Learning the Dance of Limbic Resonance

It has been said that the job of a head of school is one of the toughest in the world. But what about their spouses? Whatever psychological pain a head of school has to bear, his or her spouse and family will certainly feel a similar pain, either directly or through their connection to the head. But spouses are far more helpless to do anything about a particular difficult situation than the head, and for that reason their suffering may be invisible and harder to bear. Like David Tully, who has surveyed heads of international and U.S. independent schools on this topic, I recognize the importance of the spouse's role in supporting a head and his or her ability to do the job. It is critical, as Tully says, that we support spouses.


During the last year, I interviewed a number of spouses of heads of school to find out more about these relationships. I read some of the recent and exciting research on marriages and what makes them work. And I also fell under the influence of a book recommended by a colleague. Titled A General Theory of Love, it was written by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, three psychiatrists of different generations, hoping to explain what we know about love from a scientific and neurological point of view. We now know where love exists in the brain and how it works in our neurons.

I believe, and modern neuroscience supports the idea, that we all change each other's brains through our relationships with one another. When I say this, I don't mean that we change each other's minds and thoughts. We've always known that we could "change someone's mind" or "bring them around." I mean that we actually change the structure of their brains, that part of their brains that responds to feeling. But we don't do it by changing their thoughts; we don't do it through thinking.

Still, our bias towards thinking, our worship of the cognitive, persists. We tend to believe that we change our brains by encountering and assimilating new information in the neocortex, that is, through our thinking. However, at a deeper level, at a more emotionally primitive level -- at the limbic level -- we can profoundly influence one another. We can, indeed, get into each other's heads and thereby change each other's neurons and mental chemistry.

You already know an enormous amount about limbic resonance. You just didn't know you knew it. Your neocortex didn't or doesn't know much about it, but your limbic brain certainly does, and your soul certainly does. This concept of "limbic resonance" is extremely important. It helps us to explain the power of love, the sustaining power of marriage, the healing power of psychotherapy. It can explain why some teachers are superb and others not.

Lessons from Spouses

To find out more about this important topic in the lives of heads of schools, I conducted six in-depth interviews with spouses, four in the U.S. and two abroad, to ask them about what they have experienced in their relationships. I also relied heavily on what I learned about head-spouse relationships from two workshops for heads and their partners that I ran for NAIS some years ago. Those workshops remain vivid in my mind. Finally, I conducted a group interview with five international heads and their spouses: 10 people listening to each other's stories about headship and sharing their own. It was, I believe, therapeutic for the group. It certainly was educational for me.

I often tell a favorite story about being married to a head of a school. The woman I talked to was married to man who had headed a U.S. independent school for more than a decade. She told me that for all of those years she resented the school and the demands it made on her husband's time and on their family. She not only resented the school; at times, she hated the school. She was profoundly relieved when he resigned and accepted a position at an international school. Then, during their first year at his new, international school she realized, "All of those years I hated Sunnybrook School because I thought it took Frank away from me. I blamed the school. It wasn't until we got to our second school that I realized the problem wasn't Sunnybrook, it was Frank!" And she laughed... and they're still together.

Spouses tell me that it's a mixed bag being married to a head of school. "No one ever grows up wanting to be the spouse of a head of school," one woman told me. "It gives you ample scope, not only for learning to adapt, but for staying in touch with your own core. People all work it out differently. And there are chapters. Things don't work out [in one phase] and so you work it out another way." And then she softened, putting her own marriage in the context of everyone else's marriage. "It's like all of adult life, things change and you work it out."

The spouses of the heads of school complained about four things:

  1. anonymity or invisibility;
  2. helplessness;
  3. being a "cul de sac" or "dead end" for information; and
  4. the way the demands of school can result in the neglect of the relationship.

They may have complained, but finally these six women, all with intact marriages, told me it had been worth it. Though being in a relationship with a head of school can be tough at times, and "no one grows up wanting to be the spouse of a head of school," it can give you a huge sense of shared mission.

(I must acknowledge, from a scientific point of view there is something totally wrong about the methodology of my interviewing: I did not go track down people who had gotten divorced, nor did I interview the spouses of unsuccessful heads of school, people whose administrations had been characterized by chaos and crisis. Obviously, I would have gotten different stories. But I assume that for the matrimonially and professionally unsuccessful, the four problems that successful spouses identified must have been overwhelmingly intense.)

Anonymity or Invisibility

One spouse related a time when her husband got a phone call in the middle of the night telling him that a beloved faculty member had died suddenly of a heart attack three hours earlier. It was a terrible loss for the school, a personal loss for her husband, and a great sadness for her. Her husband jumped out of bed and immediately went to be with the teacher's family. Over the next days and weeks he dealt with all of the ramifications this death had for the school. The teacher's children went to the school and he had had many friends on the faculty. The loss was a painful and compelling drama for the school, which her husband handled very well. As he managed, as he checked on how everyone in the school community was doing, and everyone, in turn, checked on him -- "How are you?" "How are you holding up?" "This is terrible, isn't it?" -- no one checked on her, except her husband. No one was interested in or even aware of her reaction to the events.

Oh, many people asked her how "he" was doing or "they" were doing, but no one expressed any interest in her personal reaction to the loss. This woman, who is a freelance writer and a good one, told me that she had to become accustomed to no one asking her about her work. She makes a good living as a freelance writer, but not for magazines or journals that everyone reads. Still, she said it startled her last year when a board member asked about her writing and how it was going. She had become accustomed to being so "invisible" that she no longer expected people to be interested in anything about her except her relationship to her husband and his school.


If there is a crisis in the school, the head immediately swings into action. No matter how unpleasant, how scary or upsetting the events might be, the head gets to DO something about them. Not so the spouse. As a result, she or he often feels in the grip of forces beyond control, forces that threaten the school and their life together. If that experience is repeated too many times, it will lead inevitably to what is called "learned helplessness," where the spouse learns that there is nothing he or she can do and so becomes fatalistic, or withdrawn or depressed. Martin Seligman, at the University of Pennsylvania, has written extensively about learned helplessness. It is one of the most important concepts in psychology in the last 20 years.

One spouse described her sense of profound helplessness when her husband was sued by a crazy parent. This parent not only sued, he went to the papers, made accusations about the school which got some traction in the local press and he continued to make accusations. The parent, a disturbed man, devoted his life to attacking the school and trying to drive the head into retirement. For the head's wife, these were terrible months. There was nothing she could do to help the situation. Her husband was experiencing significant torment, and she could only stand at his side, listen to his stories, and experience intense helplessness. The unfairness of the accusations and the relentlessness of the attacks were simply terrible. They made her feel enraged and helpless -- and it went on for two years. All she could do was listen to her husband talk about his feelings, and that, she found, put her in a bind. She wanted to run away from the pain of it, because it was so intense, but of course she wouldn't have; she wished she could change the situation, but it wasn't in her power.

An international school spouse described the contract process as "tough." In international schools, head tenure is much shorter and firings are more frequent, because boards of trustees are almost all composed of parents who are elected on a yearly basis. It is an incredibly unstable system of governance. Some parent issue or another, such as an unpopular teacher, invariably becomes the election issue and the election soon becomes a referendum on the head's leadership. Is he going to get rid of the teacher or not; is he going to have a second-language immersion or not? You can see why there is more turnover in such schools.

"In international schools you are almost always obliged to resign before you have your next job," a head told me. His wife added on, "We told the school we weren't going to renew and then in April they asked him to stay one more year, but by then it was done."

Another spouse said, "August until December, when he got a new job, those were the tough months."

A Dead-End for Information

"You are the cul-de-sac or the dead end for information," one spouse told me. "There is no place to put it but to carry it. Your husband talks to you and you cannot talk to anyone. You feel like a sponge that may not be up to soaking up all the crap that's around: the grief, the pain, the anger, the malaise, the anxiety. Part of what you do is to support. [However] it's not your story and you don't want to make things worse."

It is simply true that what human beings do with upsetting material is talk about it to someone else. We soften and transform it by retelling it. What can you do when you cannot tell anyone else what you have learned, because it is confidential, it came from your spouse, and you don't want to hurt him or her? You absorb it.

For the head, being able to tell a friend, someone who has some distance from the problem, may be kinder than telling a spouse, because the friend may not be so burdened. The difficulty for most heads of school is that their positions limit the number and type of friendships they can have.

This need for secrecy is even more complicated when a spouse works in a school. She or he may know information that is confidential, and they cannot speak about it. "When your spouse works in the school, it is a whole different ball game," one wife told me. "As a faculty member, there are things I don't want to know, or shouldn't know." So you stop talking. Another spouse said, "In faculty meetings, people think I have a poker face. [Actually] the thing she is announcing is news to me."

But even if you aren't technically on the faculty, you are still a member of the community. Listen to what the wife of a boarding school head had to say: "Every marriage is different in a head couple. [There is] a healthy balance of participation and differentiation. The overlap works as long as each person has his or her own thing. We've had more practice dealing with overlap than most couples do in professional life.

"It's a dance. If two people can't find a way to dance the dance that feels okay; then the rest of it, it is hard to make it work. We were good at it; we enjoy doing things together. But it was very important that he had his separate world."


One spouse said to me, "Other people feel that they can say to him, ‘You have to stop and pay attention to me, because I'm your best friend." They don't say that, but they know how to make him feel that. He's incapable of turning away. That's who he is. He's always been this way, but the growth of the school has almost made it impossible to have any life but a school life. He hits a golf ball outside for two hours. He doesn't even go to a golf course.

"I am grateful for my life, but there is a price that we have paid. The marriage has suffered neglect and sometimes abandonment. I felt it so much more strongly when I was younger and had kids at home. I needed him physically to help with things. A lot of things are missed. Sometimes he's too tired to talk. He gets up early. My cycle is different. You cannot catch up on everything. Things have to be heard when they are felt. If they aren't, they are lost forever."

The male spouse of a woman head of school said to me, "She has a bigamous relationship. She's married to me and she's married to Benjamin, the board chair. She has meetings three nights a week."

But the feeling that the relationship is being neglected is not universal. Indeed, some spouses and heads told me that because of the isolation of leadership, they were spending too much time together. "We're dependent on each other too much of the time," one head said. However, another spouse, after describing how she and her husband used to be involved in theatre outside of school when he was a division director said, "We've always had clear, shared interests. [Since he became a head] I've become very independent. I don't think, ‘Do I really need that guy,' but I've started my own social life."

Many other spouses echo this theme. In order to deal with the feelings of abandonment and neglect created by so many meetings, so many claims on the head's time, the psychological distance created from others by having to keep secrets, or the psychological distance between partners when one cannot share important information, people have to develop independent lives that they can turn to when the head of school is unavailable. If not, you live in a state of constant neglect and yearning.


As a psychologist who had little training in neuropsychology when I was in graduate school 30 years ago, the brain is a place I don't usually go, because I am not all that familiar with it. I know a lot about the mind. I usually speak the language of emotions, about psychological wants and needs. We know what neglect and abandonment are; we know they are bad for children and adults alike. We know that a marriage that is too "abandoning" is ultimately too painful for both parties to bear, because they are missing some fundamental nourishment in their lives. They need to do something about it, find a couples therapist, go on an extended vacation together, or they need to start attending more conferences together, in order to get connected.

What about the single head, whose life is so busy that it may keep her or him from maintaining regular nourishing friendships? How does that head deal with feelings of self-neglect? Well, he or she may need to have a group along the lines of the monthly groups run for and by heads of school in the Bay Area. Alternatively, that head may want to come to a conference where there is a sense of connectedness.

But what is connectedness? Where is it located? Where does it start in the brain and how do we feed it? Why do some people seem to have such a strong feeling of connectedness while others do not?

The authors of A General Theory of Love write that the old psychological explanations of love have died a scientific death. Freud's theories of why the mind worked the way it did, based on interaction and conflict between id, ego, and superego, were, they say, only ever metaphorical. No one ever found the id or the ego on a PET scan. And the moment an Australian researcher found that lithium made guinea pigs calmer and that it had the same effect on patients with manic-depressive illness, thousands upon thousands of pages of theories about the psychological conflicts underlying mania and severe depression went into the trash.

The authors write, "Tiny molecules, when ingested and transported to the brain, were capable of erasing delusions, removing depression, smoothing out mood swings, banishing anxiety -- how could one square that with the preeminence of repressed sexual urges as the cause of all matters emotional?"

In my business, we've stopped believing in the psychosexual romance theory of love that Freud offered us. Freud believed that we loved our spouses because they reminded us of our mothers, who were so orally gratifying and sexually attractive to us in our early years. When I was getting married in my early twenties -- a terrible, early marriage to a reckless, red-headed woman, which ended in divorce none too soon -- my older brother, Peter, took me aside two nights before the wedding and helpfully offered an observation: "You know, Michael," he said, "Shannon has red hair... (long pause) and so does mom." That was his way of telling me that I was making a neurotic choice of a partner. Fair enough, but was it just the sight of red hair that caused my brain to seek out that woman? Not really. The brain is always seeking patterns that it has known before, and that is what I call limbic resonance. The brain is also always seeking something new and better than what it has known in the past -- that's why my second marriage is so much better than my first -- and that is called limbic revision.

The Triune Brain

What is the limbic brain? In A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis and his colleagues have attempted to answer three fundamental questions: What are feelings, and why do they exist? What are relationships and why do they exist? What causes emotional pain, and how can it be mended?

The world's most successful life forms, like bacteria, have no brains and no use for them. We, on the other hand, have three different brains, all of which developed at different points in evolution. They are the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the neocortex.

The reptilian brain is our brain stem, and it controls breathing, heart rate, our reflexes and all involuntary movement. We have no control over it. No matter how much you try to coach yourself not to jump when a cannon goes off, you can't stop yourself. You can't reason your brain into forgetting its reflexes.

The limbic brain is the small brain that surrounds the brain stem. It is separate and distinct from the neocortex, that largest of the three brains, about the size of two dinner napkins, that is all crinkled up and covers the other two brains. The neocortex is the seat of language, reason, symbology, will, and voluntary movement. The frog doesn't need a neocortex to snap a fly out of the air with his tongue, but I needed one to type this paper.

In school we spend a lot of time training the neocortex to master language, to recognize the symbols and systems of mathematics, and to analyze the products of other people's language-based brains: prose, poetry, written history, music theory, etc.

But does it require a neocortex to appreciate or understand music? Of course not. Most people in the world are musically illiterate, but they love it and appreciate it. Why? Because music starts in the limbic brain; it doesn't require a neocortex or language. It started when mammals developed the limbic brain and began to call to their young, something no reptile has ever done.

The limbic brain is the seat of communion, of maternal feeling, of social communication, of play, and of love. It is the base of non-verbal communication. Mammals developed the limbic brain as they broke off from the reptilian line, and it caused them to look after their young. Young komodo dragons have to get away from adults as quickly as possible, because baby komodos make up a good part of the adult male komodo diet. That's not true of any mammal, because of the limbic brain. If you damage the limbic brain in hamsters, they simply stop caring for their young. For the most part, you don't need reason to raise children, you need an intact limbic brain and that produces love.

No mother ever had to be taught to hold her child in her left arm when it was time for the baby to sleep. That is a universal. All mothers in all cultures hold their babies on their left sides because they "know" that it allows the baby to hear the mother's heart more clearly, and that allows the baby to fall asleep. Actually, it does far more than that; it helps a baby to regulate its own heart during sleep.

The thing worth noting here is that the limbic brain and the neocortex are made up of different kinds of cells. They are not made of the same brain tissue! "Viewed under the microscope, limbic brain tissue is far more primitive than its neocortical counterparts. Some drugs can destroy parts of the limbic brain and leave the neocortex untouched," the authors of A General Theory of Love tell us.

Here's what's significant; what we've always known intuitively is true: Our intellect and our emotional life are separate. They start in separate parts of the brain and when we communicate with others, we communicate from different parts of our brain to different parts of their brains. When you hear a brilliant lecture by a brilliant thinker and it doesn't reach you, it doesn't "connect" with you, that may well be because your limbic brain was never engaged.

If there are two different parts of the brain, do they learn differently? No, they learn the same way, by having repeated experiences that lay down connectors between neurons. Think about learning to recognize an H, for example. You develop connectors that eventually allow you to recognize many different kinds of H's and know that they are the same: capital, small case, cursive, and even the H's in illuminated manuscripts, which don't really look much like the letter we use. The brain eventually lays down tracks in the neurons that recognize all kinds of "h's." When these tracks or connectors are well formed, they become "attractors" that recognize and seek out similar attractors.

We learn love in the same way. By being close to our mothers and fathers, we come to know their patterns of their love, and we are regulated by it. Their love regulates our anxiety, our fears, our impulses. Their love is a feeling we search for all of our lives, not because of -- as Freud believed -- psychosexual attraction, but because we have emotional patterns in our limbic brains as well connected as the paths of language in our neocortical brains.

It is for that reason that we fall so much in love when we meet someone who "resonates" with us. That is limbic resonance. Our brain suddenly lights up, our attractors yearn for the patterns we experienced as children. But what if the patterns of love in our childhoods were chaotic, unpredictable, depressed? We're attracted to that, as well. I have a friend, a wonderful woman, whose father was an alcoholic and a bit of a bully. She told me that she had never fallen passionately in love with a "good" man; she had only gone head-over-heels for bullies. Finally, when she realized this, and her bully of a husband died, she settled for calming, supportive relationships that made her feel good.

Limbic Resonance, Regulation, and Revision

Our limbic brains, then, are always searching then for "resonance" because that's what the attractor patterns in our neurons find familiar and attractive. But because we laid down patterns in our limbic brains that helped us regulate our bodies and moods, we are always seeking limbic regulation. Finally, if we have experienced troublesome and disrupted patterns of love in our early lives, or in our early romantic lives, we begin to seek out what the authors of A General Theory of Love call "limbic revision."

As adults, once we're past the first passions of our lives, we seek out two things: limbic regulation and limbic revision. We want a relationship that will regulate us, and when I say that, I'm not kidding. Marital partners and close friends have an impact on each other's heart rhythms, their immune systems, and their sleep -- all without words being involved. That's why a single woman camp director I know goes to see her parents on her day off, and even if they aren't home, naps in her old bed. We get sick without one another, and we die pretty quickly after our partners die, men especially. I would speculate that the reason that men die so much more quickly after their spouses die is that they are not as connected to other people, their friends or their children, who can help regulate them.

If you accept this premise, that there are three different parts to the brain and two of them don't require words at all, then you begin to see that knowledge of the limbic brain illuminates our understanding of relationships, of good and bad teachers, of why some schools are comforting and others not. We're training two different brains, the neocortex and the limbic brain. We need teachers who are intuitive as well as intellectual; we need administrators who can communicate nonverbally, giving reassurance with their eyes and their presence and their tone of voice. Heads of school know all this. They were chosen for their jobs because they communicated both with the intellect and with the limbic brains.

So what does all this imply about relationships? We may have found our soulmate in the person we married, and our souls may need each other -- and I believe they do -- because we need enough contact with one another to regulate and be regulated. Partners need enough contact with one another to regulate, be regulated, and, when all goes well, to revise their patterns.

Stressful jobs, board chairs, angry parents, and the incessant demands of work are enemies of the limbic brain. They don't leave enough time for limbic regulation and limbic revision. If we spend the time talking and in conversation, we can change each other's brains in calming ways. We can hold each other in community. We do so as partners and we do so as friends.

Why Marriages Work

When I was interviewing the five couples in a group I ended by asking them why their relationships work and how they have managed to stay together. Their answers were:

1) Shared Love of Schools

"I don't think we would have gotten married if we hadn't enjoyed talking to each other about schools. The school is a very big part of our connection to one another," said one.

A boarding school spouse observed, "The boundaries between work and family are just more porous in school life than in other professions. There are good aspects to that, and some bad. You are living with someone who really cares about people. As long as people at home don't get forgotten, that's a huge plus."

2) Shared love of Missions

"There is something about Clark and his mission that have made this all happen," one spouse said. "My mission would not have been possible without him. My work with disadvantaged children would not have been possible without his support, and the support of his school."

3) Being abroad and mastering a new culture together brings people closer together.

I know a couple that has lived in Tanzania, Charlotte, NC, Costa Rica, and are now together in a Japanese city. She told me that Japan was the last place on earth where she had ever imagined herself living. But she is working hard at mastering Japanese, though she knows she can never become as fluent as she did in Spanish when they were in Costa Rica. She said to me, "We like mastering new cultures together. It is a shared experience. I don't know what it would be like to be able to run errands easily, to just go to the store, without having to master another culture. And even though I didn't end up in a place I expected, I think you have to bloom where you are planted."

4) It is a family way of life.

"We've dragged our families along on this journey," one head told me, "And now they're part of it." Their children had become teachers in international schools. There was no going "back home" for that couple, because home had become the world.

4) You find a way to maintain the "limbic resonance" between you, whether it's an annual trip to a place without cell phones, TVs, and pagers, like a cabin in Nova Scotia, or you schedule a "date night" and stick to it even on those nights when you don't feel like talking to each other. Once you're away from school and alone together, the conversation begins anyway.

5) Gossip, or the understanding of other spouses.

"It is a secret society," one head's wife told me, "and we all end up in the corner whispering about what it's like."

What it's like, when the dance of limbic resonance goes on, is the best kind of shared experience, one that nurtures not only the partners in the spouse-head marriage, but the faculty, trustees, parents, and -- most importantly -- the children in their charge.


Michael Thompson, Ph.D., is the consulting psychologist to the Belmont Hill School in Belmont, MA. He is the author of nine books and many articles, including Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, and Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children.​