I will be married thirty years this summer, the same number of years I have been a licensed marriage and family therapist.  In three decades, I have made many discoveries about relationships in both my personal and professional life.  During the last two months, I have listened to a weekly online video event, “Deepening Intimacy," hosted by Tami Simon of Sounds True, who did fourteen interviews with relationship experts.   It is an excellent series, and you may want to listen to some of the full interviews.  I was thrilled to hear about some of the latest research that helps us know so much more about creating intimate and enduring  relationships.  I have decided to share some highlights from these interviews in my next blogs to further support my and your self-discovery in relationship.

First of all, when I got married, I had no idea this relationship would become a primary path to awakening my self-awareness.  Yet, as partners we see and experience our shortcomings first hand and we are often quite eager to tell each other about them.  However, new brain science or neuropsychology says how we “tell” each other about theses behaviors or patterns greatly influences how close, safe and enjoyable our partnership will feel. Scientists can observe how our reptilian brain, programmed for fight or flight, lights up when we feel threatened by judgements about our human differences; our differing views, feelings, wants, needs or behaviors.  Our tone of voice, repressed anger, facial expressions or criticism will trigger fear and/or anxiety in our partner, and it is often hard to think clearly as their brain goes into protecting itself.  This reactiveness to one another makes the relationship feel unsafe.  Partners feel rejected, rather than accepted for who they are, and we begin to live with our partners defenses if each feels it is too risky to be authentic.  And the experts seem to agree, no one survives in a relationship if they feel more judged and criticized than loved and respected.

So how do we minimize creating threats in our partner’s brain and encourage greater safety in our relationship?  First of all, Rick Hanson, PhD., says we can all be humble in seeing we have parts ready to go to war with our partner.  It helps if we each take responsibility for our own reactivity and ask, “What feeling or discomfort is being triggered in me?  Why is it so hard for me to hear my partner express this different view or need?”  Dr. Hanson suggests four actions to help calm reactivity.  First, it can help to name your reaction as sadness, worry, anger, etc. when your feelings are activated.  Secondly, he encourages positive emotions and behaviors to fuel safety in the relationship.  You can look for opportunities to appreciate your partner, name what you like or respect about them, be grateful for what each may do or bring to the relationship.  (A daily practice at bedtime is comforting) Thirdly, touch is a gesture Hanson states calms down social pain, and the alarm systems in the brain.  It can be skin to skin or eye contact.  Lastly, assessing and telling your partner the size of threat in the partnership can be useful in the midst of a difficult conversation/fight.  You may say, “This is a passing challenge” or “ We can find a way to deal with this problem” or “ I love you even though I am mad right now.”  Our brain calms down and we can reach out a bit more easily.

Some experts say developing safety in our relationship bond is more important for our health and longevity than giving up smoking or exercising.  May we rise to the challenge.