Mr. and Mrs. Reptilian

From Understanding comes love - Rumi

For way too long, Paul, my husband, and I argued a lot. Simple disagreements could turn into loud, defensive shouting, followed by pouting like only a victim could. Not exactly the picture of living happily ever after.

We would try to have mature, calm disagreements, but once the defensive gas-pedal was pushed, we were speeding toward an emotional pileup.

Last year our daughter, Kelly, said that she wanted a relationship like ours. How is that even possible?

In 2016, I read Dr. Amy Johnson’s phenomenal book, “the Little Book of Big Change, The No-Willpower Approach to Breaking Any Habit.” She says that neurologically our habits live in our lower brains, which is the oldest, most primitive part of the brain. It is so old and so primitive that it is the kind of brain that is present in most reptiles and other not-so-sophisticated animals, which is why it is sometimes called the “reptilian brain”, or her favorite name for it, the “inner lizard.”

Learning about the lower brain changed my life. It helped me understand why I felt hijacked and baffled by my defensiveness and personalizing every word that came out of Paul’s mouth. My inner lizard (lower brain) felt threatened and defended itself. It’s funny to imagine a little lizard protecting itself from words. Picture a lizard saying, “how dare he” with armor on and holding a shield.

Innocently I mistook my lower brain for me. I thought I was defensive and immature. It was baffling to me because when I wasn’t caught up in my defensive thinking, I was calm and rational most of the time. Unfortunately instead of seeing this, I made up stories about how difficult Paul is to be married to and…believed them.

I shared my discovery with Paul. I said that we all have reptilian, lizard brains, so I call her Lizzie. I explained how this part of the brain doesn’t have the ability to sort through complex emotions and ground itself. I said when I act on my urges, including the urge to defend myself unnecessarily or the urge to take his words or the tone of his voice as a personal threat, I am simply caught up in my lower brain’s limited scope. The lower brain is programmed to survive, so its defensive stance makes sense.

Paul was quiet for a moment, I thought he was thinking that what I said was silly and I was making excuses for poor behavior. He surprised me by saying, “If you’re a lizard, I must be a dinosaur.” I laughed so hard. It was perfect. As stubborn as I can be, he can be so much more.

This was the birth of Lizzie and Dino.

How this changed our relationship is when we’d disagree on something and the urge to protect and defend arose, one of us would say something like, “Lizzie thinks you are kind of a jerk, she wishes you’d stop talking because you are so many ways of wrong.” Which was so true. Lizzie is short-sighted, self-centered, and doesn’t have a hard time saying horrible things to her beloved, because in that moment, he isn’t so loved. Paul might respond, “Dino doesn’t care what Lizzie has to say.”

Lizzie and Dino created space, levity and understanding. We knew that it was our lower brains talking and taking it personal seemed as silly as taking something our young grandson says as insulting. We have had so much fun with this and it has helped tremendously not take things personal.

Of course my lower brain is self-centered and only sees my husband through the lens of how he affects me. Lizzie is short-sighted, dramatic and a tad narcissistic. All inner lizards are. Their job is to survive, so words, tone of voice, innocent actions, can all seem very threatening. To a hammer, everything is a nail.

It has been years now and our relationship has flourished in ways I never thought possible. I mean for Kelly to admire our relationship enough to want a similar one is phenomenal, since she witnessed a lot of the reptilian conflict.

In the space of not taking things so personally, our natural love and respect for each other has grown. Knowing that our reactiveness is not us, but rather Lizzie and Dino, we’ve come to love each other much more deeply.

We support each other’s caught up thinking with our pseudonyms. Just the other day Paul texted me saying, “someone at work made a comment that annoyed Dino, and he’s at the gate, just waiting for me to let him out and wreak havoc.”

I texted back, “Lizzie is all in, but I think you might want let Dino cool off. Remove Dino from the control of your mouth.”

The understanding of this part of our brains lightens our reactiveness and defensiveness and brings a sense of humor. Laughter works quickly to calm us. We understand that we aren’t defensive or overreactive, but our inner lizards sure the heck are…that is their job. We will get caught-up from time to time, and our reptilians will take center stage, but they don’t get to be the stars anymore.

When there isn’t so much reptilian defensiveness, there is more space for love and understanding. This is what our daughter is seeing and wants for herself. This is what we all want in relationships. To share the love and understanding that we are with others.

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