"Oh, man, I hate Valentine's Day!" I hear this a lot in my office as February 14th approaches. Since I focus on helping people create healthier relationships, you can probably guess why. Valentine's Day is the bane of anyone who's single but doesn't want to be. It flings daggers of loneliness rather than the gentle arrows of Cupid. And if you're in a relationship, Valentine's Day can feel a little like an episode of "Survivor" — are you (or your relationship) surviving? Thriving? Or getting voted off the island?
Instead of dreading another February 14th, consider turning it into your day to make a healthy relationship resolution. You could call it a new year of the heart, the first day of the rest of your love life.
Waitwaitwait! Before you start making your long list of habits that you could resolve to change, you need to remember that cultivating new or better relationships isn't about admonishing yourself to stop yelling, or putting little sticky notes on the mirror about how wonderful you are. You've probably (repeatedly) tried scores of ideas like those, and your relationships still don't cut it - the same old problems keep resurfacing.
Here's the thing: The way your brain is wired is mostly what helps - or hurts - when it comes to satisfying, healthy relationships. You need a wired-in "Operating System" that supports better relationships from the ground up — the kind of OS that supports "apps" for keeping your anxiety or anger from hijacking disagreements, or increasing your resilience when it comes to your emotional reactions.
I'm sharing here my list of the most important apps for better love — the skills that seem to be the most powerful in creating and sustaining a healthy, vibrant relationship. Best of all, these are acquirable apps, skills you can develop and grow within yourself, within your brain, starting with the most basic and getting progressively more sophisticated:
• Better management of your body's reactions
• Regulation of your response to fear and stress
• Increased emotional resilience
• More flexible responses to relationship challenges
• Improved insight (self-knowing)
• Healthy, balanced empathy and attunement-within yourself and with others
• A perspective shift from "me" to "we"
Installing and running these love apps isn't about resolving to be, say, more empathic, or to practice stress management. Trying to install these apps won't really work if you haven't dealt with your underlying "relationship OS." All of us who've struggled with self-improvement or self-acceptance — or any other method for trying to make healthier relationships with ourselves and others possible — often fall into the trap of trying to get our cortex, the intellectual, insightful part of our brain perched way up top, to make changes in the way the deep, lower parts of our brains drive our relationships. But if you have a faulty OS trying to get those two areas to work together as a team — it's a bit like trying to get an iPhone app to work by typing in DOS commands. It's just not gonna go well.
Sorry to say that there's a bit more bad news: most of your brain's relationship OS was developed unbelievably early in your brain's history-before you were about two years old. Your first experiences with relationships-those you had with your parents-have a huge influence on how you deal with relationships throughout your life. The your-parents-to-you relationship covertly operates in important, behind-the-scenes ways in your later you-to-your-partner romantic relationships.
And the style of attachment you develop in childhood (secure or insecure, anxious or avoidant) is most often a lifetime deal. It informs and influences how you interact with others, how you see yourself in relationships, and, as much as you might not like to believe this, it deeply influences the kinds of partners we attract and are attracted to, leaving us to play out the same relationship patterns over and over again. The lessons of our primary childhood relationships run so deep and so strong — and often waaaaay outside our conscious awareness — that we all find it extraordinarily challenging to overcome them. It's a buggy operating system. Unfortunately, you can't just order a replacement OS on Amazon.
But — you can rewire your brain for better relationships, starting now, with your Valentine's Day resolution. You can rebuild your OS for love.
How? Recent studies by leading neuroscientists and biobehaviorists-researchers from Harvard, UCLA, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Cambridge, to name a few-have shown that the practice of mindfulness meditation promotes changes in the brain in areas and ways that can promote healthier relationships with yourself and others.
And it doesn't take years of practice-many beneficial effects are seen in the earliest stages of practice, in as little as a few weeks of practicing 20 minutes a day.
Can't do 20 minutes? That's perfectly okay; start with two.
Now, if you're not finding the love of your life, or if you're in a crummy relationship, you don't usually say to yourself, "Hey, I know — I need to start meditating!" But let me share this perspective with you: I've been practicing psychotherapy for over 20 years. I've always felt deeply honored to help people as they dig in and do the often difficult work of creating better lives for themselves. And since I began using mindfulness meditation with my patients, I've been privileged to witness some of the most amazing shifts and improvements. It has been the single most remarkable and elegantly simple way to update your OS that I've ever seen, and the neuroscience evidence backs that up.
By practicing mindfulness meditation, you can rewire your brain's relationship operating system, get the amazing love apps-and make this Valentine's Day the beginning of Love 2.0.
Marsha Lucas, PhD is a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist in Washington DC, and author of Rewire Your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness (Hay House, February 2012).