How neuroscience saved my relationship

I have a shit track record with relationships.  I seemed to have gotten married twice and happened to have divorced both of them, getting rid of them with a snap of my fingers (and a small bribe to banish that second one from my life).  My current beau was reasonably nervous about getting involved with what some people might term a “runner”.   Ruiner is another name.  It is tempting to blame my was-bands for my divorces but I know perfectly well that my power to destroy relationships is equal to my ability to attract men.

I am an interesting mix of low maintenance with high expectations.  Camping and no showers for a week – no problem.  Dress up, dress down – all good.  But I require intense interest in life, ambition, progressive inclinations, a desire to volunteer and contribute to the community combined with a nuanced understanding of acceptable shoes (my definition, not your definition) and a butt that can fill out your jeans (which better not be from LL Bean).   I bring people in easily and can easily throw them away when I am done.  Not pretty, not nice.  But if you dig deeper, you might discover, I don’t do this to be mean, I do this to protect myself.

We all have our ways of protecting ourselves from getting too close and being too vulnerable with another human being.  One of my primary ways was to build up a negative story in my mind so I could cut loose at any time without it seeming like a loss.  But I want to keep this one – my new beau.  I want to make the relationship work this time.  I have been studying what works to change our patterns.  I discovered it all has to do with the brain, our neuronal infrastructure and how we form memories from our experiences.  This is what I discovered that might help me and might help you.

“One of my primary ways was to build up a negative story in my mind so I could cut loose at any time without it seeming like a loss.” 


We see what we want to see.

During my second marriage, I thought I was being clever by coming up with different pet names for #2, like “f@#king a&&hole”.   I would repeat this sentiment in my head each time he spoke.  As it turns out, this was not helpful!  It biased me against seeing anything good in him, regardless of what he did.  Our thoughts and past experiences dictate what we pull from our current experiences.   It is like we walk around with mesh made up of our past experiences hanging over our eyes, obscuring our vision.  #2 could bring me flowers but all I could focus on what the fact that he was 15 minutes late.  We see what we want to see.

Focus on the good.

In my current relationship, I focus on the good instead.  I purposely note in my mind when he has done something lovely (like listen to me, smile at me or come with me to my parent’s house).  I say it directly to him (Thank you so much for coming with me to my parents’ house.  It means a lot) and repeat it internally.  This is purposeful.  I am building up an argument to my body and brain to keep him.  Sure, I could pick out things I find annoying but I now know that noting those things, reinforcing them in my body will not do me nor him any good.  Our brain forms channels of thought that we can easily fall into and can easily reinforce if we aren’t careful (“He never comes with me to my parents”).  These negative stories can slowly destroy our relationships by tainting our perception and experiences.  By creating a positive story about him in my mind, when something negative does happen, it no longer has much of an impact.

“I purposely note in my mind when he has done something lovely.” 


Appreciate often and out-loud.

Another practice I have adopted is to compliment him on anything I see that I like (and even some behaviors I would like to see).   “I really appreciate how patient you were with me tonight.”  This lets him know patience is important to me (and that it is likely a requirement to adapt to my proclivities).  It also gives me inspiration to be patient with him when needed.  It makes him feel good (presumably) and provides a road map for him in future interactions.  Equally important, it again strengthens the neuronal pathway in my brain between him and good things.

We feel what we want to feel

In my 30’s, I bemoaned my lack of moaning.  I wasn’t consistently attracted to my husband and I was missing out on getting off.  I have thankfully moved past this awkward stage with a key life lesson.  You determine your own experience, not only of life and what you choose to see, but of intimacy, by what you choose to feel.  Much of the orgasmic experience comes from fully immersing oneself inside the sensations.  You can essentially create your own orgasm.  We feel what we choose to feel.

Associate him with good feelings.

I learned I could do much the same thing with my attraction for my beau.  By bringing full focus on how it feels when he touches my hand (or any other body part), I reinforce my brain’s association between the warm vibrations and his being.

There are two key practices I do.  I breathe in when he touches me, my breath marking the sensation he produces in me.  This practice forces me to slow down and appreciate him; it allows me to feel and note the intensity of my feeling for him.  I also intentionally note out-loud (and loudly inside my head) my attraction for him.  These two practices build a clear narrative for my ever-protective brain:  He is a keeper.

“I breathe in when he touches me, my breath marking the sensation he produces in me.”  


We can change our patterns, defeating our protectionist tendencies… if we are willing to practice.

This is the deal.  We are really good at repeating our patterns over time.  We are really good at protecting our hearts.  It takes practice, and courage, to open up, be vulnerable and create something different in your life.  This was my way of doing it: day by day, touch by touch, neuron by neuron.  By coupling positive thoughts with the sight, feel, and smell of him, I aim to ensure we remain a couple over the long term.  I hope you find your way too.


Erin Oldham, Ph.D. is a researcher and relationship & divorce coach. 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 well-being 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.  Email her here.

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