How Your Brain Reveals Your Love Story

It might not sound romantic, but Helen Fisher has love down to a science.

Fisher is a biological anthropologist and a scientific advisor to Match.com. She and her fellow researchers have spent a lot of time using MRI scanners to look at the brains of people in love.

While all of Fisher’s work is fascinating, her findings about people in long-term relationships who report that they’re still in love are especially intriguing. We usually think of new love as the most exciting and swoon-worthy. But the brains of Fisher’s subjects — mostly n their 50’s and married an average of 21 years— clearly showed their passion still burning.

“Psychologists maintain that the dizzying feeling of intense romantic love lasts only about 18 months to—at best—three years. Yet the brains of these middle-aged men and women showed much the same activity as those of young lovers, individuals who had been intensely in love an average of only seven months,” Fisher writes in O Magazine.

What’s keeping their love alive? And what can the rest of us learn from Fisher’s findings?

Does Your Brain Wear Rose-Colored Glasses?

Because our brains are wired to keep us alive, we naturally tend to look for the negative in order to quickly spot anything potentially risky or dangerous. Unfortunately, this thinking bias can cause problems in our relationships if we’re not careful.

Fisher found that longtime lovers have reduced activity in the part of the brain that skews negative, which suggests that they’ve honed their ability to see the positives in their partner.

“Men and women who continue to maintain that their partner is attractive, funny, kind and ideal for them in just about every way remain content with each other,” Fisher writes. “Perhaps this form of self-deception is a gift from nature, enabling us to triumph over the rough spots and the changes in our relationships.”

Does your brain need some training to accentuate the positive? Make an extra effort to notice the good things that your husband does and to remind yourself of all the reasons you fell in love with him in the first place.

(A quick note here: In no way is Fisher suggesting that you overlook serious issues, like abuse.)

How Active Are Your Mirror Neurons?

Another interesting thing about the brains of Fisher’s subjects was the higher activity of the mirror neurons which are nerve cells linked with empathy. That’s not surprising. We all long to feel heard and understood in our relationships.

Unfortunately, life gets so busy and draining sometimes that it depletes our ability to be empathic with others. To improve your ability to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, there are a couple of exercises you can try. First, there’s the “marriage hack” that takes only 21 minutes per year. You can also work through the 36 questions that build closeness (which you may have seen featured in The New York Times).

Are You Caring For Yourself?

Finally, Fisher’s subjects showed notable activity in the brain regions associated with controlling emotions. Again, this makes a lot of sense. As I’ve written before, respect is the often-overlooked ingredient in lasting love. And it’s a lot easier to be respectful with your partner when your emotions don’t feel out of control.

If you do lash out at your husband frequently, take a look at the rest of your life. I’m betting that you’re pushing yourself hard and may not even realize the pressures you face. To get a better handle on your emotions, look at the factors that put you at risk for “flipping your lid” and engage in more self-care. As women, we’re often taught that tending to our own needs is selfish. But the truth is we can’t be there for others with love and respect if we don’t care for ourselves.

Be sure to take a few minutes to watch Fisher’s full TED Talk. I think you’ll come away with a fresh appreciation of the power and wonder of love. And for a guide to writing your own lasting love story, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love

Catch Up on 2015’s Top Posts

2015 top 5

I hope you and your family are enjoying a wonderful holiday season! As 2015 draws to a close, I wanted to look back on the most popular posts during the past year. While these articles have marriage advice you can use all year long, some of these ideas are especially helpful during the busy holiday season.

5. The Science of “Flipping Your Lid”

If you get stressed out at family holiday gatherings, you’ll definitely want to check out this post. Our brains can go into fight-or-flight mode when we’re tired, overwhelmed or feel threatened  — even if the “threat” is just criticism from a family member. We feel flooded with negative emotions that are hard to snap out of. If you feel like you’re about to flip your lid — a couple of warning signs are getting defensive and having trouble truly hearing others — that’s a signal to stand down for a while. Get away from the fray instead of pushing yourself to keep up with the holiday rush. As a couple, plan ahead for a little quiet time (like a quick walk) together in the next few days to head off any flip-outs, especially if you’ll be around relatives who have a knack for pushing your buttons.

4. Emotional Pain Hurts More Than You Realize

One reason certain family members might drive you crazy when you see them is that researchers have found that our brains process physical and emotional pain in much the same way. The insights in the post might help you understand more about why it’s so difficult to be around a distant and withholding parent or a contemptuous sibling. I hope this post will also be a reminder that seemingly small rejections — like mocking your husband’s driving in front of your family — can have a big impact on your relationship.

3. Valentine’s Day Ideas to Rekindle Passion

Yes, this post is about a different holiday, but it has some ideas you can borrow this time of year as well. If you’re stuck on a gift idea for your husband, consider planning an experience to share that’s exciting, that helps you grow or that changes up your routine. Whenever you add novelty and variety, you stoke the fires of passion in your relationship.

2. Chasing Doesn’t Work (No Fooling!)

You need your husband to help more with getting the house ready for your guests. Or maybe it’s getting on your last nerve that he still hasn’t taken care of the gift shopping he told you he’d handle. But, as I wrote earlier this year, “If you’re trying to motivate your husband with an intense, ‘you’re not going to ignore this anymore’ approach, it may backfire, especially if there’s a tone of blame.'”

1.The Truth About Respect and Love

If you want to set a 2016 resolution for your marriage, make it to cultivate an atmosphere of mutual respect in your relationship. What I wrote in this post, which was the blog’s most popular article from 2015, is still true: “Respect is the very soil from which true love sprouts.” But you don’t have to wait until the new year to restore respect if it’s been lost in your marriage. Listen to each other, even amid the holiday hubbub. Compliment each other in front of your family members. Share a laugh about the fact that you love sentimental presents and he loves gag gifts.

If you’d like to read more marriage tips like these, consider purchasing my book Strong Women, Strong Love as a gift for yourself and for your husband. You’ll find lots of ideas to keep your marriage thriving even amid our busy lives.

Marriage and Self-Compassion

compassionI’ve been involved in organizing a workshop this month featuring Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading expert on self-compassion. If you’re in the San Antonio area, I invite you to join us in learning from Dr. Neff at this event on January 30. (See the end of this post for more information.)

For many years, we’ve heard that we should all try to increase our self-esteem by working on our insecurities and reminding ourselves of how special we are. Sounds great, right? Turns out, if you’re trying to feel better about yourself, this is not the best way to go about it. Instead of trying to convince yourself of your awesomeness, it’s much more effective to put your attention on the actual relationship you have with yourself.

The work of psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff tells us that many of us are way too hard on ourselves and need to treat ourselves with more self-compassion. When we do so, we’re healthier, more productive and feel more confident. We’re also more likely to be kinder to the people we love.

Self-compassion means doing the following things, especially when  you are going through a hard time:

1. Being kind toward yourself.

2. Understanding that every human being experiences suffering and struggles with feeling inadequate.

3. Noticing your painful thoughts or feelings, without running from them or trying to squash them.

To see how self-compassionate you are, try this quiz on Dr. Neff’s website: http://bit.ly/1iYUVUH

The Trap of ‘Never Enough’

Many women get stuck in a harsh way of relating to themselves. In my book, Strong Women, Strong Love, I talk about all the demands on women today and how we expect ourselves to excel in all spheres. We aim for successful careers, passionate marriages and thriving children — not to mention a slender body, a lively social life and a perfectly decorated home.

Women often fall into the trap of judging themselves as never being good enough. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that if we can just get that promotion, or remodel the kitchen or lose 5 more pounds, then things will be perfect. Then we will be worthy.

But the thing is, we never get there. There’s always a new benchmark to achieve or acquire. In reality, there’s no way we can realistically achieve all those high standards.

To put it mildly, this is a really stressful way to live. Dr. Neff says:

The great angst of modern life is this: no matter how hard we try, no matter how successful we are, no matter how good a parent, worker, or spouse we are – it’s never enough. There is always someone richer, thinner, smarter, or more powerful, someone that makes us feel small in comparison. Failure of any kind, large or small, is unacceptable. The result: therapist’s offices, pharmaceutical companies, and the self-help aisles of bookstores are besieged by people who feel they’re not okay as they are.

Dr. Neff’s advice is to practice self-compassion and treat yourself as you would a good friend, instead of relentlessly demanding that you “fix” everything that is wrong with you. She writes:

Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings — after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect.

Using Compassion to Improve Your Marriage

Relationship science is clear that kindness and generosity are two vital ingredients for making a relationship last. When you are gentle with yourself in all your humanness, you’re more likely to treat your spouse with that same consideration. And when you accept that getting frustrated or falling short sometimes is just part of being human (and not some fatal flaw of yours), you’re likely to extend that gentle worldview to others.

Research studies offers effective ways for relating to your spouse with more compassion:

1. Connect and show interest when your spouse makes an effort to engage you. If you’re in the middle of something, look up, make eye contact and acknowledge your husband for a little bit. Being kind means understanding the power you have to make your husband feel important or irrelevant and using that power to build him up. (Reference)

2. Stay calm and constructive when there is conflict. Stress takes a toll on us, physically and emotionally. And it takes a toll on our marriages. Feeling exhausted, anxious and inadequate doesn’t exactly set the stage for warm interactions with our partners. When you’re spent, it’s more likely you will flip your lid and hurt each other. Compassion helps you remember you’re not enemies and prevents you from hitting below the belt and damaging your relationship.

3. Respond to your partner’s good news with genuine enthusiasm. It’s not just important that you are sensitive when your husband is going through a hard time. Be kind and share his happiness when he has a “win,” and you’ll find the trust and closeness increasing. (Reference)

Choosing Compassion

You can learn much more about the practice of self-compassion and its benefits in Dr. Neff’s book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself or by attend the upcoming workshop. Think about how you can embrace this gentler worldview this week.

 

Self-Compassion and Emotional Resilience: A Workshop by Dr. Kristin Neff

9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Jan. 30, 2015

Whitley Center, Oblate School of Theology

285 Oblate Drive, San Antonio

Visit Eventbrite for tickets.

Presented by Institute for the Advancement of Mindful Living, peaceCENTER and UTSA Counseling Services.