Love in the Profound Part of the Brain

To love well, balance autonomy and connection.

Posted Jul 19, 2020

Does your love relationship keep getting worse no matter what you do?

If so, the subtext of the following will sound familiar, even if you don't use the exact words:

"I would like you to do this," one of you says, meaning: "If you loved me, you would do it."

The other thinks, "If you loved me, you wouldn't ask me to do that."

"If you loved me, you would meet my needs."

"What about my needs?"

"Why can't you get me?"

"Why do you have to control me?"

High emotional reactivity is a hallmark of this type of conflict. That's when a negative feeling in one of you triggers chaos or shutdown in the other. The most intense reactivity is fueled by hormones, which likely helps explain why we fight more virulently when young and recede into cold standoffs as we age.

The origins of the conflict go back to toddlerhood, with the emergence of a contradiction in human nature—the Grand Human Contradiction—our competing drives for autonomy (deciding our own thoughts, feelings, and behavior) and connection—relying for love and support on significant others, who have the same contradictory drives. The autonomy-connection struggle is what makes toddlers irresistible and so hard to handle.

The Grand Human Contradiction inevitably reemerges in intimate relationships, and we tend to handle the conflicts it causes the same way we did as toddlers, with blame, denial, avoidance, sulking, and temper tantrums.

We get stuck in the toddler brain—the limbic-alarm system, which is near fully developed on a structural level around age three. In the toddler brain, negative emotions sound alarms—something bad is happening! All thoughts reinforce the alarm and all behavior reacts to the perceived horror of it.

The ability to assess (determine how bad it really is), improve, and repair require dominance of the adult brain—including the prefrontal cortex, which is not fully developed until the mid-to-late twenties. In the adult brain, you can see both perspectives at once. You can feel your partner's hurt as well as your own and realize that you deeply care for the person currently driving you up the wall. You have a chance of working out what is best for both of you and achieving what you both want—a sense of mutual caring.

Toddlers Have Needs, Adults Have Desires

In toddler love, all negative emotions seem to come from "emotional needs," which your partner refuses to gratify. The desire to love degrades into "Getting my needs met," which means to an equally needy partner: "I have to give up who I am to satisfy you."

When love and desire are confused with emotional need, partners eventually act out the old Bob Dylan song, "I gave you my heart, but you wanted my soul."

The soul of love, like a powerful sense of self, grows stronger with desire and weaker with perceived needs. Desire motivates giving; perceived needs motivate demands. Which is more likely to be successful in love?

Toddler love vacillates between autonomy and connection—selling out the self for the relationship and vice versa.

Adult love balances conflicting drives for autonomy and connection—the self grows with the relationship.

Toddlers in love demand; adults in love negotiate.

Toddlers in love cannot see each other's perspective; adults use binocular vision to see both perspectives simultaneously.

Toddler love is intolerant of differences; adults appreciate and respect differences.

Toddlers in love are retaliatory; adults in love are compassionate.

Toddler love features splitting (you're all good or all bad); adults in love realize: I love you when I feel bad or good, when you feel bad or good, when I don't like your behavior, and when you don't like my behavior.

For toddlers in love, negative emotions are alarms; adults in love see negative emotions as motivations to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect.

Balance Competing Drives

When interactions with your partner start to get stressful, shift into your adult brain—focus on how to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect. Strive for binocular vision, the ability to see your partner's perspective alongside your own. Don't dwell on the alarm, how bad you might feel, and who's to blame. Think of how to make it better.

Ultimately, adults-in-love balance the competing drives to be autonomous and connected by acting on their deepest values more than their feelings. This keeps them focused on what is most important to and about them. They might feel like sulking or zoning out or getting away from a distressed partner or retaliating, but their desire to improve, appreciate, protect, and connect is more important than indulging those temporary feelings.

If you act on your values, your feelings will eventually follow as you feel more genuine. But acting on feelings will usually cause you to violate your deeper values (for example, about not hurting the person you love), which will make you feel guilty, ashamed, and phony.

We must be in the adult brain to act on deeper values. It's not always easy, but the reward is becoming the person and partner you most want to be—self-sufficient, yet caring, reliable, and able to rely on loved ones. Adults in love understand that their only chance of getting the partner they most want to have is to be the partner they most want to be.

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