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3 Questions that Can Strengthen a Relationship

How to recognize when you are reacting automatically—and how to stop.

Key points

  • Relationship hurts are often unintentional. One party gets hurt without the other even understanding why.
  • Many hurts stem from an automatic network; the response is both primitive and predictable.
Mateus Souza / Pexels
Source: Mateus Souza / Pexels

Have you ever noticed that the majority of hurt that happens in a relationship is unintentional? This is the person you love. You don’t mean to make them feel bad. Yet we all do things that hurt our partner.

To understand why, we need to understand the brain. We have an automatic network called the default mode network (DMN). Evolutionarily, it supported us living and working in clans. When it feels that your belonging to a clan, or your value to the clan, is threatened, it activates a stress response. You lash out. A fight ensues.

Because the DMN operates automatically, emotions swell up seemingly from nowhere. And the person doing the hurting doesn't understand what they did wrong.

What makes us feel that we are in danger? To gain insight into these primitive pain points, talk through the following questions with your partner. It will take your hurts from reactive to understandable:

1. When do I feel left out? The default mode network prioritizes fitting in and clan membership. Studies show that ostracism creates a stress response comparable to an injury or illness. It literally feels like life or death, because in our hunter-gatherer days, it was.

People in relationships can feel left out in myriad ways. I often see families in which one partner works long hours believing it is necessary to support the family financially, while the other feels that their spouse is choosing work over them. The home-based spouse feels that their partner prefers their work clan, while the working spouse feels unappreciated. Talking through such feelings, and acknowledging that both people are prioritizing the family through different roles, helps to assuage the hurt and bring everyone back into alliance.

Discuss when you feel most like a team. What activities make you feel like true partners? For example, date night often helps couples because it makes them feel like a single unit again. The DMN perceives that the clan is intact and functioning, making everyone feel more relaxed and loving.

2. Where do we compete? One couple I saw struggled with their bond because of unnecessary competition. When she made a home-cooked meal as an act of love, he'd say, “Oh you did? I could have done that.” It made her feel undermined and unseen. She was looking for an expression of love back—a hug or a kiss—but instead felt hurt.

Comparing happens automatically in our brains. The trick is to acknowledge this innate drive and flip the mindset: This person is your partner, not your competition. When they win, you win. When they make a meal, everyone benefits. Recognizing and labeling comparisons when they happen jolts us out of that mode. We can then choose to give each other the appreciation and support that we all need and deserve.

3. When do we people-please? Empathy is another instinctive process in the brain: We help each other when times are hard. This inclination long supported the success of the group and the species.

Sometimes this predilection gets the best of us. When we prioritize other people’s needs and care over our own, we suffer. Think of the Stage 1 cancer patient who spends long hours taking care of her friend with Stage 4 cancer, rationalizing that the friend is sicker so her needs should come first.

More commonly, consider the dynamics of a partnership in which one person complains regularly. That person could skew everything as wrong: “My coworkers take credit for my work, I’m tired because my sleep got disrupted, I never get time to do what I love…” Their partner will automatically go into empathy mode, trying to make the person’s life better, wearing themselves out in the process.

Identify the places where you go into empathy mode in your relationship, and consider whether it is appropriate or not. Remember that your partner is also an adult, responsible for their own happiness. It is not for you to solve. Doing so will open you up to taking better care of yourself, ultimately improving your relationship.

Relationships are hard and only made harder when we unknowingly bump up against automatic reactions that kept us safe when we lived in caves. Understanding their origins helps us resolve these hurts faster and engage more consciously so that they don’t happen again.


Bocage-Barthelemy, Y., Chatard, A., Jaafari, N., Tello, N., Billieux, J., Daveau, E., & Selimbegovic, L. (2018). Automatic social comparison: Cognitive load facilitates an increase in negative thought accessibility after thin ideal exposure among women. PLOS One, 1-13.

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Gilbert, P., Price, J., & Allan, S. (1995). Social comparison, social attractiveness and evolution: How might they be related? New Ideas in Psychology, 13(2), 149-165.

Li, W., Mai, X., & Liu, C. (2014). The default mode network and social understanding of others: what do brain connectivity studies tell us. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(74), 1-5.

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Soderberg, P., & Fry, D.P. (2016). Anthropological Aspects of Ostracism. In K.D. Williams & S.A. Nida (Eds.), Ostracism, Exclusion, and Rejection (pp. 258-272). Routledge.

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