A friend of mine recently ended an intimate relationship because she felt her beau not only misunderstood her, but that he also prevented her from being her true self. There were telltale signs of the end, as there always are, things like needing more time apart, feeling trapped during time spent together, and more. “I don’t know who I am anymore,” she confided. “I’m losing more of myself the longer I stay in this relationship.” So, should she have stayed and tried harder? Or, was she right to end an otherwise dead-end relationship? If only relationships were that easy. Few of us have weathered intimacy without enduring at least a few broken-hearted moments.
It is true that a certain amount of compromise is required in a healthy relationship, but as with anything, there are limits to how much of ourselves we should suppress. Too much compromise may result in a loss of self and personal identity and an imbalance in the relationship. According to Amy Banks and Leigh Ann Hirschman’s new book, Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships, relationships with people who do not understand you may weaken neural circuits that enable you to connect in healthier ways. “Healthy relationships nurture our neural capacity for resonance,” write Banks and Hirschman. Damaging relationships, on the other hand, cause those same circuits to “wither from disuse.” Relationships come in many shades, from parent-child to sibling-sibling to friend-lover, and more. Any relationship can be damaging or hold the opportunity for forging deeper human connection. But how do we know which relationships are promising and which ones are doomed from the start?
As it turns out, the truth resides in the physical body as well as in the emotional life. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, better known as the places where our “fight, flight, or freeze responses” come from, are warning signals for the stress we feel. The problem is that “fight, flight, or freeze” aren’t the only options on the nervous system menu, write Banks and Hirschman. According to evolutionary theory, mammals have evolved a much more sophisticated way to identify and respond to stressors. That evolutionary nugget is the smart vagus, and it lets us know, through facial expression, body language, and other means, whether we are in the company of trustworthy people such as friends and family.
The safety feeling set off by the smart vagus, say Banks and Hirschman, permits us to be more animated, more open, and to respond in other socially appropriate ways that signal our comfort level around those with whom we feel secure. The smart vagus, however smart, can be wrong. Misreading friend for foe and vice versa comes, suggest Banks and Hirschman, from early childhood shaping and from subsequent patterns of dysfunction. This is not to say that we should blame our parents for our broken nervous systems; instead, we should see the issue for what it is and work to correct the error. In effect, we need to retrain ourselves to correctly identify signals and respond in socially appropriate ways.
“Neural pathways compete for brain space” and if you want the good ones to stay, then “you must starve” the negative ones that are competing for space. Whenever you identify a negative message “relabel it as a cultural message that sabotages your goal of reclaiming your connected brain…With practice, the world can transform in front of your eyes.”
Banks and Hirschman do an excellent job detailing the primary parts of the brain that are responsible for connection and sustaining healthy relationships. Perhaps most intriguing about the book is the discussion on how to reprogram the brain and, in effect, how to free oneself from patterns of dysfunction. Neuroanatomy and brain function are not easy subjects, but the authors present them in a way that makes them accessible to nearly any reader. Through masterfully selected clinical examples and easy-to-understand self-assessment tools, Banks and Hirschman avoid some of the primary problems often present in books of this kind. They brings a complex and invaluable topic to their readers in a way that makes it palatable and also extremely practical. This is no easy task where brain science is concerned and the authors handle it with aplomb.
I strongly recommend this book, not only for those who wish to better understand the mechanics of intimacy, but also for all of those who wish to shed outdated patterns and reprogram the brain for a healthier, more joyful life.
Wired to Connect: The Surprising Link Between Brain Science and Strong, Healthy Relationships
TarcherPerigee, February 2016
Paperback, 310 pages