Can You Rewire Your Brain for Love?

By Paulette Cohn for eHarmony Advice

Can You Rewire Your Brain for Love?

Marsha Lucas, PhD, has become a relationship guru after listening to her patients talk about their love lives during her 20 years as a psychologist. But it wasn’t until Lucas, who also has specialized training as a neuropsychologist, combined Mindfulness meditation with the latest neuroscience and therapy that she observed striking changes in her patients behavior. These changes led them to better solutions for their love connections and for living the lives they wanted.

The fact that Lucas’ private practice is in Washington, D.C. limits her accessibility to the majority of the country, so since she isn’t able to do one-on-one counseling with all those in need, she put her process in writing for anyone interested in improving their love life. Her book, Rewire Your Brain For Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness, offers readers an easy-to-understand, warm, down-to-earth approach to building better, healthier relationships.

So what is Mindfulness meditation? “The best work that has been done with Mindfulness meditation is most like what Jon Kabat-Zinn promotes, which is really nonreligious and very secular,” Lucas explains. ‘The way he defines it is really very simple. It is paying attention in a particular way: That way is on purpose, in the moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Also in Rewire Your Brain For Love, released in February, Lucas discusses how many successful women over the age of 30, who have happy productive lives and careers, often seem to be missing one ingredient: a lasting relationship. These same smart women keep meeting and dating the same type of guy over and over again without recognizing the pattern.

Q: My favorite thing that I read in your book was where you wrote that insight alone isn’t enough. I used to say, “I know that now but how do I make it work in my brain,” and no one had an answer to that.

ML: Exactly — and I didn’t have an answer to that for a long time. People would say, “I know how screwed up my family was and how I got to be who I am, but now what?” We have known for a while now that therapy works but the research doesn’t say it is necessarily because of the insight that you develop. The thing that keeps coming up over and over again when they are looking at the efficacy of psychotherapy is that it seems to be the therapy-appropriate relationship between the therapist and the patient. That seems to be the best predictor of lasting therapeutic change. It is really: relationship heals. The whole premise of the book is if you had that healthy relationship while your brain was getting wired up for relationships — which is pretty much before you are 2 years old [Certainly, you can have a great first two years and then live in war-torn country and have that torn asunder, or conversely, you can have a really crummy couple of first years and have what is called earned secure attachment, so it can go either way.], we can change the brain.

What I have been thinking now since we have been looking at neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change the neuro pathways and grow new synapses and connections and even new neurons — what we have been doing in psychotherapy is enabling that process. With 45 minutes once a week, it happens. But I found that if the people I work with practice Mindfulness in the way that has that same sense of being attuned in a healthy, loving way to themselves, it seems to really accelerate the process. It is one of those things I wished I had known a long time ago because it could have afforded people a lot more change a lot more quickly.

Q: So really when you talk about Mindfulness, you mean meditation, but not Transcendental Meditation?

ML: It is meditation. But there are so many forms of meditation.

Q: There is nothing that people need to believe for your program to work?

ML: Nothing at all. It really is completely consistent with pretty much any belief system or religious belief system. The way I offer it to the people that I work with and the way I practice it, it is not about trying to enlighten yourself to a higher spiritual plane or anything like that. If you get there, great. That is not the stuff that I am focused on for the purpose of helping people improve their lives and relationships.

Q: And it really can physiologically change the brain?

ML: Based on the research that we’re seeing, it produces actual physical changes. Where we have the most changes is when we deal with people who have problems with relationships.

Q: A lot of your book is about improving relationships that people are already in, but can this also help attract a new relationship?

ML: You know what? I predominantly work with people who are either part of a couple but are coming in alone for psychotherapy because their current relationship is flat-out not working, or a lot of people here in Washington, D.C. are single professionals who are career focused — not just because they have to earn a living but maybe because relationships were not their strong suit and maybe they kind of avoided them and filled in the gaps with the other stuff.

I can tell you that most of the people that have engaged Mindfulness as a part of working on themselves end up finding that they are not only attracting more people — but people who are more aligned with being able to have a healthy relationship, as opposed to the barflies or the people who are emotionally unavailable or the other sorts of problems that we run into. In fact, there is one chapter in the book — it is one of the later ones — about a very high level, very intense female lobbyist who kept attracting all these really crummy guys. We were doing the other work (therapy) as well — she was looking at what she was doing — but with the Mindfulness, she was able to create a shift that insight alone had not been able to create. She noticed a big difference in the kinds of guys she attracted. It allowed her to open herself up in a different way and, I think, attract other people.

Q: If people buy the book and read it, can they achieve success on their own without a therapist?

ML: As I tell people throughout the book and I think what any responsible self-help author would say is: This may be enough for you, but if it is not, or if it stirs anything up that is big, or gets you thinking that maybe you could use some more help, I always suggest you speak with a therapist and there are resources in the back of the book about how to look for a therapist.

Q: There are actually three parts to Rewire Your Brain for Love, can we take them one at a time?

ML: First, it’s understanding your current wiring diagram — understanding how the relationships you had early on formed your relationship brain. Part two is where I talk about all the benefits or the characteristics of someone who approaches relationships from a Mindfulness standpoint. That includes all the different great electrical metaphors that I have: rewiring the alarm button, circuit breakers and the dimmer switch. That is the meat of the book. In each one of those, I talk about someone I have worked with and what aspects of the brain are coming into play. At the end, I offer a little meditation practice, teaching you how to do it, so you can work from the bottom of your brain up through the top in doing the rewiring.

You don’t have to stare at your navel or sit in a pretzel position. I wouldn’t let myself do what I thought was cheating when I went to do my meditation until I broke my ankle in three places. I now have so much hardware in my ankle, I can’t sit in lotus no matter how many cushions or anything else I use. I need to sit in a chair. When I finally gave myself permission to use a chair, not only did my willingness to meditate improve, but so did the benefits because I was being more forgiving of myself, saying, “I didn’t need to go through pain to have access to it.” I am totally into whatever you need to do to meditate.
Part three is trouble shooting and maintenance. And then at the very end there are resources, and for those who want to dig into it more, there is a much longer bibliography and list of references on my website than we were able to print in the book.

Q: How long is it until people can actually see results?

ML: One of the leading researchers in this area is Richard Davidson out of the University of Wisconsin — Madison. He is the one that the Dalai Lama told, “Here, take some of my monks and study them. If you find anything of benefit, let people know.” What Davidson and other researchers are saying is in eight weeks, you can see changes in the brain. Davidson has said that definitively you can see changes within six weeks, but as we get more and better technical abilities, he thinks that we will be able to start seeing changes in the brain in two weeks. What I can tell you is that clinically when people start to practice and they are practicing regularly — once, maybe twice, a day and it doesn’t have to be for long periods either — I start to see changes in patients, and their family members or partners start to notice differences in two to three weeks.

You are not going to achieve enlightenment in that amount of time, but you will start to see changes. And you will notice that you respond differently. Say if somebody cuts in front of you in line at the coffee shop, you don’t have the same knee jerk response. You do it a little differently. It starts to change how you respond to the world. You don’t do it out of your old habits and your old expectations and old perceptions.

Q: You also list seven characteristics for a healthy relationship.

ML: It was actually Dan Siegel who made the connection for me. Dan is a Harvard trained psychiatrist, who is now at UCLA and specializes in child psychiatry. What he said was — he was listening to the people who were doing research on Mindfulness and noticing the changes in people who practiced Mindfulness — you are using different words but that sounds an awful lot like how we define what people with successful attachments in childhood look like. He breaks them down a little differently than I do, but as I sat with my patients, it seemed to break down into the seven characteristics that I discuss in the book and those really are the types of changes that I see in my patients when they are practicing regularly.

Here are Lucas’ Seven Characteristics for Healthy Relationships: 

Management of your body’s reactions
Regulation of your response to fear
Emotional resilience
Response Flexibility
Insight (self-knowing)
Empathy and attunement — within yourself and with others
Perspective shift from “me” to “we”

ML: They are all acquirable skills. That is what we can say about all seven. You can learn to be empathic in a healthy, balanced way. You can learn to have emotional resilience. One of the best ways I have found in working with my patients for people to acquire all of those is Mindfulness.

Say you are aware that the person you are with says and does things that hit your hot button — early attachment stuff like they are always threatening to leave so you start acting all needy and wacked out — you can know that intellectually, but what the practice of Mindfulness seems to do is integrate parts of your brain that help you more smoothly and automatically know that and respond differently. If what someone says tweaks you, so you are angry, a lot of couples counselors will say, “When he says this, you remember that and take a deep breath.” We have come a lot further than that, but we still have required people to think and involve their language first. That is the higher level stuff.

When you are in the fear place and you think somebody hates you and somebody really pisses you off, you are not thinking clearly, so you have to have it wired in there to be more of an automatic, nice, smooth highway for you to get to the “he is attacking me because he is scared, too. Let’s both be in this together.” With Mindfulness it happens so much more smoothly and quickly that you don’t end up reacting out of your habit or autopilot. You are more aware and your responses are much more fluid and natural and you will respond in a way that is more conducive to a healthy relationship.

Q: What would you say to someone who is single but wanting a relationship and having a rough time finding someone. What is their best course of action?

ML: I would say the best first course of action is to get to know yourself as much as you can. The way I would talk about it is for you to have a coherent narrative of your own life story in way that helps you know how you got to be the way that you are. That would be step one. It will also help you know why you’ve been connecting with the people you’ve been connecting with, or haven’t been able to connect with people. When you are by yourself and looking for somebody that is really what I would recommend as the first step.  Also in that you get to see what your triggers are, where your strengths are in terms of being with other people and where you are less skilled. If you know that whenever you had to go to a birthday party of a friend when you were little and that you always hated to go and the loud noises bothered you, you know more about how you are wired. It helps when you remember and go back through your history. You may need a therapist or someone — a friend or a sibling — to help you put it all together and make sense of it.

Q: What is one mistake you see many singles make in regards to dating/relationships?

ML: Can I go for two? 

Q: Sure. The more advice the better.

ML: One is that we all have a style of attachment that we may not be aware of. That leads us to respond to other people in particular ways. The best example I can give is let’s say you are female and you want to find a partner, you are very eager to please, you are wanting to get it right, you are wanting them to respond to you and you wait eagerly for the phone call. When they do finally call, it feels so great but then they don’t call and you worry. Believe it or not, you are going to be attracted to and attract a guy who doesn’t really show up the way you need him to. Because basically what your attachment style is like is when you go and stand in front of a slot machine and every so often at intervals — you put in a quarter and you pull the handle, and you put in a quarter and you pull the handle — you get a hit. This guy finally called and it was three days later than you thought he was supposed to. Based on your attachment history, that is going to make you go, “Wow!. Fantastic! It is like winning the jackpot.” And then you will stand there again for another three days or three weeks chucking quarters in, trying to get another hit. So the mistake is you are looking for someone who does it the way that feels most familiar to you based on your attachment style.

A lot of times, the people I see are making the shift from that kind of old habit, looking for different kinds of guys because they are feeling different. The guys come along and they go, “He is a nice guy and he treats me well and everything, but ick, no. There is no chemistry.”  What they are actually saying is, “I am not standing in front of the slot machine, chucking in quarter after quarter and then hitting the jackpot.” They are saying, “I put a quarter in, I got a quarter out.” To them that is boring. That is not the excitement of feeling attachment or chemistry or in love. That is a long way of saying mistake No. 1 is believing that you have a type and that that type may actually just be your old habit of unhealthy ways of doing relationships.

No. 2 is — back in the old days when there were classified ads in the newspapers instead of online dating — people would put in ads that said whatever acronym — SWF (single white female) or whatever seeking someone who enjoys long walks on the beach and enjoys listening to Jimmy Buffett and whatever else. Totally the wrong stuff to be looking for. Of course, you want somebody who is companionable, you don’t want somebody who prefers sitting in front of a computer playing Dungeons and Dragons all day long when you are big into the outdoors and hiking.

Much more important is to take a look at what your guiding principles are in life, what it is like for you to be attached and what their attachment style is. Do they know enough to show up in a real and authentic way? Do you know enough about yourself to show up in a real and authentic way? Is this somebody who has emotional resilience? Who has a clue about what to do when you have a disagreement? I would love to see classified ads that talked about those things. Not having dated on eHarmony (Lucas is married), but having sat with a lot of clients who have, the idea is to look for somebody who is a good fit and that doesn’t necessarily mean smoker or non-smoker, or even a particular religion. It really is about looking for someone who has an approach to life that in an overall way is going to help you be your best self and you are going to help them be their best self.

Learn more about Marsha Lucas and her new book!

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