To make this the best holiday season, you will be celebrating with friends and family. All of these events are welcome. What are not welcome are old family ghosts. By family ghosts I mean hurtful childhood interactions.
Like unwelcome family members who barge in at the most inopportune times, these old interactions intrude and bring back the old pain, the slights, the sense of injury, the disappointments and resentments. To make matters worse, the release of serotonin and GABA, vasopressin, dopamine, natural opiates, estrogen, and testosterone ─that were once triggered by mirror neurons ─are diminished. Love-inducing and good-mood brain chemistry was also in short supply during negative childhood scenarios so when mirror neurons trigger these childhood scripts they bring along our old mood states ─ both of which exacerbate the relationship playing out now.
In a very real sense, the current relationship becomes a new stage on which the old scripts find fresh life. If we could just free ourselves from these old painful family scenarios, solving problems in our relationships would be that much easier.
All too often, we repeat what's familiar even if it's painful. No matter how toxic the old drama was, it's what we know. For many, constantly repeating the troubled past stems from an unconscious wish to finally right it. Over and over again, the old familiar dynamics, played out anew, intensify the problems of the relationship.
What is really uncanny about this repetitiveness is that your partner often resembles a parent or player from the past. How often have you despaired that you married your father or your mother? Or cringed at the idea that you may be turning into your mother or father? It can be a shock of recognition to see your partner ─ through a prism of the past ─ turning into your parent.
There's another uncanny twist to the replay of these familiar dramas. If the new actor, your partner, does not resemble the old player from the past, you may unwittingly coerce your partner to enact the old script. That was the story with Gail and Nino.
Nino was everything Gail ever wanted - kind, considerate, caring - so unlike her overprotective, strict, restricting father. Yet ten years into the marriage, Gail complains bitterly that Nino is overprotective, controlling, and suffocating. How so?
When Gail got into trouble for drinking while driving, Nino immediately came to her rescue. But a stern lecture followed the bailout. When Gail got lost in a dangerous neighborhood late at night, who do you think she called? Nino, of course. So Nino now insists that Gail tell him in advance where she's going, with whom, and how she's getting there. Just like her overprotective, strict, controlling father, Nino wants to watch over every move she makes. The reason? Unwittingly, interconnecting mirror neurons made sure Gail would coerce Nino into becoming her father, enacting with him an old script all over again - the rebellious adolescent defying her controlling parent.
The result is that Gail today is a dismayed woman who has entirely lost hope in the relationship. "I don't love him anymore," she says. "The relationship is so hurtful and I don't see how the love can come back."
But the truth is that for Gail and Nino as for the actors in any relationship, the old scripts are not written in indelible ink. As you know by now, our adaptable brains ensure that we can rewire the mirror neurons, separate the old dynamics, and replace them with new ones. And that's what Gail worked on in therapy. Once she recognized the old family relationship and how it impacted her current one, she took steps to acknowledge her role and to change her behavior.
At the ripe old age of 35, Gail finally left adolescence behind and joined the ranks of womanhood. As for Nino─ with the help of reflecting and responding mirror neurons ─ he too has changed and is beginning to trust Gail's emerging maturity. Two adults interacting in healthy ways have replaced an ‘acting-out' child and a protective parent. To Learn more about separating the past from your relationship, read my book, The New Science of Love: How Understanding Your Brain's Wiring Can Help Rekindle Your Relationship (Sourcebooks, Casablanca, 2011).