Category Archives: Your Brain on Love & Divorce


Three months in? Five Ways to get to Four

There is a classic story amongst dating adults. It was depicted in 9 ½ Weeks, with a little pizazz and lot of soft-core bondage. It is the story of the rapid rise and fall of the steamy adult relationship. It starts with a bang and fizzles out with one last confusing text.


Oh my god! I haven’t seen you in forever! I have to tell you about Josh. Holy shit, he is the best. No seriously, I think he’s the one. I mean, it’s just this feeling I get when I’m around him. It’s totally perfect. And you’ll never believe this. Our mothers have the same name. Seriously, and get this. He got married on the same date as my birthday. How weird is that! And wait for it… it is literally the best sex of my life!!


No… yeah, no, I mean it is going really well. We went to a really good concert last night. I met his kids last weekend; that was weird. A little reality check but I really, really like him. He lives in Yarmouth and wants to stay there. There is no way in hell I am moving out of Portland. But it’s way too early to think about all that, so no biggie.


I do, I really enjoy our time together. I don’t quite get why I need to hear about his ex so much but whatever.   I definitely don’t want to deal with another crazy ex. Get this, he left his toothbrush at my house. It just sits there staring at me in the morning. What’s up with that? What? No, definitely, the sex is still pretty good.


We’re on a break, I mean, just a short one. We really like each other and really want this to work. It was just feeling like too much work. Should it be that much work? He was weirdly defensive the other day and I still don’t know what he was mad about. I felt like I was right back in my last relationship! I might have to get out of this.


We broke up. No, this time for good. I miss him, but I love being alone.

48 hours later

Well, we’re trying it again. No really, I’m feeling good about it. We had a really good talk. Well, and a little sex too. He said everything I was waiting to hear. I’m really excited that we’re back.


Oh, right, we broke up a week ago. I meant to tell you. I mean, we tried as hard as we could but it just wasn’t working. I loved that first month we spent together. We just couldn’t get back there.

What’s up with that?

Month 3 is when the mask we wear is no longer comfortable and starts to break off. We have an innate knowledge that to feel truly safe in a relationship we must be known and be vulnerable. In trying to reach that place of safety, we have to go through the field of fear. Fear pushes us back to our core emotional patterns learned oh so long ago. Automatic pilot kicks in. If we are a runner, this is when we run. If we are a fighter, this is when we fight. So how do we get through the field, with the relationship, and ourselves, intact?

1. Learn your patterns.

Pay attention to yourself. What do you do when you feel backed against a wall? And, what puts you there? Is it the mere mention of commitment or a vacation together that gives you cold sweats?   Does talk of wanting to merge families put you on edge? And how do you react when you feel uncomfortable: do you turn off emotionally, back away from the relationship physically, return to former girlfriends, feel anxious, and/or begin to cling and text overly long sentiments? Does jealousy or anger creep in?

2. Learn to be vulnerable.

Your patterns are your defense. They keep you from having to feel real feelings, which emanate from that sense of vulnerability. Step 1 to being vulnerable is believing in yourself and understanding that we all, every single one of us, have (many!) beautiful imperfections. Being vulnerable takes an act of courage. It is believing in yourself, not clinging to past stories, past beliefs or things past partners said about you. Start by taking a breath and repeating “I’m okay, no, not just okay, but good. I’m good”.

3. Know that discomfort is a good thing.

You may have heard the suggestion to “lean into your discomfort”. Leaning in is a signal that you are open to doing things differently this time, that you know that learning new emotional patterns takes work. When you feel uncomfortable, it is a signal to your brain that you are on the precipice of learning something new. When you feel the discomfort in your body, stop, breathe, and stay with that discomfort. Do something differently. Instead of turning away from the person in front of you, turn towards her and say, out loud, “Wow, I am glad we got to this point. I feel uncomfortable. My usual tendency would be to back away from this relationship and start acting weird, but I am choosing not to. I am happy to be here with you.”

4. Stop trying to get back to the first month.

A long term relationship has a different feel to it than the early, dopamine-laden days of that first month. The trick to the longer term relationship is to aspire to feelings of attachment rather than the quick hit of cocaine (cocaine has the same impact on the brain that touch, love, and sex have during that first month). Attachment, the feeling in a longer term relationship, feels like a comfortable blanket wrapping around you while you sit in front of a fire with your favorite book. You don’t have to give up the quick rush when you are striving for a longer relationship. Picture sex on the couch before you grab your book!  But know that aspiring only for the quick rush will not result in sustained joy or a sustainable relationship.

5. Or just break up.

Because you are showing your true self around the three month mark, you should recognize the other person is too. You are getting new insight into what she is like, how she deals with conflict, and how she feels about herself. This is an ideal time to step back, ask lots of questions of the other person, and assess the relationship with a calm, objective eye. It is always possible that the person in front of you is not a good match. Breaking up and trying again with someone else is always an option. If you decide you want to stay in the relationship, take a breath, and get ready for the ride.


Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.

Erin is a researcher, relationship & divorce coach, and mediator.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child wellbeing and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Contact her now at or 207-200-3970.  More information here.


Stop. Read this before you fall into the same relationship trap… again.

I have been doing some heavy lifting. Head down, eyes scanning left to right, engrossed in a book on how the brain develops on an airplane to Los Angeles and then again while flying to St. John. The fact that I am reading a book on the fallacies of the neocortex and the simple brilliance and vulnerability of the limbic brain on vacation gives you a sense of how much I love this stuff.

Some of the stunning things I learned…

1. We literally can’t see (healthy) love right in front of us.

In childhood, we store an impression of what love feels like from our parents or whomever we are around to attach to. That impression is ingrained in our neural networks. As children, we do not discern in our attachments. We do not judge the goodness of our parents. As we age, we prefer the emotional patterns of our family, regardless of the merits of them. Let’s say that emotional pattern is one of detached, emotional unavailability. We then tend to look for adults that replicate what we think of as “love” which in this case is someone who is detached from their experiences.   We can get in a relationship with someone who is different, maybe very affectionate and giving, but this won’t feel good to us, it doesn’t feel like “love” to us, so we let them go, leaving our partner wondering what went wrong.

The upside: With really effective therapy and/or deep introspection, we gain insight and awareness of our patterns and how to change them (and pick better partners).

Childhood chisels it’s patterns into pliable neural networks, while later experiences wield weaker influence on the evolving person. Often the only emotional learning one sees after childhood is the reinforcement of existing fundamentals.”

– Lewis, Amini & Lannon (2000)

2. There is no such thing as an accurate memory (Freud was ridiculously wrong)!

Memories are not neatly laid down, available for retrieval at any time or with intensive psychoanalysis (as Freud hypothesized). We “remember” with our neurons and thus we are disposed to see more of what we have already seen, hear more of what we have heard previously and think what we have thought before. As we form neural networks, each new observation, word or sound instantly gets associated with similar, past observations, words and memories. Our past and our general temperament guide us to encode or reinforce our experience in specific ways. So we form memories in our own individual way and then we continually rework those memories as we have new experiences. Optimistic people tend to remember happy times, depressive types more easily recall loss, abandonment and despair and anxious people ruminate on past threats. This told me a lot about why my previous husband (my was-band) and I remembered our fights entirely differently.

The upside: You can train your brain to see things differently. Meditation helps!

3. No type of therapy is better than any other. The only thing that matters is the therapist!

This one makes so much sense. There is limited evidence that one type of therapy works over another type of therapy. What researchers have discovered is that it is the therapist themselves that makes the difference. A therapist who can form a relationship with her client, an actual emotionally balanced relationship emanating from limbic resonance (I’ll explain more on this in the workshop) is the most effective in guiding the client towards what healthy relationships “feel” like. Once the clients have enough of the experience of a healthy relationship, such that they are reforming their neural networks, they can then use that template out in the real world. Basically, someone can describe a “healthy relationship” to you as much as he wants but until you experience it personally (or limbically), there is nothing in you, your brain or your behaviors that will change.

The upside: A good therapist has been shown to actually change your brain.

4. We need love to survive. Literally!

Back in the days when there was no one watching over researchers who had a bit of a God complex, some unbelievably cruel experiments were done. In the 1940’s (not that long ago!), an experiment was conducted on forty newborn infants to determine the importance of affection. Twenty of the infants were in a facility where the caregivers were instructed to provide the basics (food, water, shelter) but to withhold communication, nurturing and affection. The other twenty infants were cared for normally. After four months, half of the infants in the no-interaction group had died. They, then, halted the experiment. Beyond this grotesque example, there is clear evidence in how the brain has developed and functions that love is not a luxury but a necessity.

The upside: Love and attachment heals! That love can come from pets, friends, family members and lovers.

5. When we lose a partner, we literally lose our ability to regulate ourselves emotionally.

Ever behaved unexpectedly badly during a breakup and wondered wtf just happened? Yep, me too. When we lose another person, we lose some of our ability to regulate ourselves emotionally and may act out of “character” in the aftermath. When we form a partnership with another human, we have a real, as in tangible, impact on the way their brain is functioning and they have a similar impact on our brain. Think of the good feeling you get from being around a positive person – that is them having a similar impact on your limbic brain. This impact comes from the limbic resonance between two people (come to the workshop to get the full explanation of this). When we lose a person from our lives, we lose a part of ourselves. A portion of our neural activity depends on the presence of that other living brain. When we are in a healthy relationship, with each person taking perpetual care of the other, we thrive (and actually live longer!). We feel whole, centered, and alive. When we lose a person, even if the relationship had deteriorated, we miss and yearn for that sense of being known, and we lose our ability to behave nicely for a while as well.

The upside: We learn to regulate again as we heal. Therapy, journaling, yoga and meditation help!

There is so much here and so much more I didn’t have space to write about. We are going to get into it at a workshop on March 8th from 3-5pm. Come discuss!

(And to read more about this, I recommend “A General Theory of Love” by Thomas Lewis, MD., Fari Amini, M.D. and Richard Lannon, M.D.)


Workshop: Your Brain on Love & Divorce

Sunday, March 8th 2015 from 3:00 – 5:00pm

What is happening to your brain, and thus you, through falling in love, heartbreak, divorce and rebounding.  An exploration into what is happening physiologically through various psychological stages we go through in and out of relationships.  This workshop will help you make sense of why we act and feel like we do.  We will explore topics such the crazy period following divorce, the reasons we feel so compelled by people during the first two months of a relationship before things break down, why we cheat and why we can’t help but rebound after a breakup or divorce.    $45 per person / $75 for two (a couple or friends)

Sign up here



Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.

Erin is a researcher, relationship & divorce coach, and mediator.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child wellbeing and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Contact her now at or 207-200-3970.  More information here.