How Your Brain Protects You and Can Hurt You in Your Marriage or Love Relationship

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In your marriage or love relationship, your mind wants to protect you from the possibility of abandonment, hurt, or betrayal that you may have experienced from a prior significant relationship. However, your brain is much more likely to keep you alive if it overestimates the links or associations between what is going on in your present life and your past, even as a child. If your brain underestimates the connections with past injuries, you could die. One problem with this advanced survival machine called the brain is that overestimations can often backfire in your current marriage or love relationship, and your partner or spouse may be the unfortunate recipient of past sensitivities that either are not relevant or only minimally connected to the present with your partner or spouse.

All of us have memories that we are not literally aware of, but that our brain does not forget. A part of our brain always remembers events: the hippocampus, a memory center in your right, emotional hemisphere where early memories are formed and associations are stored that you are not aware of. The other part of your brain where memory is stored connected with danger or threats is called the amygdala, located in your right hemisphere, and the emotional source of fear that ties in with your upper-intenstinal area (what many call “butterflies in your stomach”). Memory that is stored in your amygdala includes experiences you are aware of: when I was 4, I touched the stove and burnt myself, so I don’t want to touch a hot stove again.

How Your Brain Affects Your Marriage or Love Relationship

Your brain is an anticipation machine, constantly anticipating what is happening in your current marriage or love relationship based on your past relationships. However, these past associations may not apply to your current relationship, and this could get you into trouble without you even necessarily knowing why. 

Neurons that fire together wire together: new experiences can replace the old beliefs

The closer your emotional connection with your partner or spouse, the more likely you are to express openly your sensitivities and vulnerabilities that you are aware of from your past, which dramatically helps your partner or spouse manage your sensitivities and respond with antidotes to your past hurts or betrayals. Every time your partner or spouse gives you the response that you need, your brain learns a new pattern, and neuronal firing occurs in your mind that eventually creates a new neuronal cluster or schema that shapes how you perceive yourself, relationships, and the world. Schemas are highlighted by the creator of schema therapy, Jeffrey Young, in Reinventing Your Life. Every time you reach out and invite your partner or spouse to understand, soothe, comfort, reassure, and validate you, your mind connects these experiences and creates associations that lead to expectations for safety and security in your marriage or love relationship. 

How to Truly Live in the Present

Research clearly demonstrates that your early experiences are not nearly as important in shaping your life as how you’ve reflected and “made sense of” those experiences, how you understand your story, so that you’re choosing to put yourself in situations that reinforce healthy beliefs or schemas in your current life. For instance, instead of staying with a partner who is likely to abandon you because he or she is still married and living with his or her spouse, you commit to a partner who is available, able to commit, and lives in proximity to you, even though he or she isn’t perfect (an antidote to the abandonment schema).

If you and your partner or spouse do not have safety and security in your marriage or relationship, you’re much more likely to get stuck in a negative pattern that includes frustration and anger or detachment and withdrawal. The patterns involve negative coping strategies that were once adaptive when you were hurt long ago. However, the same strategies that were so effective can backfire, and reinforce the likelihood that you’ll receive the responses you’re most afraid of from your partner or spouse. These coping strategies are referred to as the “Demon Dialogues” in Hold Me Tight, by Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, in “Conversation 1.” The negative patterns usually create stronger neuron clusters in the mind that reinforce your worst schemas about yourself, relationships, and the world.

Share Your Experiences

Have you noticed a time when you became emotionally upset in your marriage or love relationship, but didn't know why your reaction was so strong? Are there times when you feel your partner or spouse is having an intense reaction that doesn't seem to fit the situation he or she is in? Share your experiences and help our community learn from each other. If you find this marriage & couples counseling and therapy in NYC blog helpful, please share it with your partner or spouse, and your friends and family.

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