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How Couples Learn to Love Like Adults

Empowered love is compassionate love.

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We fall in love via the toddler brain — the wonderful, emotional, impulsive, and volatile limbic system — which reaches structural maturity by age 3. We stay in love in the most profound and most stable part of the adult brain — the prefrontal cortex, which reaches full maturity around age 28. Toddler-brain love is filled with wonder and joy at first, but inevitably faces conflict and pain due to its cognitive limitations, especially the inability to see other perspectives or to see other people apart from how we feel at the moment. Adult love rises from our most humane values of compassion, kindness, nurturance, and desire for growth.

Most people would agree that, despite their moodiness and occasional temper tantrums, toddlers are joyous, loving, fascinating, and fun. And that sounds a lot like a description of falling in love. Toddler love can be lots of fun for adults when they emphasize curiosity, wonder, and affection. But when we retreat to the toddler brain under stress, as we’re wont to do, we become impulsive, reactive, self-obsessed, and demanding.

We're actually prone to shift to the toddler brain in love relationships. For all the wonderful things it adds to our lives, love exposes our deepest vulnerabilities in ways that most of us haven’t experienced since toddlerhood. In early relationship conflict, when habits of interacting are formed, most lovers have not felt so emotionally dependent and powerless over their deepest vulnerable feelings since they learned to walk.

Adults who love like toddlers often confuse intimacy with having their partners think and feel the same way they do. They perceive rejection and betrayal when loved ones think and behave like the unique individuals they are, with interests, tastes, and vulnerabilities that fail to mirror the fragile sense of self embedded in the toddler brain. Most complaints in toddler love take the form of: “Why can’t you be more like me? Why can’t you know what I need and just do it?”

Love Comes Easy to the Toddler Brain

You may have heard the saying, "Love is easy; relationships are hard." The truth is, relationships are hard, because love is so easy in the toddler brain. In the beginning, euphoria and boundless energy flow from hormones like vasopressin and oxytocin, which are instrumental in social behavior, sexual motivation, and pair bonding. They can make us feel like we’re walking on clouds and barely have to eat or sleep. And then there’s the hyper-focus of newly acquired love; we can think of little else besides the beloved. You can tell the “in love” couples in a restaurant; they’re so into each other, they barely pick at their salads, oblivious to the sights and sounds around them. The toddler brain facilitates bonding through its principal way of discerning other people, namely, projection. As the toddler brain falls in love, we attribute our best emotional states and impulses to the object of fascination.

As the bonding hormones that brought us together wane — they can only last a few months — the euphoric feelings of falling in love fade. We stop the idealistic attributions and begin to see things in our lovers we don't like. It's not so much that we don't like who our lovers really are, it's just that previously they seemed to be everything we really liked. If we just stopped the idealistic attributions, it wouldn’t be so bad. But the self-obsessed toddler brain cannot stop projecting. When it feels bad, it projects negative qualities onto the now disappointing loved one. This inevitable disillusionment is what couples begin to fight about, as early as the second year of living together. They struggle, in the wrong part of their brains, to balance what I call the Grand Human Contradiction.

The Grand Human Contradiction

Human beings are unique among animals in the need to balance two opposing drives. The drive to be autonomous — able to decide our own thoughts, imagination, creativity, feelings, and behavior — must compete with an equally strong drive to connect to significant others. We want to be free and independent, without feeling controlled. At the same time, we want to rely on significant others — and have them rely on us — for support and cooperation.

Other social animals — those who live in groups and packs and form rudimentary emotional bonds — have relatively little or no discernible sense of individuality to assert and defend. Solitary animals are free and independent, but do not form bonds with others that last beyond mother-infancy. Only humans struggle with powerful drives that pull us in opposite directions, in which too much emotional investment in one area impairs emotional investment in the other.

The competition between the drives for autonomy and connection is so important that it emerges in full force in toddlerhood, which is why “the twos” can be so “terrible.” Toddlerhood is the first stage of development in which children seem to realize how separate they are from their caretakers, when they become aware of emotional states that differ from those of their parents. They had previously felt a kind of merging with caregivers, which provided a sense of security and comfort. The new realization of differences stirs excitement and curiosity, but also endangers the comfort and security of the merged state. Now they must struggle with an inchoate sense of self prone to negative identity: They don’t know who they are, but when aroused, they know who they’re not — they’re not whatever you want. Thus we have the favorite two words of the toddler: “Mine!” and “No!”

The increasing conflict with parents wrought by the drive for autonomy endangers the other powerful human drive — to connect, to value and be valued, to be comforted, and to comfort. Hostility toward their parents, however short in duration, stirs uncomfortable feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety, which fuel intense emotional distress — the classic temper tantrum. Internal conflict is overwhelming for toddlers, because they lack the self-regulatory power of the adult brain.

We cannot balance the competing drives for autonomy and connection in the toddler brain. For love to endure, we must develop the skill to switch into the adult brain under stress. There we can replace the toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance with the adult coping mechanisms of improve, appreciate, connect, and protect.

Here’s a quick test to see if you’re in a toddler brain relationship: Write down a few exchanges you’ve had with your partner in an argument. Regardless of the content, toddler brain exchanges will take the form of one of you saying, “Mine!" or, "My way!” and the other saying, “No!”

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