Brain-Based Relationship Therapy: What It Is and How It Can Help You

By Alison Shea, MA, MFT-C

Brain-based relationship therapy, also known as neuroscience-informed therapy, is an approach to couples therapy that incorporates insights from neuroscience to understand and address relationship dynamics. This therapeutic model recognizes the role of the brain and how we can use its capacities to create amazing relationships.

Here are some key aspects of brain-based relationship therapy:

Stuck Habits and Neural Highways

The brain seeks efficiency by developing familiar and predictable patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. These patterns are like well-worn pathways or “neural highways” that the brain traverses frequently. 

When we repeatedly engage in specific thoughts, behaviors, or emotions, these neural pathways become more deeply ingrained. The brain’s inclination to create shortcuts results in the development of habits, both positive and negative.

Have you ever sworn to yourself that you were going to change, but then wound up doing the same thing over and over? Have you told yourself the next time a certain situation arose you would do something differently, but responded in a habitual way?

Despite our intentions to change, the brain’s established neural highways make it easier for us to default to familiar patterns, often unconsciously. This explains the common experience of wanting to make changes but falling back into old habits, as the brain naturally gravitates toward the neural pathways it has strengthened over time (Fishbane, 2013).

Neuroplasticity

There is good news! The brain is not a fixed object. It is “plastic”, which means it is changeable and adaptable. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself by forming and reorganizing neural connections. With focus and repetition, new “neural highways” can be formed that actually serve you and your relationship, replacing the negative habits that have caused dysfunction. 

Neuroplasticity is the basis for all behavior change. A brain-based therapist will nurture the conditions for change in the brain and help you transform current behaviors into helpful, joyful ones.

Emotional Regulation

In the context of brain-based relationship therapy, the emphasis on emotional regulation involves understanding how the brain processes and manages emotions and how this process influences relationship dynamics. 

In times of stress or conflict, the nervous system can go into a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When we are in this state, we can’t think rationally and we become focused on self-protection instead of connection with our partner. Communication breaks down while empathy and compassion seem to fly out the door. By the time some clients come to therapy, they experience a stress response just by stepping into the same room as their partner, even though nothing threatening is happening at that moment.

Brain-based therapy teaches clients how to stay out of fight-flight-freeze with each other, and how to come out of it more quickly if these states do get triggered. A brain-based therapist will help couples de-escalate their conflict and increase their positive feelings towards each other so that their relationship baseline is peaceful and playful. 

Tip: Identify when you and your partner are going into survival strategy mode. Ask, “What is going on for you right now? Where do you feel it in your body?” When we name a feeling, the rational part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) gets more active and the amygdala (threat center) settles down.

Positivity and Play

Often, people think that if they were just able to stop fighting, they would have a great relationship. Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. 

As we know, the brain creates connections between neurons that lead to habitual thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. We can not tell the brain to stop thinking, feeling, or behaving a certain way. Instead, we have to give the brain something else to focus on. It needs a different neural pathway to follow instead of the one it’s been using. 

A brain-based therapist helps clients create the relationship of their dreams by intentionally designing how they want it to look. 

Perhaps you want more play, spontaneity, physical intimacy, laughter, peace, and contentment. Brain-based therapy works with clients on how to specifically implement these aspects into clients’ lives so that they become the default nature of the relationship. You’re not just solving a problem, you’re creating a relationship beyond anything you have previously experienced. 

Tip: Create an “intentional relationship”. When couples have been together for a while, they can stop building in intentional time for fun and intimacy. Discuss ways you can add positive experiences into your daily lives, such as going on dates, scheduling sex (YES! It’s a great idea for any relationship), and fantasizing about your future.

Conclusion

The structure of the brain literally guarantees that change is possible. Using specific techniques and focused effort, clients can build beautiful, ecstatic lives for themselves and their loved ones.

References

Fishbane, M., & Siegel, D. J. (2013). Loving with the brain in mind: Neurobiology and couple therapy. W.W. Norton et Company.

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