The Opportunity in Falling Out of Love

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“Love is born in a glance, and matures in a smile.” ~ Brazilian proverb

Most people enjoy being in love, because falling in love is  a euphoric ride. You are exhilarated when you fall for someone and the feeling is returned. And you can’t stop thinking of them, wanting to spend every moment together, as if you can’t get enough.

We hope this feeling will never end, and when it starts to dissipate we worry. Life is not like the fairy tales, movies, nor romance novels. Love has seasons that change as the relationship, life, and family changes. But just because love between two people changes, it doesn’t mean it’s gone.

Relationships are always evolving. While change is hard, it doesn’t have to mean something is wrong. Join me in exploring how love and marriages evolve and how we can think about the new seasons with more smiles.

Identify Your Season of Love

Helen Fisher, anthropologist and author of Why We Love, shares her thoughts on how love changes so that our species can survive. With a team of scientists, Fisher scans the brains of people who have recently fallen in love. Through her research, she discovers that certain areas of the brain light up when we are falling in love.

Fisher concludes that all animals and humans feel romantic love in the reward center of their brains. In other words, love is much more complex than having a positive feeling, it is a “fundamental mating drive.”

Through her work, she identifies three interlocking drives that primitively speaking help keep families alive. Fisher explains that “drives” evolved to motivate us to reach different goals:

  1. Lust: “to seek an array of sexual partners”
  2. Romantic Passion: “to choose one partner to dote upon”
  3. Attachment: “to remain emotionally engaged with him or her long enough to rear a child together”

Fisher goes on to explore whether or not these drives (or seasons) can occur at the same time. Do you identify with one or more of the above relationship goals?

Twenty years ago on spring break, I was interested in talking to many young men. But by the end of the trip, I had picked one young man that I hoped to spend more time getting to know. We stayed in this romantic love season until some time after our wedding.

Love Changes and Relationship Patterns Emerge

You gradually start to see your spouse as they are. While you were once blinded by passion and able to overlook their faults, you are now living with their strengths and weaknesses every day.

And predictable patterns of interaction emerge when tension and conflict rise. Depending on how you think about the differences, you may start feeling less attracted and more distant. Since the “romantic love hormones can only last 12-24 months” into a new relationship, how do you deal with these relationship patterns, negativity, and worry?

“We’ve become addicted to the hormone rush fueled by the media hype and don’t know what to do when it’s over, except to find someone new.” ~ Susana, Hubpages.com

As you pick a mate to spend the rest of your life with, the hormones that once attracted you are starting to slow down. So it’s not physiologically possible to stay on the high of falling in love. But many people are distraught that the romantic feelings have gone.

Emotional Distance or Intimacy Evolves

While you can’t return to the original feeling state, you can work on how you think and interact with your spouse. Many people become so negative about their partner and their relationship, that they want to leave the relationship “seeking happiness.” But others want to find out how to be less negative and develop a new level of openness with their mate. Love’s changing season becomes an opportunity to grow your friendship and intimacy by growing yourself.

Instead of trying to get your spouse to meet your needs better, it is seeing them as separate from you emotionally that makes it easier to get close to them. If you are always thinking that they don’t care for you or want something from you, then you will keep your distance.

Everyone feels distant sometimes. When you can focus less on blaming your partner and more on identifying when you feel distant, you can begin to reclaim your happiness. When you become less defined by what your partner does or doesn’t do, you are free to be yourself. Your partner is also free to be him or herself. It is through this “growing up” stage of marriage that emotional intimacy is found, as it’s easier to get close to each other again.

Which opportunity will you take: Is marriage’s changing seasons an opportunity for growth and intimacy? Or is it an opportunity to leave the marriage?

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Photo Credit: “In Love” by Hartwig HKD

 

4 Steps to Effectively Manage Worry and Anxiety

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Worry is like being on a spinning ride minus the thrill of excitement. Instead worry is  experiencing spinning thoughts filled with what-ifs. One worry leads to another worry with no clear direction of how to stop the dizzying spin.

Worry is not only spinning in circles, but it is also a narrow, negative assumption of future problems. When we worry, we assume we can’t handle something that hasn’t happened yet. Worry makes it hard to enjoy the moment or embrace the way it is.

“Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but gets you nowhere.” ~ Glenn Turner

Are you tired of your worry stopping you in your tracks? When you believe your worry is true, you’ll react as if you or someone you care about is  threatened. Humans are the only creatures who can turn their stress response (fight or flight) on by imagining threatening situations in their mind.

4 Steps to Manage Worry & Anxiety:

It’s time to take your mind back. Step-by-step, learn how to manage your anxiety and worry by sorting out your automatic reactions to perceived threats.

Step 1. Slow Down and Reflect: Since most reactions are outside of our awareness, first slow down and reflect on how you got yourself so worked up. When you notice your heart racing, head aching, or stomach flopping, reflect on what you are anxious about. What are you interpreting as a threat to you or someone you care about? Bringing this into your awareness is the first step to accessing those calmer thoughts.

Step 2. Sort Worry from Reality: People can worry about almost anything and be convinced that their worry is true. It’s important to know the difference between your worry (anxiety = what if) and reality (fact = what is), so you can eventually choose which one you want to think and act on.

For example, your tween daughter comes home concerned about an argument she had with her friends on the playground. You worry that her friends won’t treat her well, and that your daughter can’t handle the problem without your help. The reality is friendships change and you can’t do much about what goes on during recess within your tween’s social circle.

Before you start to give your daughter advice, she tells you how she plans on handling the situation the next day. She just gave you evidence that she is prepared to handle the problem herself, and doesn’t need adults to step in. She just wants you to know what is going on, and needs a warm hug and ear to hear her out.

Step 3. Make a Choice: In this example, you have identified your worry as the following what if: unsure your tween can handle her own problems and wanting to protect her. You also identified the reality as the following what is: your tween has given evidence that she doesn’t need an adult to help her manage the social problems. You could very easily hold onto both of these ways of thinking about the problem,  and stay worried about something you can’t control.

Or you can choose which way you want to think about the problem, so you don’t have to absorb emotional responsibility for something you can’t change in the future. If you choose to only think about the reality of the situation, you will be freeing yourself from holding onto the worry. In that moment, you choose to focus on the facts of reality more than your anxiety about social threats, you set yourself free from worry.

Step 4. Confirm Actions Match Choice: This step can naturally happen once you choose to focus on reality, not worry. But other times, you will need to identify how your actions match the choice in thinking you just made.

For example, if you are choosing to focus on how you think your tween can learn to manage her own social problems, but start giving her advice. Then you just fell back into worry and unsureness. It’s easy to pick a worry back up when your actions don’t match your calm thinking. Instead, identify how your actions can match your thinking about the problem.

Most people skip steps, and try to act less worried. But it is our thoughts and choices that determine how we act and interact. It isn’t until you make a choice on how you think about the problem, that you are able to calm yourself down and liberate the worry.

Which step do you have more trouble with when you try to manage your worry?

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Marci offers face-to-face counseling services in the Kansas City, MO area and is available for coaching via Skype. If you are stuck trying to ask those calm thoughts, so you can manage your worry better, Schedule an appointment today.

Photo Credit: Merry-Go-Round by Ronald Meriales

How Our Brain Can Turn Calm On

You no longer have to feel defeated by your brain chemicals being out of balance. Recent research is shedding new light on the complexity of symptom development, including the role our stress (or fear response) plays in symptom development.

Brain research illuminates how we can use the brain structures we already have to not think everything is a threat in emotionally charged situations. While brain chemicals play apart in how we regulate our responses to difficult situations, it’s more about how well our brain communicates between the thinking and emotional parts of our brains.

The good news is individuals can improve their communication with their brains over time. They can use the structures already in place to access options in difficult situations (that is, if there family lets them develop that ability…but that’s another post).

Understanding How the Brain Interacts with Stress Response

Before we talk about how to better access the calm thinking part of our brain,  let’s explore how our brains interact with the stress response. Did you know our brains are constantly taking in new information both inside and outside our body, mostly outside of our awareness? The brain is trying to decide whether or not there is a threat it needs to rev up for.

There are many pathways the brain takes to communicate with itself, but for the focus of this post, I will over-simplify. The amygdala, or “emotional center”, can accelerate our bodily systems, such as heart rate and respiration, to deal with a perceived threat in the environment. While the hippocampus can put the brakes on fear and slow down the body when not perceiving the environment as threatening.

Again I am leaving out several parts in this description, but imagine what the amygdala would do if it thinks everything is a threat. It would keep communicating with the adrenal system to keep sending more cortisol, one of the stress hormones that speeds us up. If you stay hyper-alert to threats, then you would eventually develop symptoms, imbalances, or sensitivities.

Luckily, we have more than just the primitive parts of our brains, and there is a part of our brain called the “prefrontal cortex” that also helps us turn off our emotional or fear response. This part of our brain gives us the potential to monitor complex information, see options, and learn from our experiences. Basically, it gives humans the ability to be less reactive and automatic.

We are more controlled by those primitive parts of our brain than most of us would like to admit. In fact, most have a hard time getting our thinking part of the brain to override our emotional/stress center. Leading brain scientist and author of “Emotional Brain,” Joseph Ledoux, concludes that:

“the connections from the cortical (prefrontal cortex) areas to the amygdala are far weaker than the connections from the amygdala to the cortex. This may explain why it is so easy for emotional information to invade our conscious thoughts, but so hard for us to gain conscious control over our emotions.” – Joseph Ledoux

Strengthening Our Brain’s Pathway to Calm Thinking

Before you give up, this is good news. While we vary in on our abilities to do this, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. This is an opportunity to strengthen those “weaker” pathways. And participating in counseling is one of the ways that people can access those thinking parts in the face of great distress!

You aren’t trying to eliminate emotions, just be less controlled by them. Developing the ability to sort out your thoughts from your emotions, and you are already slowing down your reactions. Giving your thinking brain time to communicate to the emotional center, instead of emotions always taking over.

With or without counseling, here are a few ways that strengthen the communication pathway from the thinking part of your brain to the emotional part:

1. Practice Self Observation: Become a better observer of yourself and it will help you slow down your reactions and access your thinking. Observation doesn’t mean being self-critical. It means being curious about learning about how your symptoms and functioning vary.

2. Choose More Neutral Thinking: If you aren’t in immediate danger, but you perceive a threat then find way to interrupt this fear. For example, if your spouse looks at you in a certain way, and you immediately start fretting about losing them, you have interpreted a facial expression as a threat. Find another way to think about the trigger that’s more neutral and curious, and less wanting to let it change your own behavior.

3. Move Toward Stressor: What!? Yes I am serious, if you face things that are hard for you, you give your brain new information – you can do hard stuff. A new pathway is initiated every time your spouse’s face changes to that one you can’t stand, and you don’t check out into your phone, computer, or the kids. Instead you stay in contact and teach your brain that it’s not all that threatening after all.

4. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat: I know most of us want change to be easy, but it’s hard work to take responsibility for managing our own reactions. And definitely hard work to strengthen a pathway in our brain. To make this pathway stronger, it needs many repetitions. Think about how much easier it is to walk on a freshly paved sidewalk instead of hopping on bumpy rocks across a stormy creek! You are trying to pave a new pathway, not just throw some rocks out and hope you make it.

While there are many ways to interrupt the stress-fear response, nothing is as powerful as re-wiring our brains. It may not be the quickest way, but it will give you the most payoff for your work on self and in difficult situations.

“We’ve inherited a lifetime of challenges, it’s not about avoiding it, it’s about finding a way to manage it, and going as far as you can with it.” ~Murray Bowen, MD

Please share your comments, questions and ideas…

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A special thank you to Dr. Robert Noone, psychologist and founder of Center for Family Consultation for sharing his insights and research discoveries on the brain, stress, and families. This post is a summary of ideas he presented at the KC Center for Family Systems in 2013-2015. Your learning and contribution stirs my thinking and I hope sharing it with others will stir theirs too!

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