Relationships are mysterious. We fall in love only to realize that life together is difficult and presents unique challenges. How do we merge with another person yet remain independent? Forge a close emotional bond yet stay attracted and excited romantically? Here are 10 lesser-known facts about relationship that will help you build a more fun and fulfilling life together!
We watch TV shows and movies about relationship, read books and talk to our friends. Yet being good at relationship is not about knowledge, it’s about skills. Relationships are stressful. Under stress, higher cortical areas of the brain responsible for calculated thought go offline. What we’re left with is more automatic reactions, often driven by previous experiences with others. Our knowledge about healthy relationship is not as available to us then. What we need are skills that are practiced and woven into our emotional and muscle memory–so automatic that we don’t have to think too much to use them. Even couples therapy models are updating their techniques to help partners build this kind of implicit skill rather than instructing partners on good and bad behavior. What we know doesn’t help us as much as what we can do, especially in moments when we’re running more on animal instinct.
Think about it. What is more important than knowing how to form a solid adult bond with another person? Sure, we could live life alone, but few enjoy that as much as sharing it with someone else. We are social creatures, accustomed to having family and connections with others. But we’re so poorly trained for intimate relationships! I used to wonder why we spent so much time in school on subjects few of us would use and so little time on things like love and caring for one another. Maybe teaching relationship is the domain of families, right? Well, many families don’t model great intimate relationship, so it can be difficult to find role models and training that fits the bill. Knowing how to be close with a person different from ourselves is important not just for our own well-being and happiness, but for that of our kids as well. Kids thrive in secure environments. So, no offense to the engineers out there, but teaching close partnership alongside Algebra II could change the world.
We live in a self-reliant, independent culture, right? Even our ‘new-age’ spirituality can promote the idea of self-sufficiency. We’re supposed to be confident, brave, and forge ahead with our true purpose regardless of what others think. How many times do we hear the phrase, “I am responsible for my own happiness,” or “what others think shouldn’t affect me“? Well, it does. Neuroscience continues to confirm that our sense of self is built in the close relationships with our early caregivers. We don’t know who we are except in the eyes of others. If we are treated well and supported, we assume we are good and internalize a sense of confidence. If we are not treated well, we can lose confidence, develop low self-esteem, guilt, shame, and other limiting feelings. As adults, we hope to develop high self-esteem and sometimes try to find it in individual personal growth pursuits. The science suggests it is more efficient to surround yourself with loving people who believe in and support you, thereby reconstructing a relational path for the brain to develop a positive self-image.
It’s true. Relationship asks the brain to perform tasks that challenge it in helpful ways. For example, to be fair to our partner, we must learn to hold two differing opinions as equal, otherwise our conversations result in a winner and a loser, not a good ‘walk-away’ feeling in relationship. This skill develops a marker of intelligence: The ability to simultaneously hold opposite views as equally valid. If only our politicians were good at that! Relationships make us more mentally
Memory is state-dependent, meaning that we encode things into memory through a filter that changes based on stress and emotion. Memory is also formed based on previous experience. Early family experiences, in particular, shape how we perceive and remember events. Many partners still attempt to agree on what was said, or done, in a heated moment. Stop trying. It’s not important to figure it out much of the time anyways. It’s more important to make up, care for each other’s feelings, and move forward. Partners have trouble agreeing on facts because their perception of the same event is actually different in terms of how the brain encodes experience. Research shows that memory is unreliable under stress, such as during family arguments. So next time, don’t try to agree on what happened, just take care of each others’ resulting feelings and remember that memory is subjective anyways!
Couples researcher Dr. Stan Tatkin has found that the real issues couples argue about are issues having to do with closeness, connection, security and understanding. Because we’re not typically trained or practiced at speaking about those core needs we all have, we use the dishes, the bedroom and the schedule to try to resolve them. The problem with that approach? Those more superficial conversations can’t resolve the deeper need for connection. Very often, when partners feel connected, understood and in love, their annoyance with detail issues seems to vanish. We can tolerate differences if we feel connected. So the next time you find yourself wanting to argue about how clean the house is or a particular philosophical difference, ask yourself, “what am I really wanting to feel with my partner?”
OK, so there really are bad choices when it comes to partners. But you’d be surprised how sophisticated and extensive our mate selection process is! Much of it happens unconsciously and is driven by biology and instinct. Subtle chemical signals and familiarities with our family of origin all go into the mix. What often happens, however, is that lacking the skills to take our relationships beyond early phases, we start to think we made a bad choice. It takes some work and practice to make it through the annoyance and reality stages of partnership in which two partners can feel incompatible. But once you do, you realize what a good choice your partner was to begin with. Often the differences that draw us together help us be more complete people, but that takes some growing pains. And due to similarities with early parental relationships, there is tremendous healing potential in later stages of partnership. Those same familiarities, however, can also trigger deep-seated fears along the way. Learn to distinguish real incompatibilities from being stuck in early phases of relationship, and move through those stages to get to the gold of being together!
According to relationship scientist Dr. John Gottman, healthy couples argue as a normal part of being together. It’s not arguing per se that indicates a problem in relationship, it’s how
Dr. Gottman also found that couples recover more quickly and build their relationship better by creating positive memories than by spending a lot of time processing negative experiences. Partners can go around and around trying to repair and understand a difference that causes real disconnection. The truth is, most of the issues couples argue about are unresolvable, and don’t need to be resolved. At some point, quit banging your head against the wall and take each other out for a fun day or night out. Go bowling, do something silly together, take an acting class, or one of those partner yoga classes. Make each other laugh, or have your funny bone tickled together by a good comedy show. The shared positive experience and memory goes a long way toward canceling out negative feelings!
OK, I know, some people like to talk. And talking can be a way we feel closer. But, when it comes to knowing how we really stack up with our partner, the brain likes it plain and simple. The part of our brain responsible for feeling safe and secure has trouble negotiating meaning out of complex sentences. It prefers short and sweet. To the point. When you really want to convey what your partner means to you and how crazy you are about them, choose powerful words that say what you mean concisely and directly. Gaze into your partner’s eyes as you speak for maximum effect. Some partners can get overwhelmed by too many words at once. Try saying, “I need you,” and “You are the most important thing to me” without any extra words and watch the deepest part of your partner respond!
Featured photo credit: iStock via istockphoto.com
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