This is Your Brain on Love

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Welcome to Format Free Fridays, the one day a week when I break the format of answering your questions and I dispense that which we rarely welcome in life: Unsolicited information.

My wife is becoming certified as an Imago Therapist, an amazingly effective type of couple’s counseling that teaches partners relationship skills and through the use of those skills, promotes healing.  Part of her certification required her to attend a couple’s workshop weekend with her partner: 22 hours of relationship work in 2 days.  Those of you who don’t know me may not know that attending this workshop was a labor of love:  As a general rule, when something’s not broken, I don’t look to fix it.  But certification requirements being what they are (and marriage vows being what they are), I agreed to attend and off we went to the Berkshires.

Once I got past my panic of feeling analyzed by the workshop’s facilitators (who happened to be my wife’s instructors) and my fear that at the end of the weekend, after we’d left, they might turn to each other and say, “Poor Steph.  She sure has her hands full…” I found myself riveted by what they were teaching, and particularly over the transformation that our brain goes through when we’re falling in love.

As impactful as our early childhood experiences are on our brain, a greater influence occurs during romantic love, aka, the honeymoon stage.  Research confirms that our brains undergo huge changes in the early stages of love and it turns out that there’s a formula for this: Increased dopamine + increased norepinephrine + increased serotinin = Romantic Love.  The feelings of euphoria, increased energy, decreased need for sleep, obsessive thinking, and an overall feeling of mania are the culmination of these changes to your brain.

If you think these symptoms sound similar to what someone on drugs experiences, you’re absolutely right.  Given these similarities, is it at all surprising that we are more likely to make huge life decisions while under the influence of this drug than at any other time in our lives? What else can explain the prevalence of spouses leaving their families to take up with someone they barely know? Drowning in chemicals that alter our perception, the object of our affection can do no wrong, completes our sentences, and delivers on our every unexpressed need.  Until they don’t anymore.

Like any good high, romantic love has a beginning, a middle and an end, and the crash at the end of the honeymoon often hits us as hard as the crash of coming off of the most addictive drugs.  And then we are left with what is called the power struggle.

You know all about this stage of a relationship.  This is where most relationships live and die.  If they live in this stage, it means the couple is stuck here, living seemingly separate existences but staying together nonetheless.  If they die in this stage, it’s because they lack the tools to transcend it and instead run from it fearing that things will never improve.  Americans are not particularly good at tolerating this discomfort which would explain why our divorce rate is over 50%.

According to Imago, there is a third option, a stage called re-commitment in which each member of the couple experiences deep interpersonal healing that can only occur within the relationship.  Once transcended, we enter ‘real love’ and what is called the Conscious Relationship.

I don’t know if this interests you as much as it does me.  As someone who has one failed marriage behind her, I’m statistically more likely to get divorced the second time around.  That said, I’m also more committed to the success of this relationship because I'm more mature this time around, because I love my wife and because of my steadfast refusal to become a statistic. So I’ll do the hard work to keep us in a conscious relationship, which means not giving in to emotional laziness at the end of each day.  So let me ask you:  What will you do today to make your relationship a more conscious one?