The Three Things That Make You Go “APE” in Your Relationship – A is for Amygdala

In this series of blogs, I will look explore some key aspects of healthy communication in relationships.  The first three will explore what make you go “APE” in your relationships.  The next two will look at strategies for effective sending and receiving in communication.  Learn more at my upcoming workshops & presentations.


A is for amygdala, that tiny almond shaped part of your brain that maintains your survival.  No small task here.  When you’re driving on the freeway and a car is about to hit you, you swerve to avoid it and afterward catch your breath and gasp “Oh my God!” – that’s your amygdala, the emotional home of the “flight or fight” response.  Its sole purpose is to keep you safe.  On guard for potential danger, it springs into action like a superhero to save the day.

How did the amygdala get its job?  The amygdala is part of the limbic system, an older part of the brain that developed in all animals to ensure survival of the species.  From an evolutionary perspective, it all makes perfect sense.

So what’s the problem?  Well, this old part of the brain works like a light switch – it’s either on or off, either it’s safe or dangerous.  There is no dimmer switch here.  Whether the car is going to hit you, the lion is going to eat you, or your partner is going to get upset with you, it perceives danger and takes action.  The amygdala’s light switch turns on, and in relationships there are two reactive styles which we’ll call tigers and turtles.

Tigers need to get their feelings out, and express them with a lot of energy; it’s as if they’re saying, “We’re in danger and need to talk about this right now!”  Turtles constrict their feelings and expression, go into their head preferring to be alone to work out problems; it’s as if they’re saying, “We’re in danger and need to stop talking about this now.”

From here things can quickly escalate.  That superhero saving the day – think Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk rather than Steve Rogers becoming Captain America; there can be a lot of damage done in an effort to keep things safe.

It’s important to remember that there is no right or wrong in these styles, just different.  And it’s pretty typical to find yourself with someone having the opposite style as you.  If so, don’t let your amygdala hijack your relationship; know that your work here is to learn how to manage your reactive style, keep things safe for your partner and restore the connection.

That will make you the real superhero.



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