The Biology of Human Connection
One of the key indicators of ill health is isolation. When we withdraw from others or cannot establish true heartfelt connections we stop growing and fail to thrive. Why? – Because attachment is survival. As human beings we attune and synchronize with one another providing “resonance” or rather a sense of mutuality, balance, and well-being. We are more or less “pack” animals and inclined towards belonging to the group or “herd.” As mammals, this is how our brains are wired through the limbic structures which house the more advanced emotional centers of the brain, making possible wondrous things like a mother’s love and sense of protection for her child; the feelings of romance and sexual attraction required for coupling and procreation; and the connection to sensory memories which evoke feelings of sentimentality.
Deep within we are hard wired to attach and to make bonds. This drive is so strong that it, at times, super cedes our capacity for reason. For instance, some people may struggle ending an intimate relationship that provides little enrichment, but the thought of breaking the physical bond may feel too overwhelming or the thought of being alone like death. Or, the small child who continues to search his mother’s face for a sign of emotional validation or acknowledgement but comes up against cool practicality, bluntness or distraction. Situations like these produce anxieties – these pursuits may seem fruitless but are intended to activate the other person in the effort to ignite attachment – to shake the other into attention! When activation attempts do not work there is anxiety, irritability and despair—maybe even rage. When disruption to attachment occurs during child development wedges of challenge and distress are created and embedded into the developing human personality, which present difficulties in adulthood; socially, medically, and emotionally.
How Relationships Affect our Health
Relating to others tends to bring up feelings in us; whether we are aware of them or not – Our deepest fears, frustrations, past emotional traumas, and our greatest joys. Emotional states affect body functions as information is passed from the limbic brain to the endocrine system and then impact immune regulation and metabolism. Essentially, our emotions are directly transmitted into our bodies in “real time.” – Another mind-body connection.
When a relationship is stressed or there is a threat of loss or emotional attainment there is a high likelihood of illness or decline in well-being – For example, the person living with a chronic alcoholic, who adapts their lifestyle around his or her partners’ addiction. Or, a close friendship or intimate partnership that goes on in an unbalanced state whereby one person’s needs routinely go unmet or are underscored in the interest of the others’ desires. These imbalances create tension and anxiety both consciously and subconsciously, but health issues are bound to surface over the course of time. They affect each person in the relationship as well as the social health of others connected to them.
Relationship Styles and “Pitfalls”
Like noted above – Whatever the presenting problem appears to be, we always come back to the relationships in our lives. But whatever the issues are – the question remains “How do we do relationship” – What is our style that produces the dynamics which occur? It is generally the dynamics that present pleasure or displeasure for most people, however, these are easy to overlook when one is “in” a strained relationship making objectivity more difficult.
One style that we see quite frequently is an Enmeshed – Dependent style of relating whereby the people in the relationship behave as one emotional system – meaning “When you’re sad I’m sad, when you’re glad I’m glad.” Characteristics can include high loyalty, and strongly unified front –the epitome of being one the same page. This is how we are trained by our culture to relate to one another in relationships, however, this style does not allow the people to truly be themselves with an independent mindset unique to which they are as people. This style generally produces, tension, irritability, blame on others, anxiety, impatience – and underlying resentment as the “self,” including needs, wants and other people / sentiments are sacrificed in the name of “the relationship.” As this style is rooted in fear and created as a means of compensation for the lack of effective relationship skills it inhibits true growth and can negatively impact health.
An Avoidant – Counter Dependent style is marked by two people operating as two totally different systems. The people in the relationship tend to avoid true intimacy, vulnerability, and openness with themselves and others and stay with “safe” topics, routine, and structure. There is little or no visible signs of dependency, in fact it is devalued. There is immense fear of rejection, abandonment, and conflict embedded in this style.
What most people want but yet takes self-development to attain is a more Cooperative – Interdependent style where people come together by choice, and interact as separate whole people with individual differences. There is much room to grow with collaboration in the interest creating a safe environment in which to grow and change and to become more comprehensive people. Each benefits from the differences of the other and respects that each has a different process. There is a strong focus on solutions to problems and “give and take.”
How do you feel about the relationships in your life? Do they provide you with energy or take energy? What is your style of relationship?
Brene Brown: The Power of Vulnerability (Give Brene a few minutes to warm up!)