When Relationships Soothe the Brain (The Science of Love)

Consider this: A happier New Year may mean a healthier relationship with your partner.  In fact, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, nearly a third of all goals set in the new year are relationship related.

Now most couples think they should focus on communication skills to improve their relationship. Communication skills are definitely important and helpful, but it takes more than that.

Over the years of my work with couples, I have learned that even the most refined communication skills will not change anything unless we have cultivated a strong emotional bond with our partner. So when couples believe they have communication problems, I want to know what they mean by that because it usually means that there is much more going on under the surface.

If we pause to consider what is under the surface, we usually discover that a partner who is angry, for example, is on another level feeling alone in the relationship and the angry protests are an effort to get more connection. But of course, the angry protests only drive the other partner further away. Or a partner who seems distant or shut down might actually be feeling fearful that the relationship is in trouble and they don’t know how to fix it.  In fact, we now know that when we are feeling alone in a relationship, our brains are threatened.  The neurons start rumbling!

Here’s the reality: It is only when both persons in a relationship understand and empathize with the underlying emotions that they begin to create a stronger bond with their partner.

Unfortunately, our culture’s emphasis on independence sends the message that you should not allow yourself to need your partner.  Underlying emotions can make one feel needy and therefore reluctant to openly express the needs behind the anger/withdrawal pattern out of fear of appearing “needy.”  We live in a culture that praises independence and autonomy which are important of course.  But what we have learned from the research in recent years about the very survival of our species, is that we need to need one another.

I call this a “functional dependency” versus a controlling or anxious dependency.  To form “functional dependency” couples should rediscover why they became a couple in the first place. Why do most of us want to be in a committed relationship to begin with? The standard biological answer is “for procreation.”  But we now know based on scientific research, that it is also because of the desire to care and be cared for by a significant other. ( I feel like saying, “Duh!”)  It’s how all of us are wired, actually, from birth through adulthood. Our brain thrives on social connection from the day we are born. It’s how our brains are wired and also how they are soothed!

So when you think your communication is breaking down and you remain stressed about your relationship or life in general, pay attention to what is going on “beneath the service” and talk about that with your lover, not from an angry judgmental stance, but from a biological, “spiritual” place within yourself, longing for emotional connection.

In fact, if interested, I suggest you view a youtube video with Sue Johnson (Hold Me Tight) talking about Soothing the Threatened Brain. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEfnFzVF9xY&app=desktop 

Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.
Jim Covington

Jim Covington

Jim Covington (M.Div. MA, LMFT) has been helping couples improve their relationships for more than 30 years. He holds degrees are in psychology and theology, is a licensed New York marriage and family therapist, a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists and has been trained in multiple approaches to marital/couples therapy and family therapy.

He has completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy, externship training with the International Center for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples and PREP (Prevention & Relationship Enhancement Program), and employs Solution Oriented Brief Therapy as taught by Michelle Weiner-Davis.