What is a ruptured relationship and why should we do anything about it? And if we’re of a mind to, how can we do repair work, especially when, in the midst of fragmented obsession we might not have sufficient neural real estate available to manage our own emotional reactivity?
To my mind these are crucial questions underlying the most difficult challenge in one of the most demanding yogas of all – human relationships. Ruptures often go unrecognized in relationships, thus the critical need for their repair seldom surfaces. When I think of all the people in my own personal history with whom I’ve had conflicts or breaks, many ended up being “resolved” by each of us distancing and no longer speaking to one another – going our separate ways. If I take such non-recognition of relationship rupture and the inability to do required repair and extend it out into the world, what I see is extensive pain and suffering all across the face of the globe. It is much easier and less risky to sit in front of my computer screen and spend hours in mesmerized isolation playing Spider Solitaire or World of Warcraft, than it is to deliberately and earnestly engage in the hard work of relationship repair.
So how can I better recognize when a relationship is ruptured? The answer is pretty straightforward: any time I find myself upset with another person, there’s a good chance there’s a rupture made or in the making. Any time I’m upset with my children, partner, colleagues (or any person, place or thing for that matter), if I pay close attention to my experience, most often what I discover at the root of such upsets is anxiety rooted in fear. It’s often an undefined fear of one sort or another or a very clear concern: “My child is putting herself in danger,” “I’m a poopy parent,” “What will the neighbors think?” “She’s not behaving in ways I think she should and I want her to,” “What will our own parents – siblings – colleagues – clergy think?”
Fear, anger, grief – no matter what the source – activates the limbic circuits in the brain. This circuitry floods the system with adrenaline, cortisol, glutamate and other glucocorticoids. Breathing becomes constricted, heart rate increases, digestion gets put on hold. In the midst of such a limbic frenzy, few of us do our best thinking. When the unconscious threat passes – say, for example, fear of being condemned for being a poor parent – our neurophysiology attempts to restore the brain and body to normal functioning, unless, of course, the threat doesn’t pass, say with the seeming loss of an important relationship and all the promise it held. This stress reaction – generally referred to as an HPA axis activation (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis) – seems to be entwined with ruptured relationships from Presidents to peasants the world over. The stress of the job is already turning our American president’s hair gray after only one month in office!
Stress reactions mostly only get triggered when the heart-brain-mind-body is confronted with more “energy and information” than it has the capacity to easily process. Under such circumstances we find ourselves emotionally reactive. What we have labeled emotions are simply what results from not being able to handle life situations, or relationships our brain experiences as difficult or overwhelming. These feelings seem to have their way with us, and can easily make us momentarily emotionally disturbed.
A Year to Live
Shortly after Stephen Levine published his book, A Year to Live, a colleague and I assembled a small group. We met together for a year, each of us exploring what we would change in our lives, imagining we had but a single year of life remaining. In the first month we each made a list of things we felt it important to address. Item Number One on the collectively assembled lists was: “Finish unfinished business.” Likewise, in the various 12-Step Programs found around the world, Step 8 involves making a list of people we have harmed and offering to make amends to them – i.e. do our best to repair the relationships.
I think the impulse to repair and heal relationships has a neurological basis, not unlike the process by which cuts or broken bones have an impulse to heal. I think doing so, literally restores connections in the brain that became disconnected when a much earlier break or breech occurred. It is these disconnections in the brain that contribute to less-than-optimal functioning. Freud and others theorized that our brains unwittingly go on hyper-alert after an overwhelming experience, continually looking for similar people, places and things that cause us to compulsively repeat the same dynamics in relationships, presumably in an attempt to gain mastery. This reality hasn’t been lost on insurance companies, who promptly raise our rates after an accident. I think this so-called repetition compulsion is more an attempt to restore our brains to good working order. But unless we bring some conscious intent and deliberation to it, we are doomed to fail, simply recreating the difficulties of the past and realizing little in the way of effective resolution.
How might we best begin to identify and resolve ruptured relationships? Here’s One Way.