Happy Relationships – A Protective Force in Life
A fascinating experiment was reported in a March 2012 New York Times article, The Brain on Love, by Diane Ackerman which provides scientific evidence for the healing and protective power of love. In 2006, James Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia measured the level of anxiety and actual pain experienced by women to whom an electric shock was delivered through their ankles.
The experiment involved two trials, the first in which the women were alone under the condition of being shocked, and the second in which the women were holding the hand of a loving partner. The result? The same level of electricity produced lower levels of neurological activity throughout the brains of the women holding their partner’s hand than when they were alone in the experiment. While holding their partner’s hands, the women experienced less anxiety before being shocked and less pain during the event of being shocked.
These results have a great deal to do with the fact that when we are in happy committed relationships we experience emotional and physical safety; we enjoy the experience of what developmental psychologists and attachment researchers identify as a secure base. Our partners, like good enough parents, actively supply emotional and physical safety, and we absorb a sense of them and what they provide and put that inside ourselves. When we enjoy reasonably secure attachments, we become more courageous and more interested in exploring the world. This finding of attachment research first emerged in studying children, and also pertains to adult relationships; attachment experiences we had as children tend to predict our behavior as adults.
Of course, not all of us have had the benefit of being raised by parents who were themselves that secure, and some of us suffered parenting which was more or less or even seriously misattuned to our needs when we were small children. The result for those of us in this category is that we struggle with self doubts, or perhaps behave as if we really don’t need other people, or fall somewhere in between these two descriptions.
The good news, however, is that through careful selection of partners we can change our experience of ourselves from insecure to reasonably secure. Of course this achievement will change our attitude about the outside world in a similar way. Through loving, supportive relationships, we become more trusting that the world will welcome us. If we “feel felt,” a phrase attributed to neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel, our experience of ourselves is validated and valued, and we become more connected to what’s inside of us and what’s outside, and we become stronger.
Life can be hazardous, and shock us, hurling what Hamlet described as the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at us, but it all goes down easier if we have good friends and loving relationships. We know that if we have relationships which have these qualities, our bodies, minds, and spirits are supported; recovery from illness and injury is easier, and we tend to live longer.
Do you have any stories about how good relationships have helped and protected you?