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Body and Brain Benefits From Lasting Intimacy

Research reveals how an enduring connection leads to better health.

Key points

  • In love, we feel less pain, bounce back from disease, and become more creative.
  • Reciprocal eye gazing between partners increases neural circuit activity, which plays a key role in love.
  • Brain damage and cognitive problems hamper the ability to sustain loving connection, crumbling some marriages and relationships.
  • When we balance and express both our vulnerable and strong sides, we offer another our whole, authentic self.

“Love is a biological necessity,” writes Stephanie Cacioppo in Wired for Love: A Neuroscientist’s Journey Through Romance, Loss, and The Essence of Human Connection. A healthy love life, she reveals, is as necessary to a person’s well-being as nutritious food, exercise, and clean water, and evolution has ordained it that way. Cacioppo, a leading authority on the neuroscience of social connection, focuses chiefly on romantic bonds that bind two human beings, making hearts flutter and sometimes break.1

She delves into why people in love feel less pain, bounce back from illness, become more creative, and hurt so much when they lose love in their lives. The author also chronicles her late husband John T. Cacioppo’s research on loneliness and social connection. Despite the gap of more than 15 years between them, their Chicago-based romance was featured in a New York Times “Modern Love” column in 2017.2 Sadly, John lost a courageous battle with cancer the following year.3 His wife was frequently called upon to comment on loneliness during the global pandemic.

While we’re accustomed to seeing a heart image associated with feelings of love, Stephanie Cacioppo knows full well that this isn’t the body organ responsible for it. Translated accurately, we could say, “You stole my brain,” as opposed to heart because the brain is ultimately responsible for emotion, cognition, and the ability to fall and remain in love. “Building healthy relationships also builds a healthier brain, one that—as we will discover—can stave off cognitive decline, spur creativity, and speed up our thinking,” she writes in this blended memoir and science tome, debuting in April.

Quick takeaways:

  • The amygdala, known for the brain’s fight-or-flight response to threat, is buried beneath the cerebral cortex. With it, we’re just as hardwired to respond to positive experiences we should turn toward, Cacioppo writes. Her “Love Machine” experiments, conducted at Dartmouth College, were intended to help a person decide between two potential suitors with measures of brain function in response to subliminal messages. Most performed better after seeing “the name of the person they undoubtedly loved.”
  • Romantic love triggers both the brain’s pleasure centers and the cortical regions that manage our sense of self, like the angular gyrus, much more intensely than friendship. It’s the same whether you are gay, straight, of either gender, or transgender.
  • As humans date and mate, eye contact activates our mirror neuron system, as we release oxytocin and seem to measure the degree to which we feel as one, an important predictor of relationship health, she writes. That reciprocal eye-gaze between partners increases activity in the neural circuits that play a key role in love.
  • Sadly, brain injury or brain-based damage affects the anterior insula and hampers the ability to sustain loving connections. In the case of a stroke victim, a marriage crumbled, and the author couldn’t help but wonder if a damaged insula sped that along. She discusses how pleasant touch grounds and calms two partners and the same for how walking, running, or dancing together switches on the insula. “One of the most powerful ways of activating the analgesic power of love is through physical touch,” Cacioppo reports.
  • So much of our social experience as it applies to romance involves expectations, which can set us up for happiness or trap us with preconceived notions of what happiness looks like. Successful mates must let go of mind-trapping expectations; otherwise, one party can easily become resentful or spiteful. When people expect sacrifice on part of their partners, they feel much less positive. Expectations kill gratitude, and rumination leads to less life satisfaction and happiness, she reveals.

Another look at intimacy

Author Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Ph.D., wrote The Dance of Intimacy decades ago. This bestseller educates readers with basic family systems concepts, how our families of origin influence future relationships, and how each of us has a vulnerable side and a strength-based one. “When we cannot express both sides with some balance, then we are not operating with a whole and authentic self,” Lerner writes.4

Therefore, “work on self” becomes a top priority as people explore their relationship difficulties and perhaps seek help through therapy. Lerner reports that differences are rarely the true problem in relationships, but our reactivity to such truly is where we need to focus, writing: “Reactivity exaggerates and calcifies differences.”

Change occurs for the better when we work on our own issues rather than remain focused on fixing and/or reacting to our mate or significant other. Too much distance pushes important issues underground rather than being worked on, and an overfocus on one’s partner finds us in polarized positions where we’re unable to see more than one side of a problem. Of course, this fuels discord, ramps up anxiety, and blocks intimacy.

Lerner’s seminal work focuses on the lifespan of love and connection. We learn that to achieve both, we must put primary energy toward our own lives, or our intimate relationships will indeed suffer. She summarizes this well, writing: “Intimate relationships cannot substitute for a life plan. But to have any meaning or viability at all, a life plan must include intimate relationships.”

Copyright @ 2022 by Loriann Oberlin, M.S.






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