Marital Conflict and Relationship Issues

Unlike traditional psychiatry, which rarely looks at the brain, Amen Clinics uses brain imaging technology to identify brain patterns that may contribute to conflict and relationship problems.

What are Marital Conflict and Relationship Issues?

Relationships take work even when both partners love each other. Every couple has disagreements. All partners experience moments when you feel irritated with your spouse or underappreciated. And who hasn’t gotten angry and said something hurtful or been the recipient of a stinging comment on occasion? This is all normal. But when anger, unhappiness, or troubling behavior become a consistent pattern, it’s time to seek help.

Who has Relationship Issues?

Relationship issues are common. A 2018 poll by Harris International found that 19% of people say they’re unhappy in the relationship, and approximately 40-50% of married couples eventually divorce. The divorce rate for second and third marriages is even higher. Raising a “blended family,” in which the parents have children from previous marriages, brings additional stressors that can make these relationships more challenging to navigate.

What are the Core Symptoms?

There is a wide range of reasons as to why there are issues with a relationship. Things that can threaten a relationship that are tied to brain function can include chronic arguing, the feeling of walking on eggshells, one partner always pointing out the negative, moodiness, abusiveness, sexual issues or infidelity.

What Causes Relationship Issues?

Marital therapy (also called “couples therapy”), which offers many proven strategies for relationship repair, can work for some couples, but isn’t enough for others. That’s because some relationship issues arise due to problems in brain function. The problem is that most therapists never look at the brain or even consider how the health of a couple’s brains contribute to the quality of their marriage.

Untreated relationship issues are associated with:

  • Unhappiness
  • Chronic stress
  • Feeling emotionally drained
  • Obesity
  • Heart problems
  • Hypertension
  • Weakened immune system

Why Choose Amen Clinics for Treating Marital Conflict or Relationship Issues?

The first step to understanding if your marital or relationship problems are actually brain issues is taking a close look at you and your partner’s brains. Brain SPECT imaging is a special kind of scan that helps us better understand how you and your significant other’s brains work. When marital or relationship problems are linked to problems with brain function, it completely changes the way you look at yourself and your significant other. It gives you a roadmap to treat the brain problem so you will be better able to take advantage of all the relationship strategies provided in psychotherapy.
 
 
 
 
 

Conflicted Brains Work Differently

At Amen Clinics, we use brain SPECT imaging to help us better understand how you and your significant other’s brains work. When marital or relationship problems are linked to problems with brain function, it completely changes the way you look at yourself and your significant other. It gives us a roadmap to treat the brain problem so you will be better able to take advantage of all the relationship strategies provided in psychotherapy.When there is conflict in a relationship that is hard to resolve, getting a brain scan to detect possible issues might be the best way to get answers. When we scan couples who have relationship troubles, we find that many have unresolved brain issues. The conditions that surface in a scan range from ADD/ADHD, depression, OCD, anxiety, anger, brain toxicity (see Bonnie and Dave’s story below) and more. How do you know and how can you help a loved one unless you look?

Healthy Brain Scan

Dave’s Brain Scan

SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) is a nuclear medicine study that evaluates blood flow and activity in the brain. Basically, it shows three things: healthy activity, too little activity, or too much activity. The healthy surface brain SPECT scan on the left, looking down from the top, shows full, even symmetrical activity. Dave’s brain scan on the right shows a brain pattern we call “scalloping” that is often seen in people who abuse drugs or alcohol. But Dave, who was in marital therapy with his wife Bonnie, didn’t drink or use drugs. (See Bonnie and Dave’s story below.)

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How Marital & Relationship Problems Are Linked To Brain Function

There are many things that lead to conflict in a marriage or relationship. It is important to ask WHY your partner acts the way that they do and WHY you behave the way you do. The answers lie in the brain.

The following issues are tied to brain function:

  • Acting impulsively, poor judgment, not paying attention, and even infidelity and addictions can be signs of trouble in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is responsible for planning, forethought, judgment, focus, attention, and impulse control. When activity in this area is low, it leads to problems in those areas.
  • Moodiness, negativity, lack of motivation, and low energy can be signs of abnormal activity in the limbic system. This area of the brain is involved in setting a person’s emotional tone and modulating motivation. When it’s optimized, it helps you be happy, motivated, and goal-oriented.
  • Being oppositional, being stubborn, holding on to grudges, or saying “no” all the time may indicate dysfunction in the brain’s anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG). The ACG is involved with cognitive flexibility, and when it’s healthy it helps you and your spouse go with the flow, adapt to change, cooperate with others, and deal successfully with new problems.
  • Anger, aggression, abusive behavior, and even forgetfulness can be signs of problems in the temporal lobes. These areas are involved in learning, memory, and mood stability. When there is abnormal activity here it can make a partner who used to be kind and caring become angry and aggressive. Or it can indicate that when your spouse or partner forgets your anniversary and birthday it doesn’t necessarily mean they are unloving, but rather they may be dealing with memory problems.
  • Being anxious or overly cautious can indicate too much activity in the basal ganglia and amygdala regions of the brain. These areas set the body’s anxiety level and play a role in motivation and drive. When the basal ganglia are overactive or underactive, a number of problems can arise, including anxiety and a tendency to predict the worst.

 

“With A Better Brain Comes A Better Life”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.

 

Bonnie and Dave: How Brain Scans Enhance Couples Therapy

Bonnie and Dave were getting frustrated with marital therapy. They had been going to an experienced therapist for three years and had spent a lot of money trying to save their marriage, but they weren’t making any progress. Despite the strategies and relationship tools the therapist had taught them, they were still bickering and feeling unhappy in their marriage. Dave was admittedly a big part of the problem. He had been a nice, thoughtful guy when they first married, but now he would explode with anger, was narcissistic, and antisocial, and he wasn’t getting any better from the psychotherapy.

After much consideration, the therapist finally gave the couple an F in marital therapy and told them it was time to get divorced. The therapist recommended they visit Amen Clinics as a last option so they could get brain scans to see if there might be some other underlying issues preventing them from making progress with therapy.

Bonnie and Dave agreed and underwent brain SPECT imaging studies. The results changed everything. All of a sudden, it became clear why they weren’t having any success with marital therapy despite having a great therapist. And they realized why therapy probably never would have worked for them no matter how many years they devoted to it.

Bonnie’s brain scan looked healthy. Dave’s, however, looked very unhealthy—shriveled and full of holes. (See Dave’s scan above.) Dave’s brain pattern is one that is commonly seen in people who abuse drugs or alcohol. But Dave swore he didn’t drink or use drugs, and Bonnie confirmed it. “That is not his problem,” Bonnie said. “He’s just a jerk.”

Other than drug or alcohol abuse, there are many things that can contribute to a toxic-looking brain, including brain infections, hypothyroidism, and environmental toxins. The problem became clear when Dave said he worked in a factory finishing furniture. The chemicals and solvents Dave was using every day at work were damaging his brain.

No wonder he was acting like such a jerk. And no wonder he was incapable of following through on any of the proven strategies the therapist had taught him. No amount of psychotherapy was going to heal Dave’s brain.

Dave took a medical leave of absence and eventually returned to a job at the factory that didn’t involve exposure to harmful chemicals. With a treatment plan focused on healing his brain, Dave made great strides.

For Bonnie, understanding that her husband’s problem was biological in nature made her more willing to support him as he went through treatment. When Dave’s brain was healthier, he was finally able to put the relationship tools and strategies from therapy into practice, and their marriage improved. Divorce was no longer on the table.

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