“Autopilot is the big enemy of relationships,” according to Marsha Lucas, Ph.D, a psychologist, neuropsychologist and author of Rewire Your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness.
That’s because our earliest experiences with relationships — the ones with our parents or caregivers — have a big influence on our later relationships. Without even knowing it, our early wiring tends to do a lot of the talking (and acting) in our adult romantic relationships, she said.
In her book Lucas cites a quote from Louis Cozolino, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who studies neuroscience:
“Because the first few years of life are a period of exuberant brain development, early experiences have a disproportionate impact on the shaping of our neural systems, with lifelong consequences.”
In fact, Lucas said, most of the wiring in the brain areas that affects relationships is laid down by the time we’re 18 to 24 months old.
For instance, fearful events are forever etched into our amygdala, a critical piece of the emotional hub of the brain. According to Lucas in her book, “In the realm of relationships, that means that any fearful or painful or otherwise potentially unsafe memories of long-ago relationship experiences are at the ready to try to ‘help’ you avoid being hurt today.”
Take the story of Rebecca, one of Lucas’s clients who came into therapy after staying in a lousy relationship for 14 years. Rebecca knew the relationship wasn’t working. But every time she was ready to end it, her amygdala and a slew of neurochemicals would flood her with fears of being abandoned. In her household growing up, emotions and less-than-excellent performance were unacceptable. “…We always felt like we were one phone call away from being packed up and sent off to distant relatives,” she told Lucas.
Your early wiring might manifest in repeatedly dating the same bad-for-you partners or in having the same fights over and over with your spouse, Lucas said.
Fortunately, our wiring isn’t set in stone. We have a fair amount of flexibility, because our brains are pretty plastic. Even as adults we’re able to create new connections and new neurons. And, according to recent research, mindfulness meditation may help make the most of our neuroplasticity to rewire our brains – for the better.
For instance, this 2005 study published in NeuroReport found that experienced meditators had an increased thickness in the brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing than did non-meditators.
A 2011 study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging found that individuals who participated in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention had increases in the gray matter of the hippocampus. (The hippocampus is responsible for memory and learning.)
This 2012 study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that longtime meditators had increased gyrification, or folding of the cortex, when compared to non-meditators. It’s believed that cortical folding helps the brain process information faster. The study found this beneficial type of folding in the insular cortex, which appears to be involved in emotion regulation and self-awareness.
How Mindfulness Can Help Relationships
So what does this mean for relationships? According to Lucas, mindfulness — paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment — can help us break out of the negative knee-jerk reactions we bring into our relationships. Specifically, she said, mindfulness helps to better manage the body’s reactions, regulate emotions and calm fears and anxieties – all key ingredients for healthy relationships. In her book, Lucas addresses seven such relationship-boosting benefits.
With better wiring in place, instead of picking a fight with your spouse after a stressful workday, you have a fruitful conversation about an important issue. Instead of your entire body shaking when your partner makes a snarky remark — and spewing below-the-belt slurs — you respond calmly. “You still have your emotions,” Lucas pointed out. “They just don’t hijack you.”
Basically, mindfulness helps your brain work in ways to make choices in the heat of the moment that serve your relationship, Lucas said, rather than being dragged around by your early experiences. “The heat of the moment isn’t a great time for your brain to remember all of those helpful hints you’ve read — you ideally want ‘presence of mind’ to be wired in and ready to roll at a millisecond’s notice,” Lucas said.
How to Practice Mindfulness
To get the most benefit, you want to aim to meditate for 20 minutes a day, Lucas said – although it doesn’t have to be done all at once. Even five minutes will be helpful, according to Lucas. The key is to get started and work your way up. On her website Lucas offers these 12 suggestions on creating a meaningful meditation practice.
She also suggested smaller ways to help reset our nervous system and quiet our body’s “fight or flight” response. She refers to these techniques as “circuit breakers.” One strategy is to take several deep breaths, with your exhale being slightly longer than your inhale. Another strategy is to place your hands firmly over your heart and belly, she said. This may stimulate the production of oxytocin, a bonding hormone, which also helps you feel calmer and safer.
In her book Lucas also suggests pausing for six seconds periodically throughout the day. This helps you get grounded, and resets your nervous system so you’re more likely to automatically pause instead of automatically fly off the handle. For instance, take a six-second pause at the beginning of every hour, right before eating, or whenever you turn on a faucet, she writes.
Mindfulness is a boon for relationships. It may help us rewire our brains so we’re less at the mercy of maladaptive knee-jerk reactions and more in the driver’s seat of our decisions.