Brent J. Atkinson, Ph.D. (1956–).
Brent Atkinson is the principle architect of the Pragmatic/Experiential Method for Improving Relationships (also called the PEX Method), an approach that translates findings from neurobiology and the science of intimate relationships into practical methods for improving relationships. His pioneering work is detailed in the books Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy and Developing Habits for Relationship Success, has appeared in leading professional journals, and has been featured in outlets such as the Oprah Magazine, the Washington Post, and the Psychotherapy Networker. He is known for his ability to present complex scientific ideas in compelling and easy-to-understand ways.
After completing a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Texas Tech University in 1985, Atkinson accepted a faculty position in Marriage and Family Therapy at Northern Illinois University (NIU) where he spent the next 27 years. He served as Director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program, guiding it through successful AAMFT accreditation renewals in 1995 and 2002. He also served as Chair of the State of Illinois Marriage and Family Therapy Licensing and Disciplinary Board, and President of the Illinois Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. In 1999, he cofounded the Couples Clinic and Research Institute where, drawing on research methods detailed earlier in his career (Atkinson et al. 1991), he began assembling the components of the PEX Method. Atkinson is currently Professor Emeritus at NIU and Director of Post-Graduate Training at the Couples Research Institute.
Contributions to Profession
Atkinson’s methods for rewiring automatic emotional processes in the brain are widely recognized. Early in his career, Atkinson noted that the skills needed to successfully navigate relationships can be difficult to execute because people may experience 1) automatic emotional tendencies or inclinations that take them in the wrong direction, and 2) a paucity of naturally occurring feelings that enable attachment and connection. The automatic patterns of emotional activation and suppression that enable successful relationships cannot be generated on demand, but rather develop naturally over time in children who have well-attuned and non-anxious caregivers. But Atkinson saw evidence emerging from neuroscience suggesting that with the right kind of practice, even people who don’t have the benefit of well-attuned caregivers can still develop automatic internal tendencies and inclinations that facilitate relational competence. He incorporated several empirically-verified practices into his treatment method for couples and developed further practices of two different varieties:
Practices that strengthen mood-regulation and response-flexibility. Atkinson developed exercises that rewire the way people automatically react in emotionally charged situations. These exercises include methods for deliberately restimulating and interrupting old emotional reactions through visualization, relaxation, and mental rehearsal. Like athletes and musicians who learn new movements and skills so thoroughly that they become instinctive, Atkinson asks partners to practice new mental and physical reactions frequently enough so that they became part of their mental muscle memory and begin happening with little or no conscious effort.
Practices that increase naturally-occurring feelings of love and connection. Atkinson has been particularly interested in studies suggesting that the brain can be primed so that it naturally generates more of the feelings needed for relationships to thrive. He identified the active ingredient across studies of successful priming as sustained inviting – a process in which subjects invite specific feelings while remembering times when the feelings were present or imagining situations where they would likely have the feelings. Studies suggest that the process of sustained inviting stimulates and strengthens areas of the brain associated with intimacy-related feelings, increasing the degree to which they emerge spontaneously in the course of everyday life. Atkinson developed specific practice protocols that are used by partners to prime their brains for more empathy, attentiveness, warmth, fondness, playfulness, and desire for connection.
- Atkinson, B. (2005). Emotional intelligence in couples therapy: Advances from neurobiology and the science of intimate relationships. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar
- Atkinson, B. (2016). Developing habits for relationship success (version 4.6). Geneva, IL: The Couples Research Institute.Google Scholar