Two years after I bought my car it started exhibiting some eccentricities. Sometimes, when stopped, the RPMs will spike above 2000. To stop this, with on foot on the brake, I put the car into gear and gently let out the clutch until the gears engage just enough to temper the RPMs back down to under 1000. The air vent on the driver’s side isn’t adjustable. The door handle on the driver’s side stopped working so that I had to roll down the window and open it by reaching out to the handle on the outside. I had the door handle fixed but then it broke the same way a month later. I didn’t fix it again. Now after almost 13 years with this car, when I have a rental car I instinctively reach to roll down the window before exiting. These eccentricities are mechanical, they are knowable, and they shape my experience of driving the car.
When I hear neuroscientists talk about brains, especially when they talk about how our brains mediate our experiences in relationships, I really try to figure out how to apply the knowledge to my practice. What does limbic activation tell me about solving arguments when both members of a couple are red-in-the-face angry?1 What does the mesolimbic cortex tell us about sexual pleasure and desire?2 What does the nucleus acumbens tell us about how we approach relationships in different contexts?3 And most of the time, I learn something about human relationships that has some value to my practice. The neuroscience of relationships tells me about how someone might be affected by their experience, and can help me to set scientifically informed (as opposed to traditional or moralistically founded) expectations about my clients, their change processes, and what is and is not likely to work for them in therapy. In other words, it is like me telling the person who changes the oil in my car that they have to roll down the window to get out of the driver’s seat. It is like me telling my mother about letting the clutch out at stop lights when she borrows the car. These are helpful because they define how to operate within the mechanical limits of the system, but they aren’t equivalent to learning how to drive any more than neuroscience teaches people how to be in relationship. In fact, no amount of information about driving a car is equivalent to learning how to drive a car.
Knowing how your brain determines your experiences in relationships is like knowing how your car works to get you to your destination. By learning about the mechanics, you can get some good insights about what to do and not to do while driving your car, but learning those things doesn’t teach you how. Similarly, the procedural and process knowledge for being in relationships is learned through being in relationships.
However, there are some challenges about learning relationships through being in relationships. I like sum these up as 1) No do-overs and 2) I’ve never been here before. Neuroscience can help teach us how to reduce the effects of these limitations as we navigate our relationships.
No relationships do-overs
We don’t get to practice life until we perfect the technique and then do it for real. Though I teach my couples the skill of asking for and giving a “do-over” this playful practice is not reality. The misspoken word, the years of over work instead of being at home, or the emotional break down over a small issue once done, is now forever a part of the history of the relationship. That history doesn’t determine the future but it can create pain and trauma that require healing in the present. So, unlike driving, we can’t practice relationships on a closed track. For better or worse, to learn to do relationships, we pull directly out onto the highway at our own peril and the peril of our partners. Neuroscience can teach us a lot about how we can drive skillfully given our temperament once we get onto that relationship highway but it will never replace being in relationships.
Never been here before: Every day your relationship is different
Each person is limited by time as to number and depth of relationships that it is possible to have in the span of one life. While many people enter into more than one long-term relationship in their life, there are only a limited number of those experiences that we have to draw on for figuring out how to navigate the current long-term relationship which is unique. So, unlike driving, our ability to generalize from other experiences of driving the same relationship car (brain) and road (a specific relationship with one person) are severely limited. Instead, each moment in a relationship is the first and only time you get this chance.
Though we can generalize from prior experience to a degree, the way to be in relationship today always includes new possibilities. You’ve never been with this partner this many days into a relationship. Even if this is your fourth decade-long sequentially monogamous relationship in your life, you’ve never been in this relationship this long before. You’ve never been you this old until today. And so, there is a limit to everything that you’ve learned. This is a wonderful gift. It means that today you or your partner could do something new, different, or unexpected. You are free today to begin creating the relationship that you have always wanted.
The neuroscience of plasticity, trauma recovery, and mood all bear on the capacity for the present to be different from the past and can help us learn how to more effectively break from old patterns.
I do not have antipathy about the neuroscience of relationships. But the neuroscience of relationships has limits. Might a driver drive better knowing more about the mechanics of a car? Likely. But will it teach you to drive? No, to learn you must drive. Similarly the neuroscience of relationships might help you figure out what to try to improve your relationship but to actually make it better you have to change how you behave in your relationship. Is it possible to be skilled at your relationships without neuroscience knowledge? Yes, definitely. So don’t mistake one type of knowledge for the other. Don’t mistake a neuroscientist for a relationship expert. If you want to improve your relationship, reading a book is like reading a manual about driving. Don’t just read a book about relationships, get a certified relationship driving instructor; a licensed therapist.
1 When the limbic system is activated we aren’t thinking clearly, we just want to feel safe again so we withdraw or lash out in whatever way we can to stop the threat. So when a couple is activated this way I stop the discussion and help calm the clients down before we proceed for solutions.
2 This system has several parts which help moderate expectation, pleasure, and desire. Knowing about this system helps me understand that helping couples increase sexual pleasure isn’t just about helping them find the right button to push. Instead they need to learn that the button might be pleasurable, then find that it is pleasurable, and then have permission to want more of it.
3 This system helps us filter the context of our environment to determine whether we could feel sexual interest and desire in a given context. In long-term relationships familiarity may not generate interest while the stress of managing a life together may generate stressful associations with the partner instead of sexy ones. So, helping a couple increase novelty and decrease stress may be just as important as helping them communicate with one another.