4. How to Override the Primitive Brain for Relationship Contentment

by Stacy Bremner, MA, RP

In the last issue of North Bay Life, I described how our brains are wired for survival and how that survival instinct causes us to be negative thinkers. It is adaptive because it keeps us aware of dangers and therefore alive, but it can also keep us from being happy. Most people say they want to be happy. And a shift to see the good in our relationships can contribute greatly to happiness! It takes work to over-ride the negative thoughts we have about our spouse/relationship. If you are feeling negative, skeptical or grumbly about the idea of changing your brain, and maybe even thinking to yourself, “why should I be the one to do all the work?” I want to respond to this.


We may stand firm in the need to shame, blame and criticize to get others to step up. We may have a deep underlying belief that if we back down from that, we will not get our needs met. Yet the opposite is true. Remember the saying that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar? We know this to be true in marriage too.

In his book “The Seven Principles that Make Marriage Work”, author John Gottman says, “It’s just a fact that people can change only if they feel they are basically liked and accepted as they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated they are unable to change. Instead they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves.” This is the basis for all power struggles.

At work, we know we get the best performance from an employee who feels appreciated. Why do we not extend this to our loved ones?

At home with a spouse or children, we try the same things over and over and get the same disappointing results. If we shame, blame or criticise our loved ones, chances are they will automatically defend themselves in exactly the same way each time. They will argue, defend or avoid. No one wins!

Where does this come from? Our style starts early in life. An infant or toddler cries to get a need met. Crying causes discomfort, so the parent comes running, and has to mind read since the child cannot yet talk. (Oh my! The baby is crying! Is s/he hungry, scared, wet, lonely?!”) If no one responds we might cry even harder. That might work….

But when we do this as adults with shame, blame and criticism we become “a dangerous object” to our partner’s brain, someone to avoid or ignore. We have to work to be safe for our loved ones. We need to be reasonable, caring, curious, and cooperative. One way is to turn our thinking around to look at what is good.


As an Imago Relationship Therapist, I teach couples how to remove negativity, and bring the good back into the relationship. It was there when you were dating. It needs to return. Most people are very cooperative if they feel appreciated. It boosts us up! We feel happy and energized! This is not a manipulation of the ones we love; it is a shift in consciousness. Ask yourself “is it true?…do I like and appreciate when my spouse comes home on time, or gives me a compliment, or rubs my back, or pays a bill on time? Do I overlook that and just let it slip past my awareness?” Notice the good and express your appreciation often.

I suggest you share 3 appreciations with each other every single day. It is daily effort that changes the brain. Give appreciations even when you are upset. It is a great way to shift out of upset.

I have been practicing giving my partner 3 appreciations every day for 6 years. I see how it helps my level of contentment and I see how my practice has expanded, so I see even more things each week I can appreciate. If you like to compete, change your power struggle focus into “who can be the most generous with appreciations?”!

The end result? You will override the primitive brain and spend more time feeling happy!