- Endorphins and Dopamine explain why we engage in certain pleasure seeking or goal-directed behaviors.
- The release of Oxytocin signals that we feel safe enough to love and be loved.
- Serotonin explains feelings of confidence and acts as a natural anti-depressant and helps temper impulsive feelings.
The receptor sites for all of these hormones in our brains, by the way, are in the same area that deal with emotion. No wonder we do and say certain things — we do so to make ourselves feel better!
So, in summary, what have we learned from studies of intimacy? We now know that:
- The actual (or perceived) presence or availability of a person we’ve formed a love-attachment with can activate a physiological (bodily) sense of love, comfort and security, and that, correspondingly, the actual (or perceived) emotional unavailability of a loved one can activate feelings of distress, isolation, despair.
- Having at least one healthy relationship creates a safe haven or buffer against the potentially damaging effects of both everyday stress and traumatic events.
- Securely bonded relationships can provide a nourishing environment that fosters personal health, growth and confidence, as well as a springboard that sustains momentum for the fulfillment of personal goals and dreams.
- Healthy, secure relationships foster both a sense of autonomy, in addition to a felt sense of interdependency and meaningful connection (rather than the extremes of “self-sufficiency” or “dependency”).
- The more securely connected we feel inside, the more secure we feel in taking action to not only stand up for our self as a separate and unique self, but also to honor and treat loved ones as separate and unique beings.
It’s fascinating to learn what happens in our brains when we feel accepted — or rejected — by persons who matter to us. Depending on the response we receive to our bid for connection with another we accordingly can experience either a sense of emotional connection and belonging — or a sense of separation, disconnect and aloneness. It is likely that you may have experienced some degree of these emotional states even as you read the words on this page.
Love makes the world go around, and when love is not happening, human beings can resort to desperate behaviors that threaten to destroy their own and others existence.
- Thoughtful responsiveness
- Emotional availability or connection
The need — not want — for healthy human connection is a complex drive unlike any other, perhaps because we seek to matter and find meaning in both our connection with others and our self. To the extent we feel safe, we are open to love and learn new things. When we feel overall safe, it also means the parasympathetic division of our body’s autonomic nervous system is in charge of all processes, rather than the sympathetic (fight or flight survival) system. In other words, when we do not feel emotionally safe enough to love, no logic in the world regardless how air tight reasonable it is, will get through. When our heart (emotion) is closed, little or nothing is allowed to come in or out. Love is not happening when the release of feel-bad (fear) chemicals are at such levels as to activate our body’s survival response.
Even when we say or do the most despicable things to our self or one another, in the raw…it’s always a cry for help! And it is always about the love and connection we’re seeking. The more scary or troubling our actions, the greater the hurt inside, the more indicative of how lost one is from the truth and beauty of who they are. It is hurt people that hurt people. It is still all about love, the emotional connection one may feel deprived of, yet still yearns for, but does not know how to experience, in order restore our sense of balance, safety and security.
To create healthy, vibrant relationships we need to cultivate a strong sense of self, a capacity to feel, understand and respond thoughtfully (rather than react) to our own and others upsetting emotions (fear and anger), and thus, to feel our emotions of vulnerability (in most circumstances) not as weakness, threats or defects, rather as opportunities for growth, meaningful connection and transformation. It takes a lot of the guess work out of the equation when partners in couple relationships understand what’s happening in their brains, and become familiar with what we’ve learned from the attachment and intimacy studies.