The following excerpt is taken from the book Rewire Your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness by Marsha Lucas, Ph.D. It is published by Hay House and is available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com.
Response Inflexibility: Dating Thunderbolts
Kind of like lightning when it hits ungrounded pipes and wiring, our histories of emotionally painful experiences can lead us to surge emotionally when we’re reminded of them, whether implicitly or explicitly. And we often have a fairly limited repertoire of responses to those situations that just set us off—rage, tears, going silent, checking out. The surge and the reflexive fire-department response leave you vulnerable to making a real mess when you don’t mean to.
One of my patients, Julia, came to see me because she kept dating men whom she couldn’t trust to stick around. She’d “get a feeling” that they weren’t going to be able to be in a relationship for the long run. She said she kept freaking out and abruptly ending relationships because at some point she’d just know that she couldn’t trust the guy.
Julia had an aliveness that was palpable, with a beautifully expressive face and a colorful, engaging way of talking. As we talked about her early relationship history, she said she had great parents and felt very close to both of them, even though they’d divorced when she was very young and had lived on opposite coasts while she was growing up. She’d lived with her mother and traveled by plane to visit her father fairly often.
During the course of our work together, Julia dated a few different men, and I got to hear in (nearly) real time about several of her freak-outs. Eventually, she got to the point where she was more conscious of the men she was choosing, and she got better at selecting guys who were less likely to provoke “early freaking.” But she still had these slash-and-burn responses to even the slightest whiff of potential abandonment.
At one point, Greg, a man whom she was dating quite seriously, said, “I know you can get freaked out with guys, but really, I’ll always be here for you. I’m not going to leave you.” Julia told me, “I immediately freaked out, and we got into a huge fight. What the hell is wrong with me?”
I shared how struck I was that Greg’s words were the same soothing message that her father had offered her over and over in her childhood—and suddenly tears of grief and pain all but exploded from Julia’s eyes. After her sobs subsided, she realized that in her earliest attachment experience to a man (her dad), the reassurance—“I’ll always be here for you”—went along with the reality of being left. Little Julia had had to manage her loss, reunion, and loss again in each visit and separation with her dad, whom she adored. He was in many ways an amazing father, and her experience was that he did always love her warmly and dearly, with the very best of intentions. But the unintentional pain and confusion had made an early and stubborn impression on her brain’s wiring, and those long-ago wired pathways caught fire like a house struck by lightning whenever those old triggers arced into her brain.
What are the surges in the brain that are behind those habits—the ones that cause us to respond so reactively, reflexively, and rigidly? What can you do to have a greater range of response choices available than just that old-wired habit of get to ground?
“Hark, the Cannon Roars!”
It’ll be helpful to get clear about what we’re aiming for here: response flexibility. It’s all about choice.
And being able to make good, relationship-enhancing choices, instead of knee-jerk reactions, means that you need to have a moment—seriously, milliseconds—to give yourself a chance to make a choice. The lightning that struck my house? It only had one choice. By cultivating mindfulness, you give your brain the ability to choose to respond mindfully.
We all have those d’oh moments when we realize we’ve blown it with our partners and said something we regretted. And we’ve all had the experience where, upon later reflection (sometimes days later), we finally let the authentic, meaningful response that we wish we’d had the presence of mind to come out with earlier bubble up into our awareness.
By practicing mindfulness meditation, you’ll give your brain more time to generate an awareness of choices. The skills and wiring you’ve been learning as you’ve been reading and practicing your meditation exercises are enabling you to:
- Prevent your body and your primitive fear from driving you into a reflexive emotional ditch (or worse)
- Consciously assess the incoming information and recover with resilience from emotional misfiring; and
Give your higher brain the chance it needs to kick it up a notch and choose from a broader, healthier array of potential responses
Marsha Lucas, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and neuropsychologist who has been practicing psychotherapy and studying the brain‐behavior relationship for over twenty years. Prior to entering private practice, she was a neuropsychologist on the faculty at the Emory University School of Medicine.