Thank you for being here again and if this is your first time then welcome. This is Step 5 of my Relationship Course. Steps 1 to 4 are all still available on this blog. I recommend that you read and action them starting from Step 1. It is critical that, if this is your first encounter with the course, you start with Step 1. Subsequent readings can be approached differently but you won't get the full benefit of the course if Step 1 is skipped.
Please get in touch if you require any further information about what I can offer to you and your partner. Sessions can be conducted via Skype or other platforms from a distance. I have clients in many other countries. Some of my sessions have also been carried out successfully via the phone. Don’t let distance or technology stop you!
Why are relationships often so complicated? In 2011, it was estimated that 42% of all marriages ended in divorce. That’s a lot of heartache and upset and that’s just the people who actually go through the process of divorce not the people who separate without divorcing. I’m sure that we all have our opinions about why relationships can be so difficult but it doesn’t make much difference in having them work! Actually it’s how we are in a relationship that has us experience relationships as difficult, relationships in themselves are not difficult.To give us some possibly new understanding into our relationships I want here to look at how physiologically our bodies respond in an intimate relationship. The reason I am introducing this inquiry at this point is twofold. Firstly my commitment is that we understand how our bodies respond to being in a relationship so that we can experience some freedom in dealing with emotions and sensations that arise by understanding that these feelings are experienced by pretty much everyone on planet earth and most of them are just automatic. Secondly, I have introduced this step at a later stage because it can be a diversion from us getting in action and shifting what hasn’t been working. You will after this Step 5 have the opportunity of going back through the previous steps with a new understanding of what is happening between you and your partner. A caveat here, I am not a neuroscientist and my explanations of how the brain responds comes from a basic knowledge of the brain and I will therefore be using more general descriptions so that we don’t get lost in detail.
Imagine that you are sitting next to your partner and you have just had an argument. You are both angry and both know without a doubt that you are right. In this moment the physiological response is identical to the response you would have if you were being physically threatened.The reaction that you have to anger is identical to the reaction to fear. A threat is perceived by and processed by the amygdala. The amygdala is part of a very complex area of the brain called the Limbic System which broadly deals with our emotional life and the formation of memories. The amygdala is a small but massively powerful almond shaped nuclei which picks up the threat of danger in being made wrong and kicks in with a response that releases Epinephrine, a chemical that is produced by the adrenal gland. This then raises your blood pressure and heart rate, sending an increased blood flow to your brain and muscles, you will at this point probably also start sweating. There are other chemicals released into your body but let’s not concern ourselves with them now. You will then be triggered into fight or flight mode. Some of us will want to escape from the confrontation and others will want to dig in and fight our corner. Some of us will also freeze and our minds become a total blank. As the chemicals start to take effect you will probably start to talk louder and faster changing your facial expressions to give out a warning that something bad is happening. When in the grip of this response it is incredibly difficult to calm the nervous system. When our bodies sense danger, parts of our cognitive rational brain are shut down or dampened and the saved energy is sent via our autonomic system to parts of the body that will increase its effectiveness in protecting us from this perceived threat.
So why is an argument with our partner, someone we may love and cherish, perceived as a threat which then can trigger anger and fear? Our bodies are incredible organisms that have become hugely effective over millennium in detecting danger. We are constantly predicting the near and far future to scan for danger. As we go through our day, our unconscious, autonomic system is responsible for 95% of our brain activity. How we predict the future is from our past experiences and understanding. If something in the past has impacted us, then in the future there will be an automatic response if that event happens again. However it may not be an rationally recognisable incident but could be a smell or a sensation or something someone says that is a subconscious reminder of some past incident. If in the past you have made a decision that people are cruel from an incident that may have happened, then when your partner says something you now also perceive as cruel, the same sensations will be experienced and your body will automatically take over, the amygdala will kick in and you will be consumed by the chemicals released for your protection. In Luke Reinhart’s ‘Book Of Est’ an account of being in the incredible EST training, he writes that the leader said that people would sooner their bodies die than their beliefs. That’s why people will give their life to save someone else or give their life for a cause rather than having their beliefs die. This is what you are dealing with! The hold that our beliefs and opinions have over us is incredibly powerful. The subconscious mind is always going to initially triumph.Paul Hedderman in his talks about non duality says that the subconscious is always the fastest draw. It’s always going to react first. The only way that we can triumph over it is to see it arising, get that it’s just our humanity, that it’s is our bodies way of protecting us, not make it wrong and then take action to divert it rather that let it control us and trash our relationship! So how is this even possible to control? I want to get into that a little later but for the moment I want you to understand that this is how we are functioning physiologically and start to see how you get reactivated. What are the triggers and then what are the emotions and sensations you experience when in the grip of your bodies reaction to a threat.
What has assisted me in my relationship and life generally is relating to myself as an organism that has been input with data. This then helps me by taking some of the negative significance out of my experience of life and particularly in my communications. If I can relate to my responses as just dealing with the stored data then it’s a whole lot better than when I read into my response some significant meaning. When you think about it, what choice have we really had regarding who we are? If we were born to different parents in a different culture our personalities would be completely different than they are now. We would probably have different tastes in food, music, culture, different beliefs and a different moral code. We would be completely unrecognisable to who we are now. But how we relate to our beliefs and opinions is that they are ours and they are right. A construct has been assembled and then we relate to it as ‘I’, I am this and I am that, I like this and I don’t like that, then we have strategies to repel all borders. That’s how we are functioning in our relationships and that is why so many relationships fail! You don’t have to like everything about your partner, you can have very dissimilar likes and dislikes as long as you don’t relate to their likes and dislikes as a threat or somehow see them as disrespectful to our own beliefs, likes and opinions. Two of my dearest friends are in a long term loving marriage, the epitome of a successful relationship. She is staunchly religious, doesn’t swear and doesn’t drink, he is very much an atheist and is very fond of drinking and can be a bit of a potty mouth. He has been a committed vegetarian for the majority of his life whilst she eats almost nothing but meat and potatoes and hates almost all vegetables. They have two wonderful children who are now very well adjusted adults. Their relationship works because they don’t relate to each other’s contrary views on life and tastes as a threat! They respect each other’s opinions and love and care for each other.
So here I want to look at the physiological response individuals have when embarking on a new relationship and then look at the pitfalls that can arise as the relationship progresses. Love is a wonderful thing! Setting our hearts to flutter and rendering our rational brain impotent. It can be an excilerating and scary feeling, lovely when it happens and often very said as if it disappears. It can also wreak havoc on a relationship! Studies by Helen Fisher at Rutgers University, New Jersey proposed that there were three stages to a relationships development. The initial phase is Lust. Men’s bodies at this point release testosterone and women Estrogen. This is followed by the phase of Attraction which gives rise to specific chemicals or hormones, these are, Dopamin which gives you drive to peruse your partner and is responsible for goal directed behaviour, Norepinerphrine, which puts your body in an alert state with a surge of energy and speeds up your heart rate. Serotonin can also be released at this stage but this is more likely for women and it can actually decrease for men. Serotonin can divert the mind to think about your partner. The third stage or phase can occur after about 4 years by which time Dopamin decreases and attraction decreases with it. This phase is called Attachment. With attachment the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are released having us create the desire to bond and nurture your partner. Oxytocin is also released when achieving orgasm and also during childbirth and breastfeeding and is thought to be responsible for bringing couples closer together but can also make you experience being needy and jealous. Vasopressin is released after sex and stimulates protective behaviour, it can also stimulate less negative communication, relationship maintenance, attachment security, support for your partner and more. This is what is generally occurring during the course of a relationship. The phases of lust, attraction and attachment can vary in length and can occur for shorter periods of time at any time during a relationship but generally they occur in this order and these hormones are released and effect all of us in similar ways.
This could all be perceived as not a very romantic and spontaneous reaction to another human being but for me knowing that my body is responding in this way helps me not give negative meaning to these sensations when they arise and gives me an opportunity to play and create situations that will stimulate these hormones. Our cognitive mind can be incredibly powerful and we can use it to in a sense fool our unconscious mind. It has been shown for instance that when we smile as a reaction to stimulus it can have a beneficial effect on our physiology but we also know that generating smiling when we don’t even feel like smiling can also have a beneficial effect. Smiling uses facial muscles and when these muscles are used our limbic system is fooled into thinking ‘hey there’s a party going on up there’ and goes into action releasing the feel good neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins and serotonin. We can use the same sort of tricks with our relationship by bringing romance to the forefront,listening attentively, by saying ‘I love you’ more often, by acts of kindness and love, by generating passion etc. We don’t have to be dictated to by our hormonal response or lack of response. There is much information out there that has views-some scientifically gleaned, about how to choose the perfect mate and what specific circumstances need to arise for us to have lasting relationships, how wealth or lack of can effect our relationships, how in-laws can be detrimental, how the birth of children can effect a relationship. Most of this information is presented as factual. It’s not its just a particular view as is mine! We can have any relationship that we choose! We don’t have to be dictated to by our circumstances, we don’t have to be a victim of our circumstances! Don’t wait for your relationship to work out but make it to work out. Get into action. Go back over the steps when there is something in the way of you both experiencing it as working. Stop listening to those negative thoughts. How do you do that? Well what you do is literally stop listening to your endless internal thoughts. If you don’t interact with them then they won’t grow, their hold on you will become weaker and you will experience more joy and freedom in your relationship and generally in your life.