In Your Brain, Not Your Heart
I am not here to throw cold water on the glorious feeling of being “in love”, but there is fallacy concerning our emotions that needs to be reexamined – this fallacy has caused intense pain and relational strife with millions of individuals just like you. Over the ages we have been handed down false depictions of love from poets, songwriters and is currently propagated by much of our present-day entertainment world.
Does this sound familiar?
“I can’t help feeling this way anymore than I can control the rotation of the earth or halt the movement of the planets.”
And when it comes to the feeling of “love” this is what most people believe, whether they feel “in love” or “out of love” they think this emotion is heart based and is out of their control
In counseling it is common to hear reasoning behind their state of emotions, such as;
“He isn’t good for me but I can’t help but love him”
“I know I am “in love” with her because I can’t control the need to hear from her every hour”
or when we think we are falling “our of love”
“I can’t help it we just out grew each other””
“They didn’t make me feel loved”
All the above statements are based on a feeling, one that can come and go based the the actions of the other.
Is true love really that fickle? Can we be in love one day and not in love the next? Can anyone stay in love for a lifetime?
The Science of Emotions
Our emotions are caused by the way our brain develops responses to the events we experience. In short, our brains are always attempting to predict the outcome of present situations and uses past experiences to help us understand and bring meaning to our current situation. Some of these predictions are known to us (our conscious thoughts) but most of these predictions (and the accompanying emotions) are unconscious. Psychologists call these triggers. (i.e. they trigger an emotional response that is a part of a memory that was built from a past experience.)
Psychologist and Neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett has studied emotions for over twenty-five years and has come to this conclusion.
This is not to say that emotions are not real, they are very powerful and influential. Emotions are the primary means for most of our decision making. As any good salesperson will tell you people make buying decisions primarily based on feelings, not facts. How we feel about something is far more predictive of our behavior than our rational processing of information. In other words, we buy the sizzle, not the steak.
So, if our brains were not prewired to experience emotions where do these emotions come from? Our minds use past experiences to predict what is happening now and what will happen in the future. These experiences are held in the amygdala which acts like a reference library to help us interpret information that is being received through our five senses. Emotions are connected to these past experiences and then filter our perception of our present circumstance.
For example, have you ever had a bad experience with a certain food? Let’s say you got food poising from a serving of Kung Pao Pork and as a result, you had an all-nighter hugging the porcelain throne. Now let’s say several weeks later you walk into a restaurant and yes, there is a serving of the vile pork on the table next to you. What are the chances that you would be ordering Kung Pao Pork at that restaurant? Zero! Why? Because your memory of that experience has attached to it the traumatic feelings associated with your recent experience. Because that memory was fresh it was probably no problem connecting the dots between the sick feeling you had in your stomach and the food poisoning incident but what of other traumatic events that happen in our life that we don’t remember?
According to cognitive neuroscientists, we are conscious of only about 5 percent of our cognitive activity, so most of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behavior depends on the 95 percent of brain activity that goes beyond our conscious awareness.
Our brains have been taught to attach emotions to certain situations and when our brain recognizes this situation as similar (whether it is or not) the accompanying emotions are felt. We teach ourselves to think and feel in certain ways that create these patterns of behavior which can be detrimental to experiencing life and finding success. In short, we get stuck in these patterns and often don’t even know it. How many times have we told ourselves that we aren’t good at something because we had one bad experience with it? We then go on to accept that negative belief as truth which then subsequently reinforces that belief and then produces new negative experiences. The opposite can also be true. research has shown that when we enter into a new experience with a positive, optimistic attitude we are far more likely to experience a successful outcome.
We are not biological automatons doomed to experience our negative emotions over and over again. We have the power to change, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
And that is where we come to building loving relationships.
Building a Love that Lasts
I’m going to share some basic truths that may bust your bubble regarding intimate relationships (that is unless you are in one then this is not new information)
All intimate relationships are hard
All intimate relationships experience conflict
All intimate relationships become stagnate
All intimate relationships cause emotional wounds
All intimate relationships need renewal
All intimate relationships occasionally drive you crazy
Intimate relationships can cause the greatest pleasure and the greatest pain … that’s because they are INTIMATE. In other words, you allow another human being close enough to bless and/or curse you and sometimes at the same time! However, you are in control as to how you are going to allow your brain to interpret your experiences. If you harbor anger, unforgiveness, fear, resentment and a host of other toxic beliefs about the relationship then you will experience a cascading effect of these beliefs which will produce all the accompanying conditions – depression, anxiety, hostility etc. On the other hand, if you are able to process any trauma that occurred and create a positive memory and perspective about the experience you will not be burdened by years of conscious and unconscious emotional “tagging” of future events. You will be free from the emotional scarring that comes from ruminating on the pain and free to experience your present situation without all that harmful baggage.
Recently I was meeting with a client who had a very painful break up with his former girlfriend. He told me he ruminated on this break up about 6 hours a day and it was causing him a lot of pain. I then asked him to tell me three things that were positive areas of growth from this “failed” relationship. He sat for a while and couldn’t come up with one. This is because he had trained his mind to think only negatively about the relationship and was blind to any positives. Finally, I told him I’d give him the first one – “he was no longer in this toxic relationship and it didn’t take him years of pain to get out” This seemed to open the floodgate as he then found many positives about the relationship. “So”, I said, “now your goal is to stubbornly think of these positives whenever you are tempted to ruminate on the negatives of that relationship.”
Instead of his thoughts tearing him down and demotivating him from going forward in his life he now can take the same experience and make more positive, healthy and empowering structures in his brain. And that is one of the great mysteries and miracles of the human brain. Our very thoughts create structures in the neuron cells of our brain. These structures are called dendrites and they hold the key to producing health and happiness. When our thoughts are loving and positive they create cell structures that tell our endocrine system to produce the hormones that will cause us to have euphoric feelings of emotional well-being - and yes even love.
This is how you stay in love, you steadfastly refuse to allow the tough parts of a relationship to kill your commitment to the other person. This is not to say that there aren’t certain aspects of any relationship that need work. Areas like:
Learning how to enter into non-toxic conflict
Developing “rituals of connection”
Creating the ability to compromise
Finding a deeper appreciation for the inner life of your partner
These are critical to growing and deepening your relationship. But that will never happen unless and until you are able to control the flow of negative thoughts that come out of you.
So here are some key ways to change your brain concerning relationships and how to maintain positive, healthy emotions toward your partner … and yes even deepen love!
Find something to be thankful for in the other person every day
Forgive the inevitable emotional wounds (unilaterally if need be)
Replace critical, demanding and unaccepting thoughts about your partner with thoughts of appreciation
Become increasingly present to your unconscious triggers and find reconciliation and healing for them
Refuse to allow hurtful, corrosive, demeaning words from your mouth. (these types of words are products of our thoughts and those thoughts should not be reinforced!)
Practice monitoring the garden of your thoughts like you were a master gardener and don’t allow the ugly and destructive weeds and thorns to choke out the flowers