Special to JohnFMurray.com – By John F. Murray, Ph.D. – August, 2010 – Warning: This article is rated R for “relationshipâ€? – Relationships and marriage are always hot topics, but this area has been covered infrequently at JohnFMurray.com and is long overdue. Let’s apply a high performance model to something very important that we all deal with one way or another. In fact, the first time I appeared on the NFL Network and ESPN television from my office it was to discuss issues of love and hate in sports rather than my more traditional topics of mental preparation and performance in athletics, or more general psychological health. They wanted to know about love and hate, and here I go again in this article.
Recent relationship articles I’ve contributed to include one in the New York Post on the New York Yankees A-Rod of baseball and actress Kate Hudson
one on love among sports stars in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and a Times of India story about Tiger Woods’ extramarital relationship revelations. I’ve also been on local television (CBS 12 with Ben Becker) several times recently talking about Tiger Woods and relationships. I’m a strong proponent of social support for success in my articles, and my PhD dissertation at the University of Florida revealed social support as the big winner in helping injured players recover on the 1996 national champion Florida Gators football team. Relationships are a huge issue in life and sports, so come into my office and let’s talk a little about it.
Nothing stirs the emotions like issues of love, passion, and romance, or their counterparts of conflict, arguments and divorce. They say that love makes the world go round and it’s so true. The hottest, steamiest, most controversial, and most intriguing topics in the media and Hollywood usually deal with issues of marriage, love, romance, sex and jealousy. Although divorce rates in America have declined some recently, statistics still show that roughly half of marriages end in divorce. As of 2003, 43.7% of custodial mothers and 56.2% of custodial fathers were either separated or divorced.
How do people fall in love psychologically and why if it is so good would they do anything to disturb that marvelous state of being and destroy relationships just as often as they are created? It makes no sense, so I turned to the scientific literature as we often should when there are serious questions or we would like to understand something better.
Passion and emotion have long been known to be quite different from clear thinking and logic. Neuropsychology has identified areas in the temporal cortex as more responsible for regulating and controlling emotions whereas the frontal lobe is responsible for more rational and logical processing or cold thinking. In working with clients, I will often show them how their behavior is represented in the central and peripheral nervous system and this comes from my years of training and understanding of neuropsychology, but we are always learning new things from science all the time so it’s very important to stay current with findings.
Recent studies (reported thanks to Steve Connor, Science Editor of The London Independent, 2008) have discovered the biological basis for the two most intense emotions of love and hate. Neural circuits in the brain responsible for hate are often the same as those that are used during the feelings of romance, even though love and hate appear to be polar opposites. Looking at the areas of the brain that are active when people look at a photograph of someone they say they hate has found that the “hate circuit” shares something in common with the love circuit. These findings could explain why both hate and romantic love can result in similar acts of extreme behavior – both heroic and evil.
Like love, hate is often seemingly irrational and can lead individuals to both heroic and evil deeds. How can two opposite states of mind lead to similar behavior?” The study involved subjects who professed a deep hatred for one individual. Most chose an ex-lover or a competitor at work. The researchers in the study Professor Zeki and Romaya analysed the activity of the neural circuits in the brain that lit up when the volunteers were viewing photos of the hated person and found that the hate circuit includes parts of the brain called the putamen and the insula, found in the sub-cortex of the organ. The putamen is already known to be involved in the perception of contempt and disgust and may also be part of the motor system involved in movement and action. “Significantly, the putamen and the insula are also both activated by romantic love. This is not surprising. The putamen could also be involved in the preparation of aggressive acts in a romantic context, as in situations when a rival presents a danger,” Professor Zeki said.
A major difference between love and hate appears to be in the fact that large parts of the cerebral cortex – associated with judgment and reasoning – become de-activated during love, whereas only a small area is deactivated in hate. “This may seem surprising since hate can also be an all-consuming passion like love. But whereas in romantic love, the lover is often less critical and judgmental regarding the loved person, it is more likely that in the context of hate the hater may want to exercise judgment in calculating moves to harm, injure or otherwise exact revenge,” Professor Zeki said.
This amazing research is just beginning to offer clues to some of our most complex behavior, but I am not at all surprised about it when you consider the course of a normal romantic relationship. We know that in the early months and years during the infatuation phase, individuals are goo goo and ga ga about their partner, very much “in love,â€? less critical, and more happy overall. They hold hands all the time, use terms of endearment frequently, and see the glass as always half full rather than half empty. In short, they are in the right place mentally and behaviorally to provide to the other person what they need to feel because they are not overly critical and see the goodness in that person, and express it fully.
As the relationship progresses to a more rational state after the infatuation has worn off (anywhere between 6 months and two years usually) I’ve seen in my work that couples who were once non-judgmental and extremely supportive emotionally can soon become their partner’s worst nightmare with constant criticism, judgment, polarized thinking and henpecking. One big key to relationship success then would be to try to get back to doing the things you did for each other when the relationship was new, when love was less rational and when the mere fact of having one another trumped most any obstacle.
Certainly things change, but as they change some basic expressions of love and caring and support I believe need to remain and be constantly replenished in a creative way. Otherwise, one or both partners will soon feel cheated without having access to the same ingredients that made it work for the person before, and left thinking that things got worse and that there must be greener grass elsewhere. It’s as if your favorite restaurant suddenly fired the chef and hired someone who used totally disgusting and less tasty ingredients in preparing the meal. How long would you want to keep going there when you could do better at a Subway or McDonalds?
It would be far better if the couple found a way to increase their expressions of affection over time even if it is hard work, or sometimes seems impossible. In the absence of this success, memories of past bliss take over and the person feels constantly that he or she is no longer receiving what they did before and what they are getting currently compared with those earlier times.
Some relationships in the infatuation phase of nonjudgmental love begin with marriage and end in divorce when feelings wear off and both fall back to earth and begin dwelling on qualities of the other person they despise. Even qualities once seen as cute or unique are now viewed with disgust or disdain. Making sense? The more rational brain is at it again!
Still other couples survive the initial reduction of infatuation phase, go on to marriage or at least long-term love, and last a lifetime if both partners are able to keep it more positive than negative and find a way to overcome conflict and differences. I would estimate that almost as many of these more mature relationships also end in break-ups or divorce if the parties are unable to communicate effectively or find a way to give the other person what they need emotionally.
Communication is usually cited as the number one reason why couples split or stay together, so its qualities need to be constantly understood, learned and practiced. The easiest way to destroy a relationship is to stop talking or expressing, or to only say what you think the other person wants to hear as if you are a robot. The key, I believe, is for each partner to be allowed to express himself or herself and also be heard authentically by the partner whether that person agrees or not. Why should you both always agree? You are different people, but be careful about anything that might destroy the basic elements of love that you felt in the infatuation phase! One way to do this is to preface your comments of difference with little terms of endearment (e.g., “I love you honey and I don’t think you mean it, but I felt completely unheard and disrespected when you ignored me in front of your family for three hours last nightâ€?).
Another key is that each partner not try to control or micromanage the other’s behavior or activities, but allow them to develop and grow in their own individual and unique way as long as they aren’t stealing candy from children, setting up dog fights, selling drugs on the street corner, or stealing credit cards (other crimes are fine .. just kidding!). I’m sure you can think of some other deal breakers, but if the person is a responsible citizen and developing as they need to develop their individuality should be allowed to shine rather than be snuffed out or repressed because of what the other person thinks you should do, think or feel.
Love should not be made conditional or contingent on doing what the other person wants. In conditional love, what one person wants may not be what the other one wants. Why should it? We are all different. We are all responsible for our own actions and our own feelings and we all have a different developmental path and calling in life, but once we cross the line into telling our partner what they should be doing, feeling or thinking, I believe we have gone too far because we will always create conflict that way, or if not conflict a repressed and unhappy partner and if your partner is not happy nobody will be.
Ideally, the couple needs to find a place where they can be allowed to grow as the individuals they are, and also as a couple without one person trying to control the other. If despite all that the couple can still not resolve their differences, then there is nothing wrong with divorce or breaking up. It may be the best solution by far in many cases. But I feel that many couples trip up on the more basic issues before they even get to this stage, and one of the big ones I have seen over the years is making love conditional.
Love was not conditional when you started and when you entered that infatuation phase. Why should it change? You loved the person for who they were before, or at least you made the person feel that way. Why should you then change and withhold love unless the person changes? It seems absurd and it is. Give love freely or forget it. If you only give love when a person does something for you or what you want them to do, that is not really love anymore but an earned service. Accept your partner for who they are and try very hard to understand why they are who they are even if you do not agree with their behavior. Why would you agree? You are different. But unless you are able to find a place where your partner feels the same love of earlier infatuation, it is simply not going to work.
When conflict does arise, as it always does, what should the couple do? One solution often chosen is to visit a top family law attorney, find out what your rights are, and start talking about divorce because of how your rights have been violated. It’s like introducing your new puppy to the fox den and then asking the foxes for advice about the care and nurturing of your puppy. The foxes will probably ask you to leave your puppy with them overnight. Ok, I know you are laughing and so am I, and I do not hate lawyers, but I had to have fun with that.
Lawyers are certainly needed if your rights have been abused and you want out of the marriage, but keep in mind that lawyers are usually smart paid fighters and modern day warriors, and their job is to help you win as much as you can in an adversarial legal system that is not designed to resolve conflict harmoniously or expediently and it is certainly not designed to save marriages. I had one year of law school in my youth and I hated it so I eventually became a psychologist and sports psychologist. The first day of law school, the professor told us that we were embarking on a profession not unlike the knights of the past. Lawyers are the modern day equivalents of F-14s and ballistic artillery. These tools all work great if you are ready for war and want to win by force. Like all professionals lawyers also earn a living by providing a service at an hourly rate. More hours equals more money for them.
There is nothing wrong with lawyers if you have already reached the point that you want out and you have no interest in trying to save the relationship, but keep in mind that they make much more when you get divorced, not when you stay together. My advice to all those couples out there who are struggling is to first see if you can work it out in counseling. A good clinical psychologist or marriage therapist may also want to work with you for a while in order to have an impact, and they earn good money too. But they earn their living when they develop a reputation for helping people improve relationships, communicate more effectively, and save marriage if possible rather than telling you how to divorce and terminate all those terms of endearment.
The bottom line is that if you want your honey back the way he or she was in the early infatuation phase of your relationship, it all starts by giving out those vibes yourself and by offering positive comments and love rather than the opposite behavior that we now know is housed in the same brain areas and is even more potentially dangerous to the relationship. With the addition of clear rational thinking associated with neurological hate, you are even more informed about the risks of not trying to go back to earlier bliss or at least trying to recreate some reasonable facsimile of it in your current relationship rather than giving in to your more hateful and rational brain! Now do you know why you needed me to write this article and why you also needed to read it?
If you want to save your relationship which started with a bang, then get in your time machines and go back mentally to that bang and replicate almost everything about it in your daily behavior. William James often said that if you behave a certain way you will start to feel that way. If you act loving again, you will soon start to feel love, and if your partner does this too you will feel double love! It is not always easy to do, but what is the alternative?
Be careful about engaging the legal system or legal advice too soon. Especially in this difficult economy there are going to be lawyers out there like those foxes coaching you to leave your precious puppy in the fox den at night. Then imagine your new puppy trying to get some sleep as the foxes sneak up on him for their supper.
Again I am poking fun at attorneys and do not want you to get the wrong impression. Many of my best friends and clients are attorneys and many are great individuals and there are good and bad people in all walks of life, but these attorneys have long told me that their job is to protect you and fight for your rights rather than fight to save your marriage. They are of ten needed to do just that – to fight to end your marriage if you want that.
As long as there is still hope to make it work as a couple, choose counseling first, keep trying to get back to the earlier state of bliss, engage in those earlier more romantic behaviors again (hand holding, terms of endearment, saying “I love youâ€?), and by all means take your precious puppy to a proper dog kennel or friend’s home and avoid the foxes den.
Good luck and I hope you enjoyed this little article from the world of sports psychology!