“The self defines itself in relation to its social environment. When that environment becomes incomprehensible – for example, when familiar people suddenly seem unfamiliar, or vice versa – the self can experience extreme distress or even feel that it is under attack.”
V. S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain, pg. 274.
First the good news: there’s nothing you actually have to do to get your partner to change their brain. Brains and behavior are changing all the time. Take a look at the Purkinje brain neuron on the left – a variety of new and different action potentials firing day in and day out.
Now the bad news: People with long-time, wide-ranging life experience whom I deeply respect tell me that “relationships are the hardest yoga.” The proof: try getting a partner to change their brain and behavior in ways that you think they should or you want them to. That’s a bit harder network to infiltrate. It’s like trying to train an elephant – they’re really big and really smart and they have their own ideas about what they need and want, mostly unconscious (our Bernese Mountain puppy Ollie operates that way – below he suddenly decided that Bodhi would make a great butt cushion. Welcome to Ollie’s World). That being said, there are people in the world who have learned to enjoy the circus and their endlessly fascinating work as elephant trainers.
Wherever You Vacation, There You Are
When I was much younger and had a considerably less organized brain and body, my wife and I once got into a heated argument during a vacation on the lovely Caribbean island of St. Maarten. The only way I was able to manage in the moment, reactively triggered, dissociated and hyper-aroused as I was, was to flee the scene. I bolted from our cabana room and walked halfway around the island and back. If I didn’t do that, the increasing flood of stress hormones would have taken more and more of my impulse control neurology offline, leaving me increasingly susceptible to unconscious, impulsive behaviors – like massive self-medication or perhaps even physical abuse. Fortunately, my flight strategy worked to reduce my arousal levels … for the most part.
Except for one thing. It didn’t really address and resolve the underlying triggering, traumatic, dissociated memory which the argument with my wife surfaced (in therapy years later, I discovered the triggering incident was a personal violation by someone other than my wife that had happened the day before). Making those later connections and physically replaying the incident so that I was able to direct a beneficial outcome this time in therapy, was the missing integrative piece when it surfaced in St. Maarten. That therapeutic interaction changed my brain for the better. Unfortunately, subsequent repeated trauma-triggering without real resolution took a heavy toll on trust and intimacy over the years long before that healing therapeutic session. Separation and divorce were the unfortunate result.
Significant Other, Change Thyself
So, this is one piece of what makes relationships such a hard yoga. The ways we might need and want our partner to change, are primarily intended to help us manage our own neurophysiology, usually, adrenal-activated hyper-arousal. But the thing is, since we rarely know what might most effectively help our significant other surface and resolve their own personal, dissociated trauma history, the ways we might want them to change are not necessarily going to benefit them in the ways we might think – in any absolute healing capacity.
And working hard to keep the peace doesn’t work, either. Working hard to keep the peace only keeps traumatic memories under wraps. But – and here’s the kicker – given the smallest opportunity, healing always wants to happen. And it frequently initially let’s us know through friction-igniting upsets.
What adds to the difficulty of course, is all too often we overwhelm ourselves and our partners with memories from the past that surface and prove to be both too painful and get left unresolved because they rarely successfully address the underlying traumatic events. Simply surfacing and acting out our pain doesn’t integrate and resolve our pain. What to do?
A Sure-fire Prescription
I wish there really was a sure-fire prescription. Unfortunately, because our early and later lives are so complex and such a preponderance of our traumatic memories live buried in implicit (unconscious) neural networks, each of us really requires unique, personalized “medicine.” However, at this moment in time on planet earth, effective medicine is either hard to come by or out of the price range of most of us. Nevertheless, one prescription with a high probability of success for changing my partner’s brain remains … for me to do what I can to change mine. Any time we try to get others to change so that we can feel better, we run the risk of falling into Hitler’s Dilemma. And we all know the suffering that unskillful agenda potentially perpetrates.