When I was a personal trainer working with people striving toward their fitness goals, my initial focus with them was most often on form and function. Beyond those basics, I would help to motivate them to then practice their new skills daily or weekly, consistently bringing them back to the subtle messages from their bodies and minds—those things that would further inform their practice. What I knew from my own training, experience with clients, and what the experts said, that’s what works!
I certainly had clients, at times, who were looking for a “quick fix,” Yet I don’t remember ever having clients that actually believed that simply gaining “awareness” of their form and function, without practice, would yield the same results—they knew they couldn’t just read a book, look at some pictures, and have it down or transform their bodies. And what they became aware of rather quickly, with instruction, was that to make an actual difference, they would need to be pushing their bodies through some pretty intense physical feelings—they would be strengthening not only their bodies but their ability to tolerate a variety of powerful sensations.
It’s almost humorous, and tragic, how often I hear people
working toward relationship success who are seduced by the belief that relationship habits will alter through simple awareness—That by reading the right book or article, by having some enlightening conversations with a therapist or friend, their core style of relating to their partner will magically transform.
Now I will grant that awareness—the didactic part of our learning—is a necessary foundation for change. And yet there is so much more.
Our Relational Design
Our style of relating to intimate partners has been designed into our minds, our bodies, our nervous systems—having literally been “wired” into us—from as early as our very first neural “firings.” The automatic pathways that our brain mechanisms follow in response to all sorts of human interactions is something that is related to processes that occur, most often, without our conscious awareness. These processes are immediate, unconscious, and follow “well-groomed” paths within our neural networks like the ruts in an old dirt road—and each time we allow them to flow without attention, those ruts become deeper and deeper, and much more difficult to alter. There’s some benefit to these processes, of course, especially when they’re related to things like…. Oh, walking, for example—the billions of functions that our brains control each and every day that we couldn’t possibly be aware of constantly. When it comes to relationship dynamics, however, those automatic processes often don’t serve our higher desires for intimacy and relational health.
Our perception of truth and reality, likewise, is so often immediately
categorized by our brains and relegated to “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” etc., without our minds conscious engagement, that we have often decided something is just so, without considering the possibilities that would require a lot more work—and ultimately discomfort—for our brains. This is where Brain Training comes in.
Pragmatic/Experiential—it’s What Works
In terms of Relationship Training, we learn the “what” of skills through the pragmatic work, through reading and research and dialogue and psycho-education. Then with a trained observer who can provide reflection, support, encouragement, challenge, curiosity, and “coaching;” we can begin to learn the form and function in our bodies and minds—coming back to those subtle sensations, messages, triggers, and automatic responses, with more awareness and more ability to make different choices when it’s most important.
We can begin to feel into the internal shifts of observing our thoughts as we engage in new relational behaviors with a person practiced in the field of our learning. And as neurons begin to fire in distinctly new patterns—because that’s what’s happening when we practice new skills, connecting new behaviors to certain brain states—these pathways begin to carve new “grooves” into our neural networks. It’s like a workout for the brain! We are “wiring” new and healthier relationship habits into our neural networks. And yet, just as is true in the body, a single workout just makes us hurt—it doesn’t create lasting change!
Neuroplasticity is a popular buzzword right now—and a powerful one at that! The idea that the brain is moldable and changeable in response to behaviors and Mindful Attention–both in processes and shape–challenges the long-standing idea that the brain is physiologically static. The direction that neuroscience has catapulted the realm of psychology has countered decades of the simple analytical, cognitive, and cognitive/behavioral work of our psychological heritage. It’s time that we—as practitioners of change—develop our emotional and relational fitness, strengthening neural pathways because we are choosing to develop not only awareness of our automatic responses, but to engage the most evolved parts of our brains. It’s time to build brain mass!
It’s exciting, really, that we have so much to say about how our internal worlds might respond to stimuli—those triggers that have previously caused us to feel powerless. And now we’re coming to grasp a power that, prior to the last decade or so, we’ve not fully understood. The idea that we can alter not only the functioning of our brains but the literal form—that’s just damned attractive in my world!
On this note, I want to share a recent experience based on these exact principles—I think it might be helpful for some people who are in the process of making the “implicit” “explicit”—bringing awareness into experiential practice and noticing the subtle shifts. This is the work of transformation.
The Language of Love
Currently, I co-facilitate an adult relational skills group, called Developing the Language of Love, based on the scientifically sound approaches of Dr. Brent J. Atkinson, author of Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy: Advances in neurobiology and the science of intimate relationships. It’s work that literally gets my heart pumping and makes me want to shout from rooftops—we CAN develop the types of relationships that we’ve all dreamed of. Just as the fact that we CAN create fit, healthy bodies if we have the right tools. And this… this is one of the right tools!
This is an eight-week group, and we are more than halfway through the first round. Already, the results are evident to all of the participants and powerfully affirm our work as therapists and educators.
Two weeks ago my co-facilitator, Robin, and I modeled a “healthy dialogue” sharing some tools for approaching conflict with some well-grounded principles for getting our partners to treat us well. We demonstrated a conversation where both partners were tapping into skill. The modeling was well-received in the group and, also, a request was made that we share what a similar dialogue might look like if one partner is practicing “skill” and the other partner continues to dismiss, criticize, or respond negatively.
Of course! …thought Robin and I. Because most often isn’t that the exact way things play out? Quite wisely, our group was begging the question, “But if I show up well, and my partner is still an ass, then what?”
This is a much more common occurrence within relational dynamics, right? Consider how often you have approached your partner with a need to either launch a complaint or discuss an emotional need and you plan to do so with skill—maybe you’ve even practiced prior to the dialogue—and the response you get seems very unskilled—in fact, you might even feel mistreated and dismissed or, worse yet, your partner justifies their behavior or belief and actually purports that whatever issue you’re discussing is your fault!
Aggravating, isn’t it? We can walk away from such interactions feeling as if, “I did it right! My partner, like usual, is the one who just blew it!”
We leave these conversations, often very resentful of our partner, feeling that he or she simply doesn’t get it—they just don’t have the skill that matches our own.
And guess what? This very reaction, no matter how “true” it feels, is a breeding ground for contempt.
…But Back to the Story
Robin and I took our group’s request to heart, loosely designing a scenario where one of us (me) had developed some skill to get my partner to treat me well, even when my partner (Robin, in this instance) continued to criticize, dismiss, and blame me. And you know what? It worked! Even via role-play, it became apparent to everyone there that, had this been a real life interaction, with the skills I was demonstrating, it would be incredibly difficult for Robin, or anyone, to continue to act in the way he was consciously TRYING to act—badly!
Then the bigger questions came: Did I feel the automatic responses in my body that might have made me want to react negatively, and what did I do with those? What were my internal thoughts about Robin’s behavior? How was I able to “calm my nervous system” consistently, while Robin was saying some pretty harsh things?
Real Life Happens
Now, let’s get clear on something—Just like most people I, too, have difficulty in this area of my personal life. I continue to cultivate the skills to stay present and I do my best to practice new habits but, WOW! …Let’s just say, I thought creating a fit body was difficult! Nothing compares to the exhaustive work of developing sound relationship skills. So I’ll just say, this is, of course, much easier within a role-play! And, the story continues…
After our group, I continued on with my night and as synchronicity would have it, had an opportunity to practice these exact skills FOR REAL.
Now, maybe because it was so fresh in my brain and body, maybe because I’ve been immersing myself in developing these skills, I was able to consistently bring my focus back to the more advanced part of my brain—my prefrontal cortex, which resides at the forefront of the brain and is implicated in social and emotional regulation.
Essentially, my mind was able to tolerate a bit more intensity because I’d been “training” the exact function I needed just hours before. –Let’s consider the body once again: When I’ve been training a specific muscle, that muscle learns to tolerate more weight, more intensity, right? The same is true for structures in the brain.
I became involved in a dialogue that required some regulation of emotion, some acknowledgments of deep, somewhat painful feelings between two people, and a solid balance of validating my own truth while also acknowledging a legitimately different perspective of someone else—without making the other person “wrong.”
The dialogue that ensued is one I literally know “by heart,” and while the distinctive movements may look different from the outside, the dance is well rehearsed. The “dance” being the pattern of activation—mirror neurons from one person to the other engaging in a willful and well-choreographed tragedy that repeats itself over and over. For many, including myself, this is often the seductive dance of relationship.
Somehow, this night, I was able to feel my feet on the dance floor, feel my pelvis, my belly, my chest, all responding to conscious breathing and mindful presence. So when I approached the dialogue with skill, and then received what felt like a defensive, critical response, something happened. And this is the piece I want to dissect a bit.
Automatic, Subtle Responses that WRECK our Relationships
Most of us have had moments when we’ve approached a difficult dialogue with some skill, right? We’ve maybe done some work around “personal development” and feel better equipped to handle relationship distress. And it’s a boost to the ego when we feel as if we’ve done ourselves well and acted with integrity. And often, we just don’t get what we want in return. Sound familiar?
Here is a very common response—we have some internal dialogue going on, which sounds something like this: “I’m doing my best here to stay present and he/she just can’t do it. Why do I always have to be the more mature/more skilled/more evolved person? He/she can never understand what I’m talking about.” Any of that resonate? Something with that general flavor ever cross your mental palate during an intense dialogue with a partner?
I know I’ve had those moments—many of them! And I usually leave those arguments not only frustrated but resentful. I further justify that the whole situation is “mostly” his fault. I mean really, do you want to know what he said??
And then not only is the interaction finding it’s way into well-grooved neural pathways, we actually strengthen these habitual responses each time we mentally replay the interactions in our heads with a similar mental content or share the story with friends—that our partners are the ones to blame.
If you allow yourself to play this scenario out, I have a sense most of you know exactly where it leads, and it’s just no good. Sure, we can get a little release from bitching to friends and family about how inept our partners are and about our powerlessness to create actual change. And then we come back home and start the same scene tomorrow—it’s a little like “relationship groundhog day.”
The Brain Workout
So the shift for me came in that exact moment when I did notice something in my desire to “fight back”—to engage with the same energy I felt I was experiencing from my partner which, by the way, is referred to as negative affect reciprocity—the tendency to respond to one’s partners’ expression of negative affect with one’s own negative affect.
And here’s a little tidbit here, which many of you will grasp. I was feeling mistreated. Whether I was being mistreated or not isn’t really important! What’s important is HOW I RESPOND. That, in and of itself, is the determining factor of my personal ability to ultimately create and maintain a healthy relationship. The problem is that we most often get caught in justifying our response due to our partner’s perceived misbehavior. And ultimately, that does little for us, or our partner’s ability to respond more positively. (More on that later.)
Right now, some of you may be thinking, “But it is important whether or not our partners are mistreating us! We can’t just let them off the hook!” And what I’m saying does not negate the importance of that—I promise. Right now, however, let’s focus on our own ability to strengthen our relationship skills.
So I noticed something beginning to shift in me and further tuned in to my internal state—a process known as interoception—“checking in,” essentially. And thankfully, in that moment I realized that THAT—what I was noticing—was the somatic response that I generally have when I get activated! Here was the answer to my group’s question.
Automatic Somatic Response
The moment I felt I was “doing relationship” just a little bit better than my partner, here’s what happened: My breathing became shallow, my chest kind of “froze,” my shoulders collapsed just a little, but in a somewhat defensive, protective stance, and I felt a lot of energy right in the back of my throat, as if I could raise my voice or rapidly justify my perspective.
And I realized in about a nanosecond that I had an opportunity to re-pattern some neural networks that have known a solid and singular path for years.
One thing to note: It is in the moments when we most need to access more advanced parts of the brain—when we most need to use new skills, that they are the least accessible to us. We need them when our brains are so triggered, we’d rather throw all our damn skills out the window because we feel so hurt or angry. And those are the EXACT moments when we need to ground ourselves in the knowledge that we can do it differently. This is similar to the moment when training a particular muscle pushes us to a physiological “edge”—and we have the experience of every ounce of our being believing we can push no further. Then something shifts and we somehow push through and far beyond our perceived limitations. This is when the body begins to KNOW how to transform.
The most important time for us to practice new relational skills is when they are LEAST accessible to us–when they are the most difficult to access! We can all feel pretty “skilled” when we feel we’re being treated well, right? It’s when we feel we’re NOT being treated well–this is the moment of truth! These are the exact moments–opportunities really–that will set us apart from those who continue to set themselves up for failure. Just as in training our bodies, it does little good for us to train with weights that don’t push us to our “edge.” We have to train our bodies when we feel we are exercising not only our muscles but our focus, attention, and will.
So… it was one of those moments. And here’s the kicker—I noticed the automatic thought patterns as well. I heard the little voice in my head wanting to believe that my “dance partner” clearly wasn’t following my oh-so-skillful lead. I felt myself wanting to make him wrong, and ultimately “less skilled” than I was.
And then the jolt. Ahhh….. there it is—the wiring that I have for contempt. And damn, is it a well-grooved path in my neural networks!
In that single moment of awareness, something so subtle shifted internally. It was like the moment where, during a workout, “pain” transforms into “sensation” and we realize we have believed a limitation that doesn’t really exist. “Ohhh…..” I thought. “This is where I normally get off track. And I can make a different choice—and it’s difficult.”
The Reason it’s Called “Practice”
The work in these moments is so incredibly subtle, so consistent. We need to keep bringing our attention, our focus, back to the present moment; noticing what wants to “steal” our attention and bringing it back to the part of our brain that can make a different choice—the pre-frontal cortex. And some might think this is just far too difficult and maybe even silly to focus so much on these subtle sensations. And again, just as in a physical workout, sometimes that subtle shift in “form” is the difference between strengthening and injuring.
This interaction—and what I was attempting to do—took a while, it wasn’t immediate and it wasn’t pretty and it certainly wasn’t perfect. But it was different. Most importantly, the instant I brought attention to my internal dialogue, there was a shift, not only inside of me, but within the system of interaction.
Similar to the role-play interaction with Robin, above, my partner simply wasn’t able to mistreat, or even seem like he was mistreating me. You see, when we believe our partners are more to blame, we make it just about impossible for them to change. In fact, our belief that they are more at fault than we are is like the kiss of death to our relationships! And so when I, or you, can release the attachment to the belief that we’ve held so tightly, it’s like giving breath to our partner’s unique experience of interaction with us—because sometimes, that’s no joy ride either, right?
Learning to cultivate responsiveness in our partner, when we have long standing patterns of blaming them, is the one path out of relational dysfunction. Most often, even the discovery of this path requires a certain receptivity in us, to stretch our perceptions of reality—of our partners reality, as well as our own—to go beyond the paradigm of truth that we know, and develop a new way of seeing.
If you have questions or reservations about what I’ve shared here… if it’s not sitting right with you, or if it is, I’d love to hear from you!
For the Love of Your Life!