What is biology doing in relationships?

Would you like to get a cup of coffee?

That moment when he first walked over to me, my heart was pounding. I can still see myself all of these years later. I think I may have blushed. He leaned forward and asked if I would like to get a cup of coffee. We had known each other for more than a year, causally meeting among friends once or twice a week. We had talked about ourselves in the safety of the group, sharing intimately. I was well into my 40’s and had not been on a “date” in more than 25 years. I had forgotten what it was like to be flustered by the admiring attention of another person. And here I was inadvertently saying no because I don’t drink coffee. As luck would have it, he was definitely interested and made a smooth pivot to tea. “I would love to have tea with you.” And thus we began the age-old dance of two people falling into infatuation. Relationships are rooted in biology.

The Birds and the Bees

Our hours-long tea date ignited an ember of attraction. We talked and flirted. We told each other our hopes and dreams. We considered the possibility of getting to know each other. It was another couple of weeks before he leaned into me to kiss me for the first time. Anticipation of that first kiss heightened the excitement and indelibly imprinted the moment and the memory on both of our minds and bodies. We can transport ourselves in an instant to that time and place, recalling exactly how it felt to be joyfully alive and connected. This surge of oxytocin and dopamine is nature’s mandate to pair up. It’s what we do.

The Relationship Dance

Intimate relationships have a moment of beginning that is rooted in attraction. This charged energy of hormones and excitement, desire, and arousal lasts anywhere from two minutes to two years. The biological drive to connect and attach overcomes the equally compelling drive to protect. And we pair up, if only for a brief time. At some point, the things that attract us to each other soften and the realities of day-to-day living emerge. We unconsciously, often subtlety, tune to the small irritations and annoyances. That thing she did that was adorable becomes less amusing. The particular way he does things with precision is no longer delightful. And here we are, in the heart of our survival dance instead of our mating dance.

In Imago, we tell you this is the necessary moment of conflict that begs for relationships to grow. Conflict invites each person in the dance to stretch and be curious. “I wonder why I feel this way right now?” Most of us look at the other person and think: “Why is he doing THAT?” “Doesn’t she know how irritating this is?” We begin to bicker and pick at each other. We look for what is wrong, forgetting everything that was so right! We mostly get here slowly. We establish new patterns that make it okay to ignore each other, to text while we talk, to be casually indifferent on occasion. We become familiar with each other’s moods.

The ups and downs of daily life reveal our nature. When things become too uncomfortable, we may argue, avoid, try to change the other person, dump our feelings. Others of us just want to wait until the storm passes. You may want to talk about it. I may wish that things could go back to the way they were but have no idea how to get there.

The Real Relationship Begins

With luck, we decide to do something new, wondering if this is “normal?” We google relationships, read articles on Medium, talk to our friends, and eventually, we might even talk to each other. The competing drives for connection and protection make this back and forth dance sustainable enough. But is that all you want? This is the turning point for everyone who longs to be deeply and joyfully connected. The opportunity to be curious about yourself and your partner opens up the possibility of biological and emotional connections. And because we are evolutionarily destined to partner, biology is actually a significant player in relationships.

Two Nervous Systems Walk into a Bar

Long before I notice, the color of your eyes, my nervous system has collected data that draws me to you. I like “bad boys” so I may be attracted to cues that you are edgy or “risky” for me. The cues that draw me to you are neuroceptively detected. Neuroception means that my nervous system is experiencing you and sending messages to my brain. My brain drafts a story about you. I sense you long before I know you, well before I have made meaning of you by attaching a story to you.

Our nervous systems look for cues that move us towards one of our two fundamental drives: connection or survival. Some cues read as safe and others as dangerous. Sometimes, in our relationships, we have a mismatch, where we, unaware, respond to a cue of danger when there is no danger. Alternatively, we might receive a cue of safety, when things are not safe. You can imagine the mayhem that ensues when two nervous systems meet! It is happening every day, all day and night, but we are not necessarily tuned to notice the messages. We become aware when we find ourselves acting in the best interest of either connection or survival.

Three States, Three Stories

Our nervous systems are organized in a hierarchy. We inherently long to feel safe and connected. When something comes along to move us into action, we gather our energy and adaptively react to the situation. When our natural mobilized response does not solve the issue, we shut down or disappear. People flow between these three states, up and down, all day long. Some situations invite a brief visit. Other situations demand that we stay activated or withdrawn for longer periods of time. The state we are in at any given moment colors and informs how we experience the situation.

My Favorite Story

When I am at the top of my hierarchy, what I think of as my favorite room in my house, I am relaxed, positive, and easygoing. The world is a sunny well-lit place and the people around me are delightful. When I do something disruptive or experience a rupture in this state, I am more likely to roll with it, assume that it will be okay. I am able to find a solution or see the possibilities. My relationships are easily engaged.

The Story I Least Like

Entering the mobilized state of being, also known as fight/flight, I am action-driven. This is the state I call my alarm system. Given the very same disruptive incident, I am more likely to defend myself, protect my interests, lean on my self-reliance rather than seek support. In this state, it is me against the world and everyone is a possible threat to me. My relationships are adversarial.

The Story I Know Best

Traveling on down the hierarchy, when, I am unable to overcome the situation, feeling overwhelmed, I slip on my invisibility cloak and disappear. I liken this state to the most basic of utilities; just enough power to keep the lights dimly on. I long to be teleported away. I hope that I can fly under the radar, undetected. I become exceedingly small, while the world becomes looming and big, and out of focus. My relationships are non-existent.

They Are Just Stories

With the same innocuous incident, there are three hugely different stories. I am capable. I am defensive. I am nothing. I imagine it is confusing for my partner when there are always at least three possible stories of me that may emerge in any given situation. We are likely to default more frequently to one of these stories over another. My spouse may expect me to go to one state or story in particular, since I go there most often. We all long to be in that capable, delightful, social state, and we have a clear preference for one of our survival states.

Meet Me Where I Am At

This dance of “us”, eventually becomes familiar. We each know our steps, speak our parts, we may even wear the same “costume” for the dance we do. I cloak myself in detachment, you wear the armor of keeping busy. We successfully maintain the survival dance when what we really want is the dance of connection. The path to connection is in our ability to co-regulation.

I, Thou

Martin Buber wrote, “All real living is meeting.” We meet one another first and foremost as nervous systems. The earliest dance of connection we learn is co-regulation. It is our first language, imprinting deeply on our systems. The first time we are calmed and soothed as an infant we learn to look to others for calming and soothing.  In Buber’s I, Thou relationship, we are aware of each other as having a unity of being.

Dance With Me

Co-regulation is the opportunity for one nervous system to calm another in a warm and welcoming feedback loop. This is the dance of connection. When one of us becomes reactive, we tend to respond to the other in a negative feedback loop of mutual dysregulation. And thus goes the distressing survival dance. In this dance, we are working from our most primitive instincts and do not have access to our most logical, rational thinking.

Relationships Are Biological

Our ability to be in a relationship with each other means that, unbeknownst to us, we are endlessly searching the “horizon” for cues that will either draw us towards each other in safety or arm us for the danger ahead. The more we can “befriend our biology” the more we are able to recognize that the way we are responding is rooted in evolution. The stories that we attach to responses are our evolved prefrontal cortex trying to make sense of something that has been primitively detected so that we can match our behavior to the story. When we slow down and notice the biological data that we have collected, we have the opportunity to manage our neurobiological state with gentleness and empathy. We can calm our nervous system, invite ourselves back into a regulated state, co-regulate to a calm partner, and generally spend more time in the state of joyful aliveness that we yearn for.

If understanding the biology of relationships interests you, join Hayley and David for the next Getting the Love You Want workshop to learn more about what your nervous system is doing when you and your partner find yourselves doing the survival dance. Learn ways to co-regulate with each other. Become wise in the ways that you meet in dysregulation and how to change that pattern. Look for ways to self-regulate so that you can be the calm nervous system in your relationships.

At the Imago Center, we offer a variety of services to help individuals and couples to live lives of well-being and connection:

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Getting the Love You Want Workshop May 15-16

A New Way to Love Mini-Workshop May 21-22

Keeping the Love You Find workshop Aug 28-29