Let’s be reasonable: Getting real about the impact of emotion on thoughts

Post date: Jun 13, 2014 4:32:11 PM

Couplehood has a way of bringing out an array of emotions and behaviors we thought we had grown out of since our childhood experience of family. We think we have matured on leaving home, but the emotional brain plunges us back into the depths we thought we had risen above. Emotional intensity shows up in ways unique to intimate relationships, whether with kin or lovers. Our behavior swings between ugly and beautiful, bringing out our best and worst. The jingle comes to mind, "I see your true colors shining through."

Insight and self-awareness provide some remedy, but emotions hold power beyond comprehension, beyond our intentions of self-control. Emerging brain science findings show us the limitations of conflict and communication skills, suggesting practices based on understanding natural processes of the mind. In a nutshell, we must calm the heck down before we can think well enough to do more skillful communication.

Understand that the mind is not just limited to the brain or central nervous system. Our internal wiring has nerves around the gut and heart believed to connect us with intuition, or “gut instincts” (Sheehan, 2010). Bodies and minds are so interconnected. Externally, our minds extend by connecting with other’s minds through mirror neurons, functioning something like a mirror of empathy reflecting others’ experiences. The “mind of a couple” (Badenock, 2008, p. 273) is an integrated system dancing together. We can see a mutual responsiveness to emotions, storytelling, and behaviors beyond what individuals exhibit when solo.

Formative childhood experiences of attachment and conflict are recorded in our bodies and neural connections, influencing perceptions and reactions to the triggers in new relational experiences. Tugging at our neural networks that hold past stories, these connections reactivate responses we may not desire in current relationships, reactions we try to overcome with reasoning (Badenock, 2008, p. 271).

Yet we now know the wiring between emotions and conscious thoughts shows much more impact of emotion on thoughts than the other way around. “…Neural connections for the brain’s emotional centers are wired to influence nearly every part of the brain, at each stage of cognitive processing. Yet many phases of cognitive processing do not project to the emotional centers” (LeDoux, 1996 as cited in Atkinson, 2005, p. 20). We are fooling ourselves if we believe our reason has more influence than emotion.

Conflicts that seem simple enough to resolve with logic are instead fraught with emotion, derailing participants into blame, offense and defense. Interactions become stuck in ruts of fear-based interpretations, hurt and anger intensifying each other. Yet, emotion is not the enemy here. Emotions carry important signals of meaning to aid us in resolving internal and external conflicts.

We must respect emotions without being ruled by them; what I like to call thoughtful emoting. Experience these emotions, be curious, and take them as important information. Thoughtful emoting requires integration and balancing of neural connections. We then have more flexibility of response, more resilience, instead of swinging between extreme storms of chaos or stubbornness. Or, as folk musician Ani Difranco sings, “What doesn’t bend breaks.”



Atkinson, B. J. (2005). Emotional intelligence in couples therapy: advances from neurobiology and the science of intimate relationships. New York: W.W. Norton.

Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: a practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60(1), 5-22.

Morris, J. (2006). Pragmatic/Experimental Therapy for Couples. PsycCRITIQUES, 51(15), doi:10.1037/a0002186.

Sheehan, C. (2010). Lecture presented at Family of Origin in The Family Institute, Evanston, IL.

Siegel, D. J. (2010). The mindful therapist: a clinician's guide to mindsight and neural integration. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.