Is your relationship a place of safety? Does your blood pressure drop and you go “ahhhhh” when you hear you partner’s car turn into the driveway? Are you a source of safety to your children?
I think we can all agree that safety is the basis of any healthy relationship. And it is particularly important in our intimate relationships. So, let’s explore what it means to feel safe.
I think we can all agree that we are hard-wired to seek physical safety. If we didn’t seek safety we could often find ourselves in places of danger. And that’s not a place that has a high rate of survival.
We share this survival instinct with other mammals, reptiles, and birds. It is a simple mechanism with just two modes: safe or about-to-die. I’m sure you know what happens when we sense a threat. We call it the fight or flight response. Adrenaline floods your body in an instant. Your blood pressure rises, your heart beats faster, muscles are primed and all energy is diverted from other systems. Digestion stops, thoughts cease, peripheral vision goes dark, sexual response is turned off, and the immune system is suppressed. Your body prepares to fight, flee, submit, or freeze.
What’s interesting is that most of us have never been in a life-threatening situation. Yet we experience this reaction quite often, especially when interacting with another person. So why do we experience this reaction when there is no apparent physical threat? And what does any of this have to do with lizards?
I love how Al Turtle answers these questions. He calls our survival mechanism “the Lizard.”
The Lizard lives in your brain. It is found in the deepest, most primitive section of your brain which is often called the reptilian brain (hence, Al’s choice of name). The Lizard controls automatic functions (such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure), survival functions (fight or flight responses), has no sense of time, and needs no relationship, no need for community. It’s job is to keep you alive.
We trust our Lizard to keep our heart beating and our lungs breathing. This sense of trust is remarkable—think of the comfort you feel when falling asleep. We don’t worry about keeping our heart beating because we know that our Lizard is handling it. We feel safe when our Lizard is calm. As Al says, “Safety is a physical state of relaxation characterized by inactivity of the brain’s survival mechanism—the Lizard. This state is visible and measurable. It is often characterized by play and fun, playful mating, nurturing, loving, and caring behaviors, or creative activities.”
When the Lizard senses a threat, it becomes active to protect you. It switches out of safe mode and turns on the fight or flight response. I think it’s important to note that when your Lizard is active it is impossible to engage in the above “calm Lizard behaviors.”
So let’s review what a bothered Lizard looks like. In animals, these behaviors are clear, easy to recognize. Fighting is a physical fight until all threat is gone. Fleeing is physically running away from the threat. Submitting is when they roll over or back down and relinquish dominance. And freezing is when they become motionless in the hope that the predator will not see them.
But in humans these behaviors are often less obvious. This is because our brain has two additional layers on top of the reptilian brain. Above the Lizard is the mammalian addition, or limbic system. It gives us emotions such as joy and grief and our need to live in a community. And the top layer is the primate addition, the cortex, which is basically a huge, efficient hard-drive. It’s function is data storage (memory) and abstract thinking.
Since the Lizard is buried deep in our cranium, it can’t see the outside world very clearly. It mostly sees what the cortex is doing. And the cortex is busy making sense of the outside world by associating input with the stored data/memories. So the Lizard reacts to internal associations and imaginations more often than actual reality. Remember, the Lizard is a pretty simple creature. It sees things in black and white: either we are safe or we are about to die. And, it doesn’t pause to separate real threats from imagined threats. (Such a pause would have led to extinction millennia ago.) This is why we experience the fight or flight response in the absence of a real threat. How often do we see others react in strange ways when there is no apparent threat or reason to feel unsafe?! When we see these strange reactions we are seeing their Lizard.
As Al Turtle explains, “Interestingly, the Lizard reacts if the normal functions of other parts of the brain are threatened. If the mid-brain’s need for community is threatened, the Lizard reacts in survival mode. While the mid-brain is producing the emotion of loneliness, the Lizard may initiate panic and fighting behavior to make sure that you are not left alone. If the primate brain’s need for diversity or difference is threatened, the Lizard may avoid contact – freeze or flee. If the primate brain’s autonomous behavior is threatened, the Lizard may begin submitting behavior.”
A personal example is that when someone speaks to me in the tone of voice that my father used when he was unhappy with me, my Lizard reacts. Sometimes, simply being in the presence of an authority figure wakens my Lizard. No threat present, but dang if I don’t shut down into a freezing behavior.
Here are some other examples of human responses.
Active Lizard Behaviors:
Fighting-- Can be physical or verbal, such as arguing, controlling, actively manipulating.
Fleeing-- Getting away, staying at the office extra hours, or escaping into cyberspace when sitting next to your partner on the sofa (when your lizard is active, not when you are enjoying quiet companionship.) Changing the subject. Hiding behind a newspaper.
Submitting-- Saying yes when you mean no, or agreeing when you don’t (“Okay, fine. It’s fine.”) Doing something you don’t want to be doing. Many people are taught to submit. This is the core of codependence: making submitting a permanent behavior rather than a temporary stress response.
Freezing-- Shutting down, doing nothing, or not dealing with an issue. Becoming motionless or invisible (as students do when the teacher asks a difficult question). Any attempts to avoid being direct, such as passive lying (withholding), asking “what do you want to do?” or responding with “I don’t know.”
As you can see, most of our active lizard behaviors are triggered by interactions with others. So let’s go back to the first question in this post. Is your relationship a place of safety?
Lizards in Relationship
We now know that feeling safe means having a calm Lizard. And we listed what calm Lizard behaviors look like. But I’d bet that the majority of couples spend more time in active Lizard mode than they’d like. In fact, Al says many people live with their Lizards active all of the time that they are in relationship. Only when they are alone do they feel safe. And that some Lizards never go to sleep. Their owners live in a state we call chronic stress.
Clearly, establishing a zone of safety is one of the most important skills in creating a great relationship.
Skills to create safety:
1. Get to know your Lizard
Learn what bothers it. Learn what soothes it. Train your Lizard to trust your cortex, to pause and consider whether the threat is real or imaginary. And train your cortex to take care of your Lizard rather than letting your Lizard rule your cortex. Be aware of thought patterns which bother the Lizard and stop thinking them.
2. Get to know your partner’s Lizard
Become a source of safety to your partner’s Lizard. Notice when your partner’s Lizard is bothered. The signs of increased blood pressure are visible, pay attention. Look for those active Lizard behaviors. Remember that when Lizards are active you are talking to a Lizard, not your partner. Ask them what you can do to make them feel safer. Never tell a Lizard that the threat isn’t real. It’s real to them. And you’ll become a threat if you seem to be saying that they are “crazy.” (Think of how often people tell children “there is nothing to fear, so stop crying”!) If one person says they are scared and the other says there’s nothing dangerous here, that person now becomes a source of danger because they are rejecting their partner’s need for safety.
3. Learn how to take Time-Outs.
You can’t stop a Lizard. Lizards react extremely quickly. They flood the body with adrenaline at the slightest hint of threat. And, it takes a minimum of 20 minutes for the Lizard to calm down (or for the adrenaline to leave the bloodstream.) If you see your partner’s Lizard become active, stop everything and call a Time Out. Al lists specific rules (here) to ensure it is a Time Out within the relationship, not an exit from the relationship, because many Lizards react when it sounds like their partner is trying to leave the relationship. (My Lizard hates this. I’ll explore why in a future post.)
4. Create lists of caring behaviors
Discover and share what makes each other’s Lizard happy. Be specific about behaviors that your partner can do which make you feel safe. Al gives examples on his website, here.
5. Share everything
Lizards love predictive information and reliability. We strive to understand ourselves and our partner’s actions (why do you do that?) because it keeps our Lizard calm. Lizards don’t like surprises.
Another note from Al:
“Many of us were taught that if you can’t say something nice don’t say it—this is crazy. You are trying to make someone feel safe by lying or withholding information. You do it because you don’t feel safe telling the truth. If you lie to make your partner feel safe, you make your partner twice as unsafe. Our culture says if you don’t talk about something it’s not there. But in an intimate relationship, if you don’t talk about something it gives it more power.”This is why it’s important to share everything (but sharing needs to be done nicely, with good timing—best to share when Lizards feel safe!)
(I encourage you to explore Al’s website for much more information about the Lizard and how to create safety in your relationship. He’s the expert, I’m just the messenger.)
Next post I’ll explore the second skill on Al’s Map of Relationships: something he calls Reliable Membership.