How to Keep the Reptilian Brain from Ruining Your Relationship

By Jessica Glynn, LMSW


First, let’s understand what the reptilian brain actually is and why it causes us to think the worst of our partner at times. The reptilian brain includes your brainstem and cerebellum, which controls primitive and vital bodily functions like heartbeat, breathing, and body temperature. Although it acts along with limbic brain and the neocortex with many influences and interconnections, sometimes the reptilian brain feels like it is acting alone when we experience rigid and compulsive behaviors such as arguing with our partner.

This part of the brain is meant to measure physical threat, but sometimes a response is triggered when there has been a threat to our ego. Because it is such a primitive part of our brain, once it is triggered in a fight with our partner, it is very hard to listen to logic and reason because our partner has now become a threat. It is important to understand this because it can lead to patterns of hurtful arguments that can cause irreparable damage to the relationship. During this time, the defense and threat response is so triggered and heightened that it is impossible to come to a rational conclusion to the argument. Disengagement is best during this time, but walking away from a partner can be tricky as they may get more upset or agitated because feelings of abandonment may come up. It is important to revisit these arguments and learn how to disengage effectively so that the next time you will be able to calm the reptilian brain more quickly. Here are a few steps to take when a heated argument arises:

  • Begin to disengage from the argument by letting your partner’s reptilian brain know that you are stepping away, not because you don’t care, but because you do care and know it will be best to discuss the heated topic at a time when you can really hear each other.

  • Take a walk or go into another room. You may feel you are leaving things unresolved, but remind yourself that taking space will allow you to have a productive discussion later on rather than a heated argument in the moment.

  • Revisit the behavior. In addition to problem solving the argument, remember to come up with a plan for effective disengagement in the future. This is where many therapists suggest a “safe word” so that your partner will know what’s happening and the need for disengagement.

  • Use the “safe word” during the next heated argument.

Jessica Glynn is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you would to learn more about psychotherapy and how it can support you in reaching your goals, contact Cobb Psychotherapy.