There is an old story from S. Hagen’s Buddhism Plain and Simple about a man who came to see the Buddha because he had heard that the Buddha was a great teacher. Like all of us, he had some problems in his life, and he thought the Buddha might be able to help him straighten them out.
He told the Buddha that he was a farmer. “I like farming,” he said, “but sometimes it doesn’t rain enough, and my crops fail. Last year we nearly starved. And sometimes it rains too much, so my yields aren’t what I’d like them to be.”
The Buddha patiently listened to the man. “I’m married, too,” said the man.“ She’s a good wife . . . I love her, in fact. But sometimes she nags me too much. And sometimes I get tired of her.”
The Buddha listened quietly.“
I have kids, ”said the man.“ Good kids, too . . . but sometimes they don’t show me enough respect. And sometimes . . .” The man went on like this, laying out all his difficulties and worries. Finally, he wound down and waited for the Buddha to say the words that would put everything right for him.
Instead, the Buddha said, “I can’t help you.”
“What do you mean?” said the astonished man.
“Everybody’s got problems,” said the Buddha. “In fact, we’ve all got eighty-three problems, each one of us. Eighty-three problems, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you work really hard on one of them, maybe you can fix it—but if you do, another one will pop right into its place. For example, you’re going to lose your loved ones eventually. And you’re going to die someday. Now there’s a problem, and there’s nothing you, or I, or anyone else can do about it.”
The man became furious. “I thought you were a great teacher!” he shouted. “I thought you could help me! What good is your teaching, then?”
The Buddha said, “Well, maybe it will help you with the eighty-fourth problem.”
“The eighty-fourth problem?” said the man. “What’s the eighty-fourth problem? ”
Said the Buddha, “You want to not have any problems.”
Like the man, we can sit around and repeatedly discuss "problems," or we can give our energy toward implementing solutions. Often, we haven’t necessarily identified what exactly the problem is, rather, we sit around talking about the upset. Especially when it comes to intimate relationships, we know that something isn’t quite right but haven't put a finger on what it is. This can often happen between couples in partnership or marriage. Conflict can become a never-ending problem where nobody seems to win. Simple pieces of new information can offer the solutions we seek.
When I was a little girl, I'd wade as deep as I could out into the ocean. Neck deep, I loved those fierce and relentless waves. They were exciting, fun and soothing. I imagine it is because of my years growing up near the ocean that I have such a connection and affinity for the ebb and flow. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that I could be described as a “wave” as Stan Tatkin describes in his book Wired for Love, and this did not necessarily equate to fun and soothing!
Relationships are complex and they don’t come with a step-by-step manual. What works for one person or couple doesn’t necessarily work for another; however, I believe that the insight shared here can be of value to most people. I gathered this information from Stan Tatkin’s book and, like a relationship manual of sorts, I think ideas he offers could possibly be life changing for some. We humans look quite sophisticated walking the planet these days, but the truth is that our brains still operate in a very primitive way. Much of what we do as humans is fundamentally about survival; instinctually we survive because the priority of our brain is to save our lives.
We have automatic neurobiological reflexes that ensure this.
Love and war are both a part of who we are as humans and Tatkin writes that our brains are wired first for war then for love. This is not necessarily the best scenario for our relationships. The part of our brain quite skilled at keeping us from getting killed seriously lacks when it comes to connecting in relationships. When we feel threatened and in danger, immediate action is required. If we’re suddenly surrounded in flames in a burning building, we won’t stop to inquire where the fire started, what it has already consumed, or where it’s headed, we just get out. Survival is about swift action; this part of our brain doesn’t care about the details.
If left to their own accord, these survival mechanisms can be at odds with cultivating a loving, harmonious relationship. This is why it is important to understand how we operate. Tatkin makes this easy for us by splitting the way our brains react into two easy-to-remember categories: “the primitives” and “the ambassadors.”
When threat is detected, a sequence of events takes place in our brains and stress chemicals are released. We can think of this as the primitives being activated. It goes something like this:
The first stage is like a fire alarm. The amygdala sends an alert and operates like a threat detector that screams watch out, danger, danger! This can be in response to the fire or a partner’s tone, facial movements, postures, words or phrases.
The second stage is where the primitives gear up for battle. The hypothalamus prepares the mind and body to act; it’s like a drill sergeant. Messengers are released. The adrenaline which is released prepares us for fight or flee and cortisol feeds messages back to hypothalamus asking if we will fight, flee, or withdraw (freeze). The amygdala sends out the red alert without ever questioning if the threat was real, and the hypothalamus responds to the red alert alarm without hesitation.
The third stage is where the primitives have taken over the show because the message has been sent, “it’s war,” battle has begun.
The ambassadors have shut down. The ambassadors are the rational, social, and very civilized part of our brain. They are the ones checking all incoming information for accuracy and prefer to maintain peace, calm, and harmony. They are deliberate but very slow. Without these ambassadors assisting us to calmly relate to others, we’d be lonely folks, at best, and possibly in prison for the inability to control our fight and flee reactions, at worst. Without this team of helpers, we would be unable to get a handle on our arousal system and think clearly, modulate our tone and sound of voice, and control the rate of our breathing. We essentially run on the primitive autopilot. When we activate our team of ambassadors, they help us maintain love, harmony, and balance in relationships during confronting or conflicting experiences.
The ambassadors include the ventral vagal complex which can work to slow the cardiovascular and respiratory systems to remain in balance and the hippocampus which handles short and long term memory, controls anti-stress hormones, and tracks location and direction. The insula provides awareness of internal bodily guesses and gut feelings and notices cues associated with attachment and empathy. The right brain is more visual and intuitive. It handles social and emotional processing, empathy, and body awareness. The left brain specializes in processing detailed information, verbal and logical as well as integrating complex sounds, and word meanings. The orbital frontal cortex is the oral and empathic center. It communicates with ambassadors and primitives—standing in each other’s shoes, so-to-speak, setting the stage for love, it works to talk the primitives down.
Couples at war recycle the same complaints, theories, and spend a lot of time debating facts and struggling to reconstruct and sequence relationship events, leaving them little time or resources to sort out the real reason for conflict. It will be necessary to reign in the amygdala and hippocampus to bring peace and win/win result to these reoccurring battles. Deep breathing can often slow down the primitives. Facing and making eye contact with your partner can also create the ability to hear our tone of voice, to remember that we’re in the foxhole together, that you’re not standing across from an enemy, but rather your friend, lover, and life partner. In addition to neuroscience, we also have what Tatkin has identified as three ways of relating which he has drawn from research about attachment styles based on how we adapted to our environments as children. Tatkin has named these attachment styles: the island, the wave, and the anchor and reiterates that these are not character flaws but simply the necessary and natural ways we developed relationally into adulthood.
The strengths of an island are independence and self-reliance, takes good care of themselves, low maintenance and productive. A wave is generous and giving, focused on taking care of others, happiest around people, able to see both sides of an issue. An anchor is secure as an individual, easy going, willing to commit and share with another, and adapts easily to the needs presenting in the moment.
Islands have a harder time staying connected to long-term romantic partners, they prize solitude and are often threatened by conflict and are more likely to avoid and withdraw. A partner to an island may feel abandoned, neglected, or unimportant.
A wave deeply desires connection and can be passionately intense during conflict, needing to discuss every detail immediately. They can cause perpetual disturbance of the water within the relationship because their thoughts and emotions can feel like waves, they alternate between wanting to be close and pulling away due to fears, anger, or past wounds.
Two anchors will be collaborative and cooperative, relating in mutually beneficial ways.
The good news is that we can all develop skills to become a more “anchored” partner. While we most likely weren’t handed a relationship manual when we entered our partnerships, knowing more about how our brains work amidst conflict and how the ways in which we were nurtured as children developed our patterns, we can become a more in-tune person and partner. When we make the choice to shift our mindset from “this is a battle of me against you and I will come out alive,” to “this is a situation of us against the issue and we will survive,” we can, as Tatkin says, “Make life’s stormy seas much easier to navigate."
Relationships can ebb and flow, no doubt! Having deeper understanding and the skills and tools can make all the difference.
Reach out to me if you'd like to know more about attachment styles.