The Psycho-Physiology of Relationships: What You Don't Know
How relationships secretly regulate us physiologically.
Posted Jul 12, 2020
"We are born in relationships, wounded in relationships, and heal in relationships." —Harville Hendrix
As a relationally-oriented therapist, influenced by the work of Dr. Sue Johnson, I know that relationship distress is the main reason that people seek psychotherapy. I know many seek my services because of their trauma. But what is usually the most common and damaging element of trauma? It's relational ruptures such as loss, abandonment, abuse, and grief. Relationships are at the root of mental health in every way.
Our brains are hardwired with social circuitry that privilege emotions and our fundamental need for close attachments with others. They are imprinted in our survival code. We are innately interdependent before we are independent. This is evident from birth; as babies, we depend on our attachment figures to meet our basic needs. Isolation is not our natural state and is innately traumatizing. Our capacity for self-regulation is ultimately a function of the strength of our attachment bonds with others.
Consequently, because emotion conveys the importance of our attachment bonds, as a relational therapist, it’s vital to address and work with emotion in the room to create bonding events. Our attachment relationships stir up the most powerful emotions and emotions are what tell us what we really need. It is no coincidence that receiving empathy from our attachment figures on a stressful issue calms our nervous system, such as reducing our heart rate, muscle tension, and skin conductance.
We are emotionally, socially, and physiologically programmed to live in close connection with people who we know will come when we need them to. In this sense, therapists, families, and couples often miss that their conflicts are actually rooted in emotional disconnection. Our attachment needs are so salient that they can be measured physiologically. For example, if you have a safe, loving, relationship, your heart rate decreases, you have fewer stress hormones, and your body works more efficiently. Thus, the psychology and psychopathy of emotions is, in large part, the psychology and pathology of affective bonds.
When there is conflict in our most important relationships, we become dysregulated emotionally because we ourselves feel terrified from threats to our attachment bonds. When an attachment bond is insecure—i.e. when we sense our partner is not accessible or responsive—the relationship partners become preoccupied spending most of their time evaluating and addressing threats to their bond, rendering them unable to effectively learn new information and be present or function optimally.
To underscore the importance of humans’ interdependent nature and relational context, 75 to 85 percent of child developmental delays come from not getting their needs met from their caregivers and environment. As Gregory Bateson asserted in a film that his daughter, Nora Bateson (2011), produced about his life, “I am with you as you are with me as I am with you,” and “When I look at a hand I do not so much see five fingers, but four relationships between fingers.”
It is not always easy to encourage clients to think relationally. Here in the West, we tend to converse about problems in ways that are consistent with the medical model which stresses individual and intrapsychic factors, diagnosing, pathology, and medical language. Clients thus often anticipate talking this way in therapy. In my clinical work, I thus continuously highlight what is happening between people in their interactions.
Because attachment needs are naturally healthy and adaptive, couples and families seek therapy because their interactive patterns have left them feeling stuck and disconnected. Therapy is an opportunity to create new emotionally bonding experiences; to unstick and open the individual (or couple) to deep and real connection.
Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) with individuals, couples, and families. Guilford Publications.
Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological science, 17(12), 1032-1039.
Bateson, N. (2011). An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter's Portrait of Gregory Bateson: Remember the Future. Mindjazz pictures. Chicago