This article about intimacy is based on the information of Mona Fishbane, PhD. More detail on what she teaches is available in her book, Loving with the Brain in Mind: Neurobiology and Couple Therapy.
During early love, our brains are all high as kites on a chemical called dopamine. It’s what helps with bonding, and gives us the ‘I want you, I need you’ feeling.
It won’t surprise you to learn that the critical, judgmental parts of brain are turned off when we’re madly in love!
The dopamine-fueled state can last between 18 months to 3 years. Afterwards, love evolves into a saner state described as ‘companionate love’. This is when couples see each other ‘warts and all’.
It is also the time that intimacy can start to be damaged. And the damage can be made worse by stressful events, such as having children.
When early love fades, people missing the dopamine high may seek it elsewhere. This post outlines an alternative to that unhappy outcome. It uses insights from neuroscience (naturally).
The nature of intimacy
So what is intimacy in long term relationships?
One definition is that intimacy over time involves an awareness of the fragility of love, and the need to nurture it intentionally. It also involves tolerating differences; it involves respecting the otherness of the other.
If that sounds about right to you (it does to me), then sustaining intimacy involves monitoring what facilitates intimacy and what blocks it.
Here are some things that experts say help to sustain intimacy:
- Eye contact. Our phones and other devices take us away from making more eye contact with eachother, which is problematic from an intimacy perspective.
- Seeing eachother ‘with fresh eyes’. Seeing our partners as they are, not through the lens of transference, expectations, disappointments, and reactivity.
- Being vulnerable with eachother.
The neuro-biological conflict at heart of intimacy
The reason that intimacy is so challenging to build and keep is because of a conflict that exists within all of us: the need for self preservation and the need for closeness.
The brain’s fight or flight response, triggered in the amygdala part of the brain (the emotional brain, responsible for fast and habitual reactions) undermines intimacy. This amygdala is triggered by old emotional memories. We can become stuck in our intimate relationships in exactly the way we got stuck as kids. And long term relationships become unhappy dances of eachother’s old wounds.Long term relationships can become unhappy dances of eachother's old wounds Click To Tweet
However, rifts can be used to deepen intimacy. Happy couples turn towards eachother following a fight, repair readily and well. This is another key way intimacy is built; through repairing moments of hurt or disconnection.
Experts say that love isn’t a steady state of connection. There is connection, disconnection and repair. Seen in this way, the times of disconnection are not something to be feared.
The secret to keep intimacy going, according to therapists
Experts say that sustaining intimacy is learning to regulate the amygdala with our ‘higher brain’, the prefrontal cortex (so called because it is the seat of our reasoning and analytical capabilities). Doing this is ‘loving with the brain in mind’.
However, it isn’t easy as we are driven by the lower brain most of the time (the prefrontal cortext uses a lot of glucose!)
In couples therapy, therapists teach couples how to change that position. It happens when we learn to pause when our partners trigger an emotional response. This is what expert Dan Siegal calls ‘the pause that refreshes’. We learn to challenge our self justifications and habitual patterns, and we chose behaviour more thoughtfully.
You also have to adopt an active rather than passive view of loving. ‘Falling out of love’ is very passive language. An active approach involves approaching our relationships with self responsibility and co-responsibility, as well as nurturing the ‘we’.We have to water the seeds of love and compassion in long term relationships Click To Tweet
The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said that we all have seeds of anger and resentment, as well as love and compassion. Nurturing the we means choosing to water the seeds of love and compassion for our partners.
In couples therapy, the first thing that therapists do is identify the couple’s ‘stance’. For example, it could be ‘criticize and withdraw’. Then, they are led to look behind the scenes with curiosity, and identify the factors fueling the amygdala’s dance. And then give them tools to manage reactivity and make better choices.
This is the process of transition to prefrontal thoughtfulness from emotional reactivity.
5 techniques for emotional self-regulation
Here are some key ways that therapists teach couples to manage their reactivity:
- Self-soothing. People parenting themselves basically. Using deep belly breathing to calm down during high stake moments and identifying our own emotions (‘name it to tame it’) help deactivate the fight or flight emotional response.
- ‘Interoception‘. It means reading your body and noticing the physical cues of a strong emotion.
- Mindfulness meditation. This strengthens the prefrontal cortex, increases cognitive flexibility and relationship satisfaction. (I wrote a guide to practicing mindfulness here.)
- Empathy: Being able to empathize with our partners is essential for sustaining intimacy. It starts with learning to read our own emotions. (I would suggest that learning eachother’s Enneagram type is a good idea too.)
- Staying adaptable. Your habits matter, in relationships and life. Neuroplasticity continues through life, but needs to be fostered. You can keep your brain nice and plastic through exercise, practicing awareness and learning new things.
In a way, sustaining intimacy in long term relationships really involves each person cultivating a strong and beautiful brain!
Therapists agree that we need the ability to catch ourselves in the act of our own emotional reactivity.
If each person in a couple can do that, and both ‘nurture the we’ by choosing to feed the seeds of compassion and love (not anger and resentment), intimacy can deepen rather than weaken, over time.
As someone once said, time can be a friend or an enemy. And that is as true for intimacy as for other life areas.