Relationships are Tough
A significant chunk of our brain matter is devoted to figuring out how to relate to others. Regulating social connections is one of the hardest and most advanced tasks that our brain is charged with carrying out. 100 billion neurons. 400 billion impulses firing every second in and around the brain, to the body, or from the body into the brain. Many of those impulses are traveling at speeds approaching 250 miles per hour!
The amazing thing is that most of this activity takes place outside of our immediate awareness. That’s right. Our reactions to spouses, partners, children, parents, friends, co-workers, and especially to ourselves are largely determined by information we don’t even know we are reacting to. It is small wonder that developing close, intimate, and lasting relationships remains a challenge for so many.
What Determines Our Reactions
What eventually makes its way to our conscious awareness and attention is the product of stored memories accumulated throughout our lives, perceptions taken in by our 5 senses each moment, and responses to our internal and external world that are occurring within our physical bodies (like our “gut intuition”) that are relayed to our central brain, and which prime or pre-program our responses.
The arguments, hurts, worries, misunderstandings, and conflicts that can make our relationships so fraught with emotional pain are often constructed from these neuro-chemical building blocks that can blind us to paths of understanding and relational healing that could otherwise operate in our relationships.
How to Create Loving Connections
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the “recipe” for loving relationships could be distilled into just a few words? The complexity of individual and interpersonal needs that intersect in our relationships prevents any simplistic, one-size-fits-all solution. But, there are several timeless skills that appear over and over as essential to cultivating strong, loving, and lasting relationships.
Lengthen the PAUSE button:
There is an elastic pause that sits between a perception and our response to what we perceive. The longer we stretch that pause, the greater our sense of control to make wise and compassionate choices, and to exercise response options that increase emotional vulnerability while paradoxically creating greater intimacy and deeper connection to self and others. Practices that lengthen the pause button include meditation, consistent quiet time for self-reflection, journaling, and self-hypnosis exercises, all of which are enhanced by good self-care practices involving diet, sleep, exercise, time in nature, and stimulating mental challenges.
Mind Your Assumptions:
John Gottman, a world-renowned relationship researcher and master clinician, has identified four stages of disconnection that can doom a relationship. What begins as criticism and defensiveness can progress to feelings of contempt and ‘stonewalling,” a deeper and often fatal (to the relationship) level of disengagement that dismisses the value and worth of the other person’s presence.
These four stages of conflict are grounded in assumptions that the other person is intent on harming us. That assumption blinds us to the more likely truth that BOTH parties are seeking to feel admired, valued, and loved, even though the methods being used often achieve the exact opposite effect. Nevertheless, when you remember that both of you want something worthwhile, that both of you deserve to feel valued, and that what is happening right now is taking you both on an unpleasant detour, you are more apt to pause, take a breath, and overtly acknowledge to the other that “this isn’t going well,” that “this is only hurting us more,” and that “we can do better,” so you can re-engage with each other at a lower volume of mistrust and misunderstanding.
Balance Self-care with Altruism:
2,500 years ago, a famous sage said, “If I am only for myself, who am I? If I am never for myself, who will be? If not now, when?” These words ring true for me and for my clients. When I take insufficient time to care for myself, I become depleted, impatient, resentful, and angry. A core relationship skill is to engage in regular self-care. By doing so, I become much more capable of acting for the benefit of the other party in my many relationships. I become eager to attend to their needs, to be there for them, to act with kindness and consideration toward them without expecting much of anything in return. Ironic, no? Sometimes the most direct path to re-energizing your relationship begins with active self-care.
If you or someone you know is struggling with relationship-based concerns, don’t hesitate to contact me. I work with individual adults, couples, and, when indicated, with families. Until then, take care…