A Valentine's Day Reflection on Your First Love Story
Love on the brain: examine how past relationships color present day love
Posted February 12, 2019
Everyone’s first love story begins with primal shouting for Mother. Red-faced and soggy, we are sucked through this strange, slippery portal to Narnia and then, in the most unceremonious of arrivals, yanked and slapped. Some of us are placed in mother’s longing arms, our earliest memory forever of her tender touch. Some of us learn far too early how dangerous the world can be. In either case, all of us spend our entire romantic lives trying to recreate what our early life did—and did not—give us.
From the tenderest of touches to the most loving of caresses, the physicality of love is well-known. In the wordless world of our infancy, it was our mothers’ embrace that calmed our raging bodies and our fathers’ soft swaying that lulled us to sleep. In dimly lit nurseries, we learned that the presence of a lover doesn’t simply soothe our body, it, most essentially, calms our brain. Here, from the vantage point of our baby brains, we learned stubborn stories about the ways in which relationships protect and the ways they destroy.
In what is arguably the greatest mythology of current culture, we tell each other that we are designed to be happy. Hyped up on inspo hashtags, we anxiously await our foretold happiness. But happiness is an inconsiderate guest, arriving far later than we hoped and departing much sooner than we wished. This happiness lore plays out in powerful ways in our in intimate relationships. We have such particular expectations about what romance should do for us—and, when it doesn’t, we throw fits that would make a toddler blush. When our attachment figure sends the slightest signal of premature departure, our biology screams.
The beautiful thing about biology is that it always tells the Truth.
Unchanged by even the prettiest of Pinterest boards, your brain keeps chugging, doing what it’s been doing since the time of the wooly mammoth. As you’ve been frantically invested in your #relationshipgoals, your brain’s been consistently telling you it’s not personal fulfillment that is most fundamental, but survival. So, in this tireless quest for life, across many millennia and through the gurgling waters of primordial swamps, our brains evolved into spectacular prediction machines because prediction is vital to survival. Outside of your conscious awareness, the prediction machine runs its constant calculus: Smell smoke? Do not enter. Dark alley? Pick up the pace. Looks rotten? Do not eat.
But the prediction machinery doesn’t just help us flee from burning houses; it fills in the blanks across all situations both plainly obvious and wildly complex. In fact, the more complex the situation, the more your brain wants to offer helpful heuristics to simplify a world teeming with an impossible quantity of data. As adults we choose our lovers for many reasons, including ones that match old crib-based scripts. Deep within the craggy recesses of our brain lives a potent and wordless world, full of timeless memories that the body remembers but the mouth cannot speak. We overtly say we want our partners to spend their lives “building us up” and “healing our wounds.” But then in much more powerful, far less conscious ways, we communicate, “Actually, just confirm for me who I already know myself to be.” On the bottom of no Valentine’s Day card does it read:
- I’m sensitive to the fact that I’m oversensitive, so don’t forget to remind me about how “dramatic” and “touchy” I am. XOXO!!
- My youth left me feeling lonely, so let’s make sure I never feel fully supported here, too. Just like home! LOLOL!
- I prefer to think relationships are built out of eggshells, so if things ever get too calm, let’s make sure we have a blow out fight. Nothing says love like explosive volatility. #amirite
So how do we change?
It should not be lost on us that our biology is efficient. No one gets thirsty and spends the next three decades trying to figure out the best way to get a cup of water. The fact that we are working though the same relationship patterns year after year should be evidence enough that something about our neurobiology is comfortable—albeit not happy—in this position. Sure, the scenes can change and the main actors get older, grayer and fatter, but the central storyline withstands the winds of time.
The issue is not that there are problems in relationships. Quite the contrary, the issue is that we think there shouldn’t be problems in relationships. We say, “yeah, yeah, nothing’s perfect,” and dismissively wave. But deep in the cells of our bones, we don’t really agree. And because of this erroneous belief, we continue to read from the gospel of “The Way Things Were Supposed to Go.”
According to what?
To our predictions, of course. There was never any question if we would suffer in love, only when. Over the course of long-term love, there will invariably be large chunks of time dedicated to disappointment, pain and stagnation. Because we never learned mature ways of loving, when we are stung by our partners, we cling to these rather infantile behaviors of sulking, tantruming and hiding.
If our relationships offer us a path to transcendence, it is not based on a repertoire of behaviors meant for children. To get there, we must let go of these overlearned scripts about how I’m supposed to feel and what you’re supposed to do. Most of all, we must stop telling our partner how right we are. Everyone’s right! It’s true that she is too demanding; it’s true that he is being insensitive. It’s true that he’s aloof and that she’s tired of being taken for granted and so on and so on. These are the little truths of love. But there must be another truth and there is. It is the Third Truth, the transcendent truth. The successful couple is the couple that understands each individual's own truth is real, but also can create space for the partner's. It is only when this Third Truth is internalized by both lovers that the couple can move together in time and in ways that aren't the same thing over and over and over.
In working to write this new narrative of love, we must molt our old selves—and this is an intensely uncomfortable process. The first step is an honest inventory of deficiencies in the relationship. The second step is to ask, in moments of quiet self-reflection, what you—and not your partner—can do about it. Whatever it is you determine you lack, there you begin. As you start, try as best you can to steel yourself against a brain that will send out powerful messages, like shockwaves, about how unnatural this feels. Behaving in ways that are not consistent with the machine’s predictions will initially suggest user error: “You’re doing it wrong!” your brain will shout, as your heart starts to pound and your stomach feels unsettled. Anticipate it. As you train your brain for improved empathy, do you know what it feels like to sit through conversations you historically thought were boring? Absolute tedium. As you train your brain to be less reactive, do you know what it feels like to hold in your ranting? Like your face might explode. As you train your brain to ignore tasks that need doing and children that need tending? Highly anxiety provoking.
But these are sensations, as fickle as clouds; they roll in and they roll out. Although your brain will try to convince you your head might explode, it, in fact, will not. It’s in this place, where you tolerate the discomfort of urges not satisfied, you will start to gain access to more intentional and less reflexive ways of behaving. And it is here in this intentional, mature space that you create new neural patterns that can ultimately build a new world order.