Unlocking the Love Code
Our bodies were meant for love.
Posted February 14, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Humans are hardwired for love and reap many physical and emotional benefits from connection.
- When we're afraid or stressed, our bodies can get stuck in fight-or-flight mode, causing us to lash out at or withdraw from our partner.
- Understanding our own nervous system and emotional triggers can help us calm down and strengthen our relationship bond.
We are hardwired for connection; as it turns out, it’s a biological imperative. From an evolutionary lens, it ensures the perpetuation of the species through reproduction and safety. Taking a closer look into our neurobiology, our health and happiness depend on it. Our bodies thrive in a state of love.
The neurobiology of relationships
Dr. Stephen Porges and his wife Sue Carter of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University study the neurobiology of love and bonding. Porges developed the polyvagal theory, which explains the vagus nerve’s responses to love and fear. Carter studies neuropeptides (hormones) and their effects on love and fear. Together, they explain how our body influences our emotions, attachment, and communication.
In the love state, Porges describes a parasympathetic response of our autonomic nervous system, known as the ventral vagal state. In this bodily state, we are “without fear” and feel safe and free to connect with others. Individuals who access this physiological state easily default to emotions that promote altruism, compassion, gratitude, and happiness and are described as warm and tender-hearted. They have higher resilience to stress.
Plus, they have higher levels of oxytocin (the love hormone) and lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). This distribution of hormones keeps the body’s levels of systemic inflammation low, correlating to good mental and physical health. They have a “chill” personality and can calm down easily when upset. They have a sharper memory and can tap into a mind that is clear and creative. It’s understandable why the ventral vagal state is considered our most authentically human state.
The faces of fear
It all seems a bit utopian. We live in a world of mistrust, competition, and divisiveness. What happened to us? Why are relationships so hard?
In a word: fear. Rather than form bonds of connection, we adopt patterns of protection. We don’t often recognize our behavior as fear-based, but it’s fear all the same.
Porges describes one fear response as our sympathetic state of the autonomic system. It’s a state of high alert, ready for action or mobilization. When stressed, people either respond with fight behaviors or flight behaviors. Modern-day stressors may not evoke beating someone up with a tree limb or running for the nearest cave, but they are born of the same need to protect.
Fight behaviors tend to be expressed as chronic anger, defensiveness, criticizing, arguing, and yelling. They may use strategies of control or manipulation or be mean-spirited, jealous, or rebellious.
Flight behaviors tend to be expressed by avoiding, stonewalling, disconnecting, and turning away. These behaviors may also turn toward false attachments or love substitutes, such as food, substances, love and sex addictions, gambling, or work. In other words, they leave and find something or someone else. If you want to further explore the idea of food as a false attachment, grab a copy of my latest book, Food, Body, and Love: But the Greatest of These Is Love.
When these don’t work anymore as a protection from a chronic fear state, Porges believes there is a third physiological state called the dorsal vagal response. It’s a frozen state of hiding, shutting down, dissociation, and depression, almost as if the individual is feigning death. Their focus narrows. They live in a state of toxic shame, feeling beaten down, unloved, and unlovable. In some cases, people die of real or perceived loneliness.
Signals of fear and safety
Porges coined the term neuroception. It’s a process our body uses through a face-heart connection, otherwise known as the social engagement system, to scan our environment and let us know when it’s safe to proceed.
It’s like a human traffic light. The ventral vagal state is the green light, giving the “go ahead and live your best life” signal. When we sense danger, the yellow light sends a warning to protect ourselves through fight or flight. When our body senses a death threat, it collapses into the red-light state of stop and drop.
Relationships Essential Reads
Since we were wired for connection, in most instances, the green light dominates. Unfortunately, many people’s bodies have had some re-wiring along the way, and they may have a heightened sense of danger and more often default to a pattern of protection. This idea is especially true of those with a trauma background. Most don’t identify themselves as victims of trauma, but Dr. Sue Johnson, the author of Hold Me Tight, asks us to take a closer look. She explains that the Greek word for trauma is wound, and many of us carry relational wounds. She uses emotionally-focused therapy, helping couples identify their “raw spots” or triggers and the well-worn patterns of protection.
Unlocking the love code
To be human is to link heart and face. The social engagement system creates a natural co-regulation where our movements, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, and tempo of speech begin to synchronize. Our heart begins to align—literally. Unless it doesn’t feel safe to do so.
Our body responds to biological rudeness. Dr. John Gottman, a researcher using a “love lab” and co-author of several books, including The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, describes how we react to acts of dismissal. If we “bid” for our partner’s attention or support and get no response—maybe a flat face without expression or staring blankly at a phone—it can ignite a strong feeling of rejection. In fact, this expression can bring a baby to a state that is nearly inconsolable.
Why is the fear of rejection so primal? Being left out or kicked out of the clan could be life-threatening to humans. We need others to survive. It elicits fear and panic. Gottman discusses creating safety with non-verbal cues, explained by Porges’ theory of neuroception, by turning toward someone with respect and admiration, implicitly communicating “I value you.”
To create a safe, approachable environment for intimacy, soften the muscles around your eyes, lean in and tilt your head with interest, and use a sing-song vocal tone in your voice (good parents and good pet owners understand this concept!). Once safety is established, then, through co-regulation and touch (which releases oxytocin), an individual allows themselves enough vulnerability to fall easily into the arms of another.
A true partnership
As adults, we may find this idea silly and forget these niceties, expecting our partners “to get over it.” We may label them “too sensitive,” and yet, it is their physiological states that are hardwired. This vulnerability needs to be accepted and respected. Love needs to be approached with an open hand, freely given and received. Never forced.
Fear prompts some of us to control and manipulate, which sends others running for fear of being trapped. One partner will yell, and one retreats, prompting the other to run after them, further frightening them. It becomes a protective cycle of fighting and fleeing. Angry faces and loud tones both contribute to the no-win situation. When couples are in conflict, the first thing that needs to happen is to patiently allow each other to calm down. When in a sympathetic state of fear, all patterns of protection are heightened. In their book Attached, authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller write:
“In a true partnership, both partners need to view it as their responsibility to ensure the other’s emotional well-being.”
Respect your partner’s stress response, and make sure everyone is calmed down before attempting to resolve a conflict. Find a spirit of gratitude, fondness, and admiration for your partner. Find compassion and have sensitivity toward the other. After all, compassion is Latin for “co-suffering.”
Learning about your nervous system
Everyone must be curious and take on the role of a scientist when learning about their own nervous system. Discover how to notice, interpret, and explain your nervous states without judgment. Understand your triggers and your well-developed patterns of protection. Befriend the nervous system, as it is instinctively your protector.
You may need a trusted therapist to navigate this healing, especially if you have experienced significant trauma. Healing begins with awareness. Once you are aware, you can identify the key to unlocking your love code and share it with those you love as an explanation, not as an excuse. Teach others how to “whisper” to you, ultimately meeting both of your needs.
Anderson, K. (2021) Food, Body, and Love, but the greatest of these is love. Kari Anderson, Scottsdale, AZ.
Gottman J., Silver, N. (2000). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. A practical guide for the country’s formost relationship expert. Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rondale.
Johnson, S. (2008) Hold Me Tight. Your guide to the most successful approach to building loving relationships. Little, Brown and Company. New York.
Levine, A, Heller, R. (2010) Attached. The new science of adult attachment and how it can help you find and keep love. Penguin Random House: New York.
Porges, S, Carter, S (2020). Neurobiology of Love and Human Relationships. Instituto Cuartro Ciclos. Seminar notes.