Strengthening Couples Relationships: Lessons from Neurobiology
How to Stay Wired for Love
Guest blog post by, Teresa M. Hunt, Ph.D.Licensed Psychologist
I love a good massage, don’t you? I think we can all agree that a luxurious massage from a caring therapist skilled in healing touch is a real gift to ourselves. During a massage, it is wonderful to feel that we can just let go of all our “survival tasks” and just be. From a neurobiological perspective (the study of the nervous system, physiology, and innate drives) we feel so relaxed because kind safe touch activates in the old “survival-based part of our brains the nonverbal message that all is OK; we are safe. The part of our brain (the amygdala) that stays at the ready to sound the “fire alarm” in case of danger can quiet down. With our defenses lowered, we can take in our environment, and open up to the pleasant experience and sensations. We feel a sense of calm, and perhaps even better, a sense of relaxed joyfulness.
This principle of safety and relaxation is so important to understand in the context of our closest relationships. When we humans (and animals) feel safe we will feel the same sense of relaxed joyfulness. We will then seek to: make love, nurture our young, rest, play and work creatively in flow. However, if a sign of danger arrives (ex. shot fired in the forest), all those connecting and joyful activities are instantly stopped. Instead the imperative becomes: stay alive! And we will move into one of five forms of reactivity: fight, flee, hide, submit or freeze. It is important to realize that in a situation of danger, we cannot connect and love, while we are trying to stay alive.
From a neurobiological perspective, we are hard wired to connect, and hard wired to strive for safety. Sometimes these drives can work together and sometimes they conflict. On the attachment side, we know that a secure bond with a love partner buttresses us against the slings and arrows of life, and strengthens our immune system. Indeed Susan Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and author of “Hold Me Tight” states “attachment is the most compelling survival mechanism that nature knows.” And we know it is true that most of us, no matter how different we each may be in any other way, each long to connect AND feel safe with a significant other, to have one special person to comfort and love us. Indeed research has shown that isolation is toxic to our immune system, just as a strong secure bond strengthens it. Also toxic to our health are relationships filled with no safety, but instead filled with threat, rancor, and disconnection.
So how do we ensure to keep our love bonds strong once we find love? Of course that is a very large topic, and the focus of my daily work as a Couple’s Therapist. But some lessons from interpersonal neurobiology are very helpful. Couples Therapists are so excited to now know some principles that can really help. In years before our understanding of the science of attachment and how brains and our sense of safety are affected in relationship interactions, we had less effective methods of intervention. Now we know much more.
So a couple of things to keep in mind. And for more on this topic, please see “Wired For Love” by Stan Tatkin, the founder of PACT (The Psychological Approach to Couples Therapy) This is a very helpful book for those wanting a more secure relationship. I call these items below “relational dance lessons”.
1. The most important thing I can say to help you is that if you desire a strong safe bond with your partner, where love, connection and fun can abide, you must recognize that unless your partner feels safe with you on a central nervous system level, inside their brain and body, which, by the way is largely outside of their conscious control, they will not be open to you in the way you may long for. Think of your shared relationship as a dog that has been mistreated badly that you are adopting from a kennel. How would you energetically behave towards this animal to get her to relax and become open and playful with you? You must become mindful of the energy you are putting into your relational space.
2. You can also create safety by understanding your partner better and developing an “owner’s manual” on him or her. Tatkin suggests that you become an “expert” on your partner. This means understanding his or her “tender spots” from the past, and being empathetic about them, so you do not take them personally. It also means understanding their characteristic way of reacting when they feel threatened, which is related to their attachment style. For example, does their energy get bigger (ex. complain when underneath they are feeling hurt), or does their energy constrict (ex. withdraw, or get very quiet when they feel criticized). Understanding your partner’s attachment style and how they respond to a felt sense of danger is the single most helpful thing you can do to learn to “dance well” in your relational space. When partners are in fear, they get into reactivity, and their primitive survival brains take over. When they feel safe, they can connect. So learning how to put their primitive brains at ease is a very helpful skill.
3. Create a Couple Bubble to allow each partner to feel safe and secure. This means a formal pact is made of true mutuality, which is pro relationship versus pro-self. The idea that “two is better than one.” And “we come first.” And “it has to be as good for me as it is for you,” and vice versa. “We are on one boat going down the river of life, etc….” You get the idea. This formal agreement is very powerful, similar to the way our young military men learn “you never leave your buddy on the battlefield,” and “we are in the foxhole together.” Such agreements create an ethos of security for the Couple that is extremely powerful and helpful.
4. Find a safe way to dialogue about frustrations and concerns that is always respectful, especially in tone and body language. The non-verbal messages are the ones that lead your partner’s brain and central nervous system to decide whether they are safe or in danger. So eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, body posture, etc…, should be attended to. Keep in mind that feeling wronged does not give you license to act aggressively. You will not get what you long for that way. Dealing with anger is a much bigger topic, but these guidelines overall are important. Remember the dog you adopted. Does this mean watch your words? Yes.
5. Amplify the Positive. Positive practices to create an atmosphere of fondness and appreciation go a long way to improve the security of a Couple’s bond. It is so important to express appreciation to your partner verbally, even on a daily basis, and to make regular declarations of commitment (ex.”I am here for you babe”, or “you got it, whatever you need”). Understanding your partner’s love language regarding what makes them feel cared for, and gifting them those caring behaviors on a regular basis whether it be verbal affirmations, tender touch, acts of service, spending quality time together or giving gifts, strengthens a feeling of love and safety in your Couple space. All these things can be done mindfully knowing it is good for your relational health. You don’t have to wait until the spirit moves you to do it. A positive intention to behave lovingly is enough. You will be glad you did.
These are just a few tips, there is much more to say, but it is a good beginning. For those wanting to read more about interpersonal neurobiology, google Daniel Siegel and Allan Schore. Also see Rick Hanson who wrote “Buddha’s Brain.” The idea of Mindfulness, and working with one’s own reactivity to become a safe partner for your love partner, where fun and passion can abide is also relevant here. However, just becoming aware of how important and vital these ideas are to a secure bond will get you off to a great start.
All the best!
Warmly, Dr. Teresa M. Hunt
Teresa M. Hunt, Ph.D. is a CERTIFIED Imago Therapist/WORKSHOP PRESENTER and Licensed Psychologist who has specialized in individual and couples psychotherapy for over 29 years. She was clinically trained in the Columbia, Harvard, and University of Michigan Medical School Systems. In addition to Imago Couples Training, she has also had training in EFT (Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy). She is also a CERTIFIED, PACT Level I and Level II Clinician (Psycho-biological Approach to Couples Therapy). She has completed Levels I and II of ASCH Clinical Hypnosis Training. Her work includes Psychodynamic and Interpersonal Approaches to Individual Therapy, Imago/EFT/ PACT Relationship Therapy, ADHD Counseling, Clinical Hypnosis for Selected Problems, and therapeutic work around anxiety, depression, coping with grief and loss, and other concerns. Dr. Hunt is a clear thinker and a dynamic presenter, and thoroughly enjoys connecting in a group format. She brings transformational expertise to enliven the ways partners learn to increase passion and communication.