Successful marriage partners know it’s not a matter of who’s right or wrong that solves issues in their relationship. A healthy vibrant relationship is a matter of knowing what works and what doesn’t—and consistent action.
Brain research now reveals why certain actions succeed and others fail. As it turns out, the specifics of “how” we treat one another makes a world of difference. It appears that certain actions “work” as they release Oxytocin into the bloodstream – a chemical that floods the body with feeling states of love, safety and connection.
In contrast, when the brain is in survival mode, the brain’s ability to use Oxytocin is impaired, thus, we do not feel safe enough to love or even open to learn from our experiences. (Is this why we keep making the same mistakes?)
Individuals in mutually-enriching marriages acquire certain habits that permit them to remain emotionally present, and not activate their brain’s “fight or flee” survival system—when they most need it. These actions release enough Oxytocin to restore feelings of safety and connection. This capacity allows them to remain in relatively balanced physio-psychological states of mind, so that they are better able to:
- Provide assurance. Nothing seems to zap our energy like an unexpected disappointment or demand. Just a minor comment can spin us out of control and suddenly we “feel” our partner does not love or appreciate us. In moments like this, a few words of assurance of the other’s love and support works miracles.
- Respect one another, unconditionally. It’s easy to be kind and wonderful when we are happy with one another. Those in healthy relations pass the test in difficult moments. Even when upset, whether by an event or by what their partner is saying, they can express how they feel and still treat themselves and the other with dignity.
- Stay focused on action-based solutions—not problems. It’s not uncommon for partners to spend decades on one or two unresolved “issues” and find even unrelated problems lead them back to same arguments. Partners in happy relationships identify what the problem is, then focus most of their energies on generating solutions and following up with actions.
- Maintain positive expectations. Expectations are beliefs, and beliefs powerfully shape our behaviors with the emotions they produce. In difficult situations, some partners know how to honor unpleasant emotions, their own and partner’s, yet also how to restore the energy in their relationship with words or gestures that convey positive expectations for one another.
- Be flexible. Flexibility in thinking is a learned ability that makes it possible for partners’ brains to operate in optimal ways. Unlike the brain in defensive mode, a flexible brain is open to explore possibilities for what works best to positively energize the best in one another, to make conscious choices on how to respond to maintain a love connection, and avoid getting hijacked by the body’s survival system.
What does this mean for partners who want to enrich their marriage with healthy ways of relating in their verbal and nonverbal communications? It means they need to train their brains to break away from old interaction patterns and literally recondition new response patterns in their place.
When partners know what to do to promote an inner shift to a sense of safety and empathic connection, they empower a strong relational foundation upon which they confidently make successful and long lasting changes.
Is it easy? No. Is it achievable? You bet!
It’s a matter of habit and choice. What’s in store for your marriage, Oxytocin or Cortisol?