Connecting...for the Long Term

Is Love More than Chemistry?

Love and Connection: the twin pillars of longing and being that prop up the roof under which we live our lives. Getting intimately close to someone triggers a cascade of chemicals throughout our brains and bodies, including opioids, morphine-like molecules also found in heroin. The opposite experience, loneliness and social rejection, triggers activation of an area deep within the brain – the periaqueductal gray – that is associated with the perception of intense physical pain. High as a kite when we are intimately connected and writhing in emotion-induced pain when we are socially disconnected, we are clearly wired for love. How can we reduce the odds that our love doesn’t go haywire?

Love, Trust & the Importance of Risking Personal Exposure

In a recent blog (Is Love a Dangerous Liaison? — Dr. David Alter), I wrote about how intimate and lasting love requires emotional risk that stems from the danger of exposing our vulnerability to an “other.” Today, I’ll take this concept a bit further. “Risk,” says Psychology Today (February 2017, p. 47), “is at the heart of the matter” when it comes to developing intimacy, a cornerstone of lasting love. Love’s bloom depends upon successfully and repeatedly running an emotional gauntlet assembled from instances where the private in us was made public to the other, and where the response received in return was of being understood, accepted and valued.

While we may believe the odds to be quite high of receiving an accepting response by exposing some part of our emotional self to the other, the reality is, as Alain Badiou stated, “love really is a unique trust placed in chance.” Each exposure is at some level a gamble that tests whether the ripening trust is solid or still fragile. Ultimately, while we may be able to trust without love, there is no traction for loving without trust. To love is to have acquired trust and for trust to develop, time-tested durability is a required. Durability is not synonymous with consistency, however.

Lasting relationships last in part because when the pain of disconnection arises, as it inevitably will due to instances of emotional carelessness, moments of selfishness, fear-driven conflicts, or misunderstandings rooted in ancient personal histories, it is the response to repair of the periodic relational ruptures that matter. How can we regain our emotional footing, acknowledge our shortcomings, admit our failures, apologize in earnest, and redouble our efforts to restore the sturdiness of the “we” in preference to the temporary security of the solitary and self-serving “I”?

Do I "Get" You and do you "Get" Me?

Through evolution’s eons, the chemically-driven pleasure of connection supported individuals to stay together in their herds, prides, packs, pods, gaggles or schools where safety in numbers benefited everyone. The pain of disconnection kept us close too, and those who didn’t heed the message often ended up as someone’s meal. Today, while those ancient drives still exist and get reinforced by the chemical releases we experience through love’s trials and tribulations, the urge for connection goes beyond mere safety and security. It is primarily through our experience with intimacy with an “other” – a spouse, partner or deeply attached friend – that we have the experience of being truly seen by someone who uniquely “gets us.” Donnel Stern, PhD described this as “witnessing.” He said, “We need a witness to become a self; and later in life, in similar fashion, we need a witness to heal ourselves.”

Being seen, being heard, being understood, being appreciated and accepted can, uniquely perhaps, make us feel fully alive, and, just as potently, create unrivaled emotional chaos when deep disconnection occurs.

Surprising Skills for Making Love Last

Here are several suggestions for creating the space within which lasting love can grow.

·         Seek solitude in your life to enhance your readiness to embrace your partner.

The more able you are to seek out and be comfortable and content while alone with yourself, the more able you’ll be to not impose exaggerated and unfulfillable needs, wants and desires onto your partner. Cultivate your ability to enjoy private times and interests to increase your ability to be “present” to your partner.

·         Learn to be silent so you can learn to notice, to listen, and to love more deeply.

When we overfill our lives with noise, empty words and random, aimless activity, we lose the ability to deeply notice, to quiet the mind, to still the body, and to reduce our tendency to over-react. In short, silence can help us guard our tongue and show restraint in our actions so that true compassion for, and acceptance of our partner can grow. Ancient wisdom said, “There is no better medicine than silence.” Practice periods of silence in your days to help you bring your best self forward as you heighten your senses to the beauty, wonder and love you can experience for your partner.

·         Love is excited by precious moments of living like the “hare” but is devoted to the “tortoise’s” long-view of the journey ahead.

Love that lasts is love that has learned to endure. To endure does not mean to tolerate on-going misery and suffering. To endure implies resilience or “anti-fragility”, which requires surviving struggles and setbacks to become stronger, more patient, more wise and potentially more capable of love. A. Badiou said, “Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.” So, while times of excitement, novelty and adventure revitalize and restore love, without the capacity to forgive, to persevere, to assimilate loss and struggle in a way that enlarges our hearts, lasting love becomes too dependent upon the next hare-driven “high”. It can fail to plod on, like the tortoise, slowly but surely, gathering respect, admiration, and enduring trust along the way.

Building a resilient brain is not as hard as you think. Here is a link to my YouTube video on the steps you can take get started on your brain reconstruction project!