Marital Conflict

Marriage takes 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.


Marital 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.

Things that can threaten a relationship that are tied to brain function can include:

  • Chronic arguing or fighting
  • One partner always saying “no”
  • Being stubborn
  • Holding on to grudges
  • Infidelity
  • Not paying attention
  • Acting impulsively
  • Poor judgment
  • Moodiness
  • Saying hurtful things
  • Temper flare-ups
  • Being forgetful
  • Constantly pointing out the negative
  • Bad habits, vices, and addictions
  • Excessive worrying
  • Lack of motivation
  • Low energy
  • Overly cautious and anxious
  • Oppositional behavior
  • Changes in behavior
  • Sexual issues
  • Abusive behavior (verbal, physical, sexual)*

Although these things may make you think your spouse is uncaring, mean, or just a jerk, it’s important to ask WHY your partner acts the way they do and WHY you behave the way you do. The answers lie in the brain.


All of the issues listed above are tied to problems with brain function. For example:

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 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.

The first step to understanding if your marital problems are actually brain issues is taking a close look at you and your spouse’s brains.


Brain SPECT imaging is a special kind of scan that helps us better understand how you and your spouse’s brains work. SPECT measures blood flow and activity in the brain, and it can help people overcome marital conflict by:

  • Helping identify areas of low activity and blood flow in you and your spouse’s brains
  • Helping determine if there could be co-occurring conditions that need treatment
  • Helping determine if treatment is working correctly
  • Helping couples gain a better understanding of their brains—and their problems—through visuals

When marital problems are linked to problems with brain function, it completely changes the way you look at yourself and your spouse. 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.

That’s what happened to the Mathisons.


A few years ago, a couple came into Amen Clinics after failing marriage counseling. They had seen a counselor for two years — at a cost of $25,000 — only to be told that they should get divorced. After conducting a full personal history on the man and the woman, we asked if either one of them drank or used drugs, and they both said no.

Next, the couple underwent SPECT scans, and when we saw the husband’s scan, which was filled with so many “holes” of inactivity/low blood flow it looked like Swiss cheese, we asked again if the husband did drugs, and he again denied it. Next we asked, “What do you do for a living?”

“I finish furniture in a furniture factory,” the man answered.

Marital Conflict
There it was. While the man never used street drugs or abused prescription medicine, he was basically “doing drugs” every day on the job, where he breathed in harsh chemicals that altered his brain function. He had worked there for five years and the time he started the job matched the time when his wife said their problems began.

Amen Clinics put him on a healthy brain treatment. Soon, not only did his brain scans show improved overall activity, but more importantly, he became himself again, and he and his wife agreed that their marital difficulties had been resolved.

Does this kind of situation seem familiar to you? Do you sometimes wonder what happened to the person you married? At Amen Clinics, we know how many factors can affect brain health and have unintended impact on marriages. As part of a comprehensive evaluation, we take full personal histories before beginning SPECT imaging or recommending any treatment program.

We understand the pain of marital strife and we are committed to helping optimize you and/or your spouse’s brain health so you restore and strengthen your relationship.

*If you are afraid that someone may be hurt, or if you are afraid of your partner, please call 911. While we believe that everyone can benefit from SPECT imaging and a healthier brain, please note that we cannot provide immediate help or protection from abuse. 

†Names have been changed. 

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