A large number of studies show that satisfying relationships are directly related to happiness, health, and longevity. Many of these studies even prove that the quality of our relationships has a more significant impact on health than smoking, obesity, or blood pressure. It’s no wonder. Our life is made of relationships. And one of the most complex relationships in the universe are the relationships between human beings and all our internal subjectivity.
And while evolution has designed us to be social creatures, our history has seen some paradoxes. This is because in the last few thousands of years on Earth, the major threats to us have no longer been snakes, parasites or melting glaciers. Our threats have been other humans. They are the creatures that can attack, reject, and humiliate us, forcing us to move away from our tribe, and killing us with isolation. We have been designed to see other human beings as a threat.
These threats have been detected since we were born. In the first year of life, the way a mother takes care of her baby will create how safe and comfortable or how anxious and complex the child will be for the rest of his/her life. Our nervous system doesn’t like shame, fear, or frustration. The more we experience these sensations as children (and we all do, to a greater or lesser degree), the more we learn how to identify them as threats. And what do we do in the face of a threats? We react, we attack, whether with violence, or by creating alliances with other people who protect us or make us stronger, or adopting defense mechanisms, such as denial (it wasn’t me!) or projection (it’s his/her fault!).
These defense mechanisms have been with us since our birth, but they are developed in our childhood and refined by our family and culture. They become natural armors, they are almost a way to survive, considering children don’t have the neural development that begins in adolescence and gives us the real dimension of things, along with the sense of individuality and personality. But in our adult years, these defenses remain active and end up harming us rather than defending us. They are the cause of most problems in our relationships. We become couples divided by our own defensive fields.
HOW CAN WE PUT DOWN OUR SHIELDS?
Finding a partner to share our life with and form a family has been part of our evolutionary history since we descended from the trees. We are part of the 3% of species on this planet that seek a monogamous and fixed partner to share our life with. We were designed that way, naturally and socially.
When we feel lust, this is a spark between nervous systems, which is more chemical than a psychological interaction – it’s impersonal, it’s part of our nature. We also have the evolution of that spark, which is when we focus that motivation on one person and it becomes romantic love, this stage also has a lot of chemistry. Our body suddenly changes, we get full of testosterone and dopamine, for example. We become obsessed, we want to have sex and show who we are to him/her. But with time, chemistry normalizes in our body. The desire to have sex all the time ends, things are more balanced, the desire to have children with that person arises, we act automatically, and then our defenses reappear and begin to generate conflicts.
A normal marriage involves fights, discussions, and pending issues. In fact, 69% of the issues in a marriage are chronic. That is, they will never be fully resolved. What happens with a couple in a healthy relationship is that, over time, they both learn how to fix these situations – fully or not, or with minor improvements promoted by both of them – making them perfectly surmountable. Keith says that such fixes should be quick; otherwise the damage will become greater. It’s not to be done in hours or years, but in a question of minutes! This joint work of fixing and maintaining the relationship is part of what he calls growth mindset, which means seeing each problem as an opportunity to improve. When we are willing to improve (marriage, ourselves), our partner becomes willing too. And so the couple will spend their marriage years positively influencing each other.
CONSUMER COMMITMENT VS. IDEAL COMMITMENT
To make these things a reality, we have to commit ourselves. And we can do that in two ways: start with the phrase: “I’ll stay in this relationship while…”, and complete it with whatever interests you, such as “…while I fulfill a need,” or “as long as there is love,” or “as long as it seems right” or start with the phrase: “I’ll do whatever it takes to …”
The first type of commitment is like a consumer marriage: the couple uses it while it’s worth it. If you have problems, go to the store, replace it, and solve the problem. But it’s the second type of commitment that interests us. We take it to the repair shop, we take care of it, we mend it.
It’s not an easy task in this fast-changing world of poor transparency and dialogue. Multiple skills are required, including the ability to give and receive – and it consumes a lot of energy and time! But every effort is worth it. Today’s societies have given more attention to their children than to loving relationships, and that can be disastrous. Many studies have demonstrated that parents who care about their loving relationships are better at interactions with their children.
A strong relationship ensures enhanced resilience to face whatever happens in our life, such as aging and daily stress. If we keep a growth mindset with quick fixes, we will help each other be happier, healthier, and live longer. It is a far-reaching feeling, so we can spread it to our families and the communities around us.