Depressed, anxious, or stressed out? How’s the state of your relationship? Want to have a happier relationship? Here’s how to work through challenges and improve overall wellbeing.
As a sex therapist, certified relationship expert, and neuroscientist, I can tell you with certainty that beyond our physical wellbeing nothing counts more than the health of our relationships.
In fact, since the quality of our intimate relationships powerfully influences our physical wellbeing, our relationships need to count first and foremost. What we’ve learned from long-term studies is that good quality connections promote health and longevity. And if there’s ever been a time that we need to boost wellbeing, it’s now.
In the wake of the pandemic, we are struggling with depression, anxiety, and stress-related illnesses beyond anything we’ve seen before. Hot off the press are the results of a survey study done by Harvard Medical School and The University of North Carolina during the last two weeks of May indicating that 90% of Americans are reporting significant levels of emotional distress. The rates of anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders are seriously soaring. And this distress is taking a toll on the quality of our lives and our relationships.
The good news is that we can use our relationships to bolster our emotional and physical health. And improving the quality of our relationships is not as hard as it sounds. It’s not rocket science! It’s been studied by Drs. John and Julie Gottman who have taken a research-based approach to relationships. But it takes self-awareness, practice, and discipline to turn around old toxic habits.
As I discuss in my book, Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life, we need tools and skills to calm our fired-up emotions, steer us out of old toxic habits, and promote wellbeing. The way our minds work, emotional habits are so stubbornly affixed and so automatic that it takes “operational intelligence” to work with our wired-in core emotions. These core emotions are ancient “emotional instincts” that have been experimentally mapped out in the oldest parts of the brain that we share with other mammals. They equip us to defend ourselves against harm and threats and they mobilize us to SEEK the resources and connections we need for survival and thrival. These core emotions are the roots of all our feelings. They are our embodied emotions.
What are “Embodied Emotions?”
We feel them literally in our gut as a sense of either warmth and comfort or distress and unease. They are also accompanied by sensations like when our hearts flutter or pound, our chests tighten, a lump develops in the throat, muscles tense, faces flush, tears flow, and otherwise our bodies “react”. Some embodied emotions are pleasurable, for example, the warm fuzzy feelings of tenderness or the hot spicy experience of sexual arousal. Other embodied emotions like the cold gripping sensations of FEAR or the blood boiling frenzy of RAGE are not. They are nature’s way of giving us information about what’s good or not so good for us. We experience these emotions viscerally in our bodies in ways such that they can hijack us even when at the “top of our minds” we know better.
When overactive these defensive emotions contribute to the types of behaviors that result in unhealthy relationships, such as blaming the partner, getting judgmental, and not working with the partner to create the kind of understanding that builds bridges between different points of view, allowing us to manage conflict and enhance cooperation.
Seeking and Exploring
And finally, it is our SEEKING system (powered by dopamine-the neurotransmitter responsible for the reinforcing effects of sex, drugs, food, and pretty much anything that rings the bell) that’s too often hijacked by our divided attention. The SEEKING system is what we need to harness such that we can become curious, focus our attention, and get out of distraction and into healthy hedonism (pleasures that feel good AND are good for us) such as the healing power of LOVE!
The Emotions of Connection
When people get curious and can elicit their SEEKING, CARE, PLAY, and LUST systems, relationship issues can be handled, and love can bloom.
Three Quick Relationship Fixes With Long Term Results (If You Practice Them!)
I teach what I need to know, and I practice what I need to learn. Here are three big lessons from my own 46-year-old relationship!
Start with this: All relationships have perpetual ongoing problems.
Every relationship! And if you trade one relationship for another, eventually you will end up with a new set of perpetual problems in the new relationship.
But these pesky perpetual problems are not the biggest problem.
It’s when couples battle over them repeatedly, having the same old argument over and over, ad infinitum, yet always expecting different results, that they implode into relationship “gridlock“.
We can lubricate the gridlock and prevent emotional escalation by learning new skills. Gottman’s research revealed three relationship superpowers, that when practiced regularly, can work wonders:
1. Take a slow start-up to conflict
Gottman’s research indicated that women who learned how to take a slow start-up to conflict with partners got better results in long term relationships. What that means, is rather than jumping right in and confronting partners with something potentially conflict-causing, these women eased into the difficult conversations.
Gottman’s work with heterosexual couples showed that men tended to have a faster ramp-up of the “flight or fight” sympathetic nervous system reaction to conflict, as measured by increased heart rate and release of stress hormones. When this flight or fight system is tweaked, it’s hard for the person to stay calm and responsive.
For the record, there are individual differences that loom large. Some men might not get tweaked so easily by conflict, while some women may actually be the ones to quickly ramp up when faced with conflict. Generally speaking, regardless of sex or sexual orientation, when it comes to couples, one person tends to be more easily and more powerfully agitated by conflict, such that the other partner could benefit from learning this skill.
2. Take influence from your partner
Gottman found that men who learned how to take influence from their partners tended to thrive in relationships. In other words, when these men learned to listen and incorporate the partner’s wants, wishes, and points of view, the marriages were happier and healthier.
This is where culture plays a big role. The traditional gender roles we learn teach us that men are supposed to be in charge, while women are supposed to nurture and take a back seat.
Times are indeed changing, and traditional gender roles no longer rule every roost. And again, when it comes to being open to a partner’s influence, individual differences loom large. Regardless of sex and sexual orientation, most couples likely find that one partner is a bit less flexible about considering the other’s point of view. When the inflexible, bossy partner learns to listen and make what’s important to their partner more important to them as well, domestic bliss is way more attainable, even if we agree to disagree on some matters.
3. Listen into the wishes and dreams underlying the different points of view that drive perpetual problems
When couples learn to listen to and understand the dreams underlying their perpetual conflicts, they can loosen and soften around the issues, facilitating keeping things well lubricated and playful, rather than nasty and gridlocked. And often, what they discover is that beneath what appears to be diametrically opposed power struggles about their favorite topics of contention, are very similar bottom lines when it comes to their needs and wants.
Here’s One Timely Example
What if one partner believes in the need to wear masks to contain the spread of the coronavirus, while the other refuses to comply. Sounds like a recipe for a relationship disaster!
If they could have a deep conversation, without rushing into judgment, blame, or grinding into full-tilt meltdown, they might discover this common thread:
The partner who wants to wear the mask wants to feel safe. The partner who doesn’t want to wear the mask wants to feel safe, also. The bottom line is that people differ regarding what makes them feel safe and secure. For some, participating in the collective and cooperating makes them feel safe. For others, exerting their autonomy, their right to be an independent individual is how they feel safest.
Different strokes for different folks. I wonder how they will sort this out?