As infants, before we could speak, we made our feelings known through non-verbal communication. We connected to our mothers with body language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, and most of all with timing. As adults, we still do.
Remember those incredible mirror neurons, those miniscule brain cells that connect lovers in deep connections. It is these very mirror neurons that trigger different parts of the brain to communicate our unconscious needs, desires, intentions, and goals to one another. But if one person talks over the other, this communication is lost. It all began in infancy, this timing thing.
A series of infant mother studies found a salient feature in non-verbal communication was the matching of rhythms or timing. Infants and mothers each paused for a similar duration before the other took her turn, showing how closely attuned they were to one another. With matching mirror neurons infants and mother's created a shared dialogue of timing ─without words ─ at an unconscious preverbal level.
This early rhythmic interaction lays the groundwork for later interactions. So in an intimate relationship one person does not talk over the other, but instead partners take turns to create a rhythmic dialogue. You will soon see how a failure in rhythmic dialogue affected Kate and Dylan's relationship.
To Speak or Not to Speak
Hands thrown up, Kate shouted, "For the life of me I can't understand why after twenty-one years of marriage you suddenly want out. What's up? Do you have another woman? Am I no longer attractive?" She fired one question after another.
With eyes rolled up to his bushy brows, Dylan said, "I've told her repeatedly why I was unhappy."
Seemingly oblivious to Dylan's dissatisfaction in the marriage, Kate proceeded to reminisce about their good times, the romance, the magic, their vacations, their three children, their home, their friends, and so on for a good fifteen minutes.
Dylan said nothing, only nodded and wrung his hands.
I finally interrupted her monologue and turned to Dylan. "Explain to Kate exactly what you are so unhappy about."
His response was not surprising. "I've been telling her over and over that I feel alone, that her head is somewhere else."
Wide-eyed shock and denial came from Kate, as she vented her discontents: his lack of participation with the children, with the house, the cooking, and that she made all the social and vacation arrangements. "I even have to initiate sex with you." She glared at him. Kate was the organizer, the actor, in the relationship and Dylan simply reacted to her ─ until now when he told her he was no longer in love with her.
As we moved along in the session, Dylan began to speak about how he felt invisible and suffocated. Kate talked non-stop over him leaving no room for him. He passively waited for his turn which rarely emerged. This couple was failing to achieve a rhythmic dialogue. Their personality styles played into this dynamic as Kate was on the domineering side and Dylan on the submissive side.
After examining her early childhood relationships, Kate explained that she had tried so hard not to follow in her mother's helpless, submissive shoes. In doing so, Kate chose the profession of medicine so that, unlike her mother, she could be independent and strong. What she failed to recognize was that her controlling overbearing personality was not a feature of strength. Instead it compensated for her inner feelings of insignificance, along with the fear of identifying with her mother and of being swallowed up.
When Dylan met Kate he was thrilled about finding his perfect partner ─he felt that she completed him. She filled in the gaps of silences that he, a shy man, abhorred. Their differences seemed to complement one another, until the differences stretched so far that they became polarized. Our tall, dark haired, taciturn man had grown smaller in stature, grayer, and more silent. And our fair lady has grown larger than life and more loquacious.
In therapy we worked on changing the dynamics of their relationship. Kate is learning to listen to Dylan and to have faith that it is safe to do so. Dylan is learning to speak out without the fear of her interrupting. As she lets go of the reins, Dylan is better able to ride bareback and find his free spirit. He is slowly become more assertive and Kate is more able to listen to his point of view and compromise.
In this snippet of a case story you can see how timing is everything in a relationship. In this case, the woman spoke over the man, but it can be the other way around, with the man speaking over the woman. In either case, with mutual determination couples can work on their relationships and rewire their brains.
To learn just how you can do that, read my new book, The New Science of Love: How Understanding the Brain's Wiring Can Help Rekindle Your Relationship (Sourcebooks, Casablanca, 2011). In this primer on love, you will learn about the power of mirror neurons on your love life, how love comes, goes, and how you can bring it back.