What is this thing called ‘love’? Plato labeled love an ‘irrational desire,” and song titles such as “The Things We Do For Love,” as well as lyrics of songs such as “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” convey the befuddling impact love relationships can have on human brains. For human beings, men and women alike, there is perhaps no bigger fascination or obsession for the senses, heart and mind, body and spirit.
The good news from fields of neuroscience and intimacy (known as social neuroscience, attachment, affective neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience) is that up-close studies of the brain mechanisms underlying behavior in social relationships have taken much of the mystery out of our quest to understand couple relationships.
As Dr. Sue Johnson states in a recent book, Hold Me Tight, quite the contrary, love relationships seem to be governed by an “exquisite logic” that follows rather precise algorithms. Bonding behaviors, it turns out, are less of a mystery and more a science.
We now understand, for example, there are neurochemical reasons why we tend to make poor decisions in certain relational contexts.
In successful relationships, partners take the basics seriously, and handle the yearnings of each to feel heard and understood as unique beings as really, really important; in short, they treat one another with dignity, recognizing their own and one another’s personal power.
As top trial lawyer Gerry Spence notes, what we face when we interact with one another, is what we most fear in our relationships, and that is: the power of the other as an agent of their choices.
The other has the power, for example, to choose to say no, to deny some need, want or yearning, and so on, and because this directly challenges our own sense of personal power (to realize dreams, wants and needs), it touches our deepest intimacy fears, such as fear of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment.
Not surprisingly, this dynamic is particularly intense in couple relationships.
With this in mind, let’s explore what defensive patterns in your couple relationship are saying to you and your partner. To be sure, your brains and emotions, thoughts and feelings, are doing what they’re designed to do whenever you or your partner perceive a threat, in this case, a threat to meeting a core attachment or intimacy (love) need.
What does reactivity say about what’s going on beneath the surface of your couple relationship?
A recent article on Science of Relationships outlined a list of ten research-based wedding vows. Based on findings, Samantha Joel outlined vows that, if followed, would best guarantee marital bliss. The below list of 12 vows is adapted from the original.
1. “I vow to think highly of you, and seek to know and appreciate you for who you are, as well as who you aspire to become.”
This vow draws from research on the power of imagination, more specifically, the use of positive illusions or imagination, as a creative force, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Based on the findings of Dr. Sandara Murray and colleagues, partners who maintained positive illusions of the other and their relationship were more likely to eventually create it. When you view your partner in a positive light, whether you do so consciously or not, the benefits include not only giving your partner a personal feel-good, but also increasing their sense of security in relation to you.
Like or love it, you and your body are a highly sophisticated communication network that operates 24/7 around the clock every day of your life.
Neuroscience and other studies of the brain and human relationships have taught us a lot about the brain in the last two decades. We know that to understand and organize our thinking experience of the world, we must necessarily learn language—and all of its syntax and grammatical complexities. In much the same way, we must learn to understand and organize our experience of our body’s own language — emotion and sensory cues — with its unique grammar and syntax rules.
When you and your partner discuss a hot topic, do you handle it in a way that enriches your relationship — and ultimately your happiness — or does your experience put more emotional distance between you and polarize your positions? Many couples fall in the latter category.
Think about it. It’s tempting, isn’t it, to use our capacity for logic to build a case against the other? The feel-good neurochemicals in our brain pull us in this direction, particularly, if we’ve experienced this reaction in early experiences with parents (and who hasn’t?).
As it turns out, social sciences and religions alike have been seriously wrong when it comes to labeling humans as inherently “bad,” “selfish” or “aggressive,” and so on, by nature or from birth. Similarly, scientific thought has mislead us at times into thinking that our instincts for survival have been the primary motivating force of nature, to include human nature.
(It begs the question: Is it coincidence that we’ve been simultaneously taught to think of love as fluffy, secondary or an optional add on to our nature?)
Conceivably, love is a primary evolutionary force. For humans, it is the primary reason to live, and the quest for meaning in life shapes most all of our behaviors, and not merely to survive.
More than likely, our physical instincts to survive are there to serve our higher ones. A handful of psychological theorists, such as Alfred Adler and Abraham Maslow, had it right. They understood certain essential instincts revealed our social nature as human beings, such as our yearnings for belonging, acceptance, making contributions, etc., substantiated by recent findings in neuroscience.
The work of Dr. Marco Iacoboni, published in his most recent book, Mirroring People: The New Science of How we Connect with Others invites us to look at human nature with new reverence and awe.
The practice of affirmations can be a powerful means to heal, change and grow in positive directions. Correctly applied, reaching for customized affirmations is also one of the easiest, fastest, most effective ways to supercharge your life — in a given moment or situation — to activate the health-boosting hormones and processes that optimal emotional states produce in the brain and body.
When you think of it, in its simplest form, an affirmation is really anything you say or think to yourself silently or aloud. In effect, you likely practice “affirmations” around the clock – subconsciously, outside your awareness.
More specifically, however, the word “affirmations” speaks to the conscious use of words that affirm, lift up, inspire, refresh, in other words, a conscious practice of making positive statements to your self … for the purpose of optimizing performance, energizing the body’s healing processes or shifting away from toxic thought patterns that intensify fears, depression, anger, etc., to unhealthy levels.
Affirmations are a key aspect of letting go of and, or replacing old habits of negative self-talk, which most persons are conditioned to repeat, to some degree 24/7, whether they are aware of doing so or not. Because thoughts are powerful activators of automatic neural activity, which produces actual structural inside your body, when you make this a conscious process, you are literally exercising your very own built-in capacity (unique to human beings!), ultimately, to choose the beliefs that will direct the firing and wiring of cells in your brain and body.
The joining or “wiring” of brain cells, is often referred to as, “cells that fire together, wire together”; the words are used to describe what happens when we learn something new or reinforce or modify a current skill. This wiring produces different types of structural changes to the brain, literally, when groups of cells that get activated together, develop new associations, or get modified or reinforced (thicker connections) to the extent they are repeated.
This grouping of common brain cells is what learned behavior is all about; this ability of our brain allows us to walk, talk, run, write, sing, in fact any learned activity we do, and do so seemingly without thinking (in truth, it …
Thoughts are much more than airy pieces of information that enter our minds and then disappear. The words and ideas we think, and the accompanying feelings they spark, subconsciously shape our lives.
They can literally activate chemical processes that affect us at every level, emotional, physical, mental, and thus can drive us in the direction of overall success and happiness — or failure and distress.
Thoughts are energy. Emotions are energy. Physical feelings are energy. Together, they energize us to action accordingly, and even have the power to immobilize us. How you think (and thus feel) can have a profound effect on your ability to recognize an opportunity, perform to the best of your ability, or achieve the outcome of the goals that you’ve set for yourself.