999 Patrick B. McGinnis, PhD. All rights reserved.
Revised: 01/09/09.

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