Photo Credit: Jessica Rockowitz Photography + Film

Alright, so I’m bringing this brain series to a close, and for the grand finale, I thought we’d look at your brain in significant relationships…your spouse, your partner, your best and closest family and friends.  These relationships are inherently complicated, emotions run strong and patterns run deep. Let’s take a look at what’s going on here.

If you have read my four previous posts, you already know much more than the average bear.  You know our brains begin developing essentially at conception and go through a massive growth period in the first years of life, and then continue to grow and change through young adulthood.  (Truth is, your brain is always growing and changing based on your experiences, but these crucial times of early life set the foundation for everything that comes after.).

This is why your relationship with your caregivers and nuclear family are so powerful.  They basically helped build the foundation of who you are, figuratively and literally.  

As a baby, the brain makes connections constantly – it starts to connect the dots around movement, touch, sounds, tastes, smells, sights, and perhaps most importantly yet most complicated, are the connections made around relationships.  Do they feel good generally? Are they safe and predictable or surprising and unpredictable? Can I ask for what I need, do I get a response? All of these little daily interactions between caregiver and child lay the groundwork for relationships in the future.  Remember your brain operates on patterns. It is always asking itself, ‘what usually happens in this context?’

This connection making is on high speed for the first few years of life – when we are just small children spending most of our time with caregivers and siblings.

Equally important to understand is that since much of this pattern creation happens before a person is old enough to talk about it, we call it ‘pre-verbal’ learning.  That means it gets stored in your brain in regions not built for language. Why does this matter? Well, because a pattern stored in a pre-verbal region, stays pre-verbal ( or non-verbal) until we become aware of it and put language to it. In daily life this means that we may play out relationship patterns we aren’t even conscious of, and certainly can’t talk about easily. 

For example, maybe in relationships when someone expresses vulnerability, you immediately feel disgust- you aren’t sure why, but it’s just what your body and brain wants to do. That is a non verbal communication from old patterns your brain. It can mean many different things, there’s no one reason, but usually it has a source from an early or significant relationship somewhere.  This is where good therapy comes in handy – you can begin to explore these nonverbal aspects of your relationships and begin to understand them better. The hope being that you give yourself a choice to respond rather than react next time – do I want to feel disgust, or not?

You will most likely see these pre-verbal patterns show up in intimate relationships (the caregiver-child relationship that lays down this pattern is intensely intimate, after all).  When they appear in daily life, they look a lot like the Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn list I gave in blog #2, but truly, the list is infinite and impossible to define. The human brain is astonishingly complex, and every moment you have lived has informed its growth. So not only is your body and brain responding to the environment around you, it is also responding to the relationships you are in. 

How you feel about the people around you is informed not just by what’s happening between you and them now, but also by what’s happened to you before

You likely experience impulses and reactions to people that have nothing to do with them – they are old patterns your brain/body reached for because a situation felt familiar.  

My best advice is to become more curious about the way you move through the world and your intimate relationships, specifically.  We often do things we don’t at first understand, but exploring the non-verbal aspects of a moment can illuminate deep wounds and unhealthy patterns, as well as deep wells of love and health, if only we can be brave and curious enough to consider them.  Can you ask yourself “why” and not be afraid of the unknown? “Why did I clench my jaw when she said that? Why did I want to disappear when he walked in the room?” 

For those with trauma histories these answers can be scary – I encourage you, if this may be you, to find a trusted confidant or professional to explore with so you are not alone.  In these moments when our brains and bodies do something inexplicable, they are telling us a story from our past.

Knowing and making peace with these stories is how we move forward to love our family and partners in ways that are authentic and intentional.


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