It seems that we can, quite literally, change each others' nervous systems. Scientists suggest that when we feel close to someone, "mirror neurons" help us both imitate their behavior and understand their feelings.
It's no accident that when your partner feels distressed, so do you. When your partner is distressed, you feel more anxious. When your partner reaches out in comfort and caring, you feel calmer. Mirror neurons help us understand each others feelings by creating similar feelings in ourselves.
Our bodies also go through chemical changes in response to others. When we feel support and empathy, we are flooded with oxytocin. Oxytocin has been called the "cuddle hormone." It helps our heart to slow, our body to relax relax. It quiets the "emotional center" of the brain, the amygdala, and we feel soothed. In this calmer state, we can slow down and connect more deeply. When oxytocin floods through us, we have a better chance of finding those moments of "magic" we long for in relationships.
These chemical changes can help explain what happens when couples who were feeling distant begin to reconnect. Moments of closeness are calming and soothing, and can "rewire" our neural pathways.
Part 1 of this series traced one couple's struggle with a negative cycle of interactions fueled by the brain's fight-or-flight response. Part II focuses on the same couple as their relationship begins to shift.
One Couple's Journey
"We're not arguing any more," Rich said. But how can we feel close again?"
Rich was asking a great question. But I knew the question was premature. Before Rich and Diana they could decide what to do, they needed to find a different way to be with each other.
"I wish I could tell Rich how much he means to me, how much I like being with him," Diana said. "But I don't because I get scared. What if I open my heart to him and he turns away?" She looked sad and wistful.
It seemed like a good moment to ask her to take a chance. A month ago Rich would have heard her wish to be close to him as a criticism. But now he was curious and very present.
"Diana, can you tell him?" I asked. Can you tell him now how scary it is when he walks away, what that's like for you?"
"Rewiring" the Brain
Moments like these are at the heart of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. With enough of them, old relationship patterns are disrupted. Moments like these can change our brain chemistry, and change way partners respond to each other. And research shows that with enough of these moments, the changes last-- when counseling is over, relationships keep getting better.
Relationships That Last
Diana looked at Rich for a long minute. Then she started. "I don't mean to criticize you. It's just that when you walk away, when I see your back as you walk out of the room...I feel like I'm losing you. It's so hard, because I need you so much. You are the most important person in the world to me." There were tears in her eyes.
Rich looked moved. There was a new softness in his face.
"I guess I didn't see that," Rich answered. "I just felt like I couldn't do anything right for you. I didn't realize you were hurting too." He took Diana's hand, and she relaxed visibly.
Rich and Diana are on their way. They are beginning to talk about their differences, even big ones, with more lightness and trust. They are starting to understand how important they both are to each other.
Diana and Rich will probably encounter some rough terrain again in their relationship - life has a way of throwing challenges our way. But when that happens, they'll stick together. They'll remember that they have the best possible ally on their journey - each other. They've created the foundation for a relationship that can last.