Interactive Repair. Emotional Touch
Interactive repair is the term used by Harvard researcher Ed Tronick to describe the way that sensitive mothers calmed their babies’ distress after being unresponsive to them for several minutes during a laboratory experiment. What has been discovered in real life is that repeated instances of parent-child distress that are followed by repair can have a very positive effect on a child. The child learns that painful experiences are temporary and to have confidence that relationship difficulties can be resolved with love. Perhaps most important, these experiences of interactive repair strengthen the bond between parent and child.
The same is true for adults. Interactive repair in a relationship is a way to alleviate the effects of emotional contagion. Without a doubt, the willingness and ability to soothe each other’s distress strengthens the bond between lovers.
One couple I worked with came for a session after a nightmare weekend out of town. Cindy and Carl had been looking forward to a restful and romantic vacation, but when they arrived at the hotel there was no record of their reservation and they had to accept a less than desirable room. Cindy was feeling bad about it and was unpacking her suitcase in silence, banging drawers and tossing her shoes into the closet. Carl, also long faced and silent, was getting more and more tense by the minute. Cindy broke the silence by looking at Carl and declaring emphatically, “We shouldn’t have stayed.” At that point, Carl totally lost it. He roared, “Then let’s go” and flung a magazine he was holding toward the bed. It caught Cindy on the wrist, and she lifted her hands to her chest and cried out, “Why are you attacking me?” Carl felt bad and apologized but added that Cindy shouldn’t have yelled at him. Cindy complained that he always blamed her.
They got it together enough to stay for the weekend, but they were edgy and cool toward each other the whole time. They had been looking forward to making love during their romantic getaway, but they never even kissed once. Cindy said that when Carl lost his temper like that, it ruined the whole weekend for her.
They had had a number of instances in the past in which Cindy would say something that would trigger Carl, and he would blow up. Eventually, he would go to her and say he was sorry, but he would explain how she had made him so angry. She would see his contrition as a manipulation rather than an apology and hold on to her resentment and disappointment.
In this instance, I told them it was obvious that they were both terribly disappointed. Yet instead of helping to soothe each other’s heavy hearts, they just took it out on each other. I explained that they would benefit from honing their skills for dealing with disappointment by being generous and reassuring, feeling their pain, moving through it, and moving on. Then instead of staying fixed on what they don’t have, they could both rally on enjoying what they do have. I told them that if this lost weekend helped them learn how to handle disappointments in the future, their loss would end up to be a big gain.
I asked Cindy and Carl to identify all the ways they contaminated each other and all their missed opportunities to put their disappointments behind them and have a great weekend. With hindsight and given the same circumstances, how might they handle such a disappointment in the future? Together they were able to identify all the critical choice points and what they could do instead.
The first thing they could do is to put off the unpacking, lie together on the bed, hold and comfort each other, and resolve to have a great time anyway. They each could breathe deeply and calm their stress. That way, when Cindy said they shouldn’t stay, Carl might be able to reassure her that they could still have a wonderful weekend together. Cindy might recognize that Carl was feeling guilty about not getting them a better room and give him a hug. Carl might hold Cindy when he said he was sorry rather than embed his words in an explanation of how she had set him off. Finally, Cindy could accept Carl’s apology and say something like, “Yes, let’s not let this get in the way of a great weekend.” They could kiss and make up. I reminded them that if one of them can self-regulate sufficiently to help the other, he or she becomes the “healer” in that moment, the one who can step out of the old routine and save the day.
New York psychoanalysts and researchers Beatrice Beebe and Frank Lachmann, who have developed a therapeutic approach based on the interactive regulation between mother and infant, have pointed out that in any adult interaction, each partner influences the other in different ways and to different degrees. Both partners don’t have the same ability at any one time to regulate their stress. An important awareness is sensing how the partner’s feelings and behavior are being influenced by one’s own feelings and behavior. In other words, neither is at fault, but both are responsible. At any moment, one of them can turn things around, take the lead, and help to turn a difficult situation into a pleasant and even an enlightening one. In effect, this new way of dealing with things together can soothe hurt feelings and deepen their love.
We live in a disembodied culture. We have air guitar contests and play tennis in the family room with imaginary balls on virtual courts. People kiss-kiss without touching. Kids can have hundreds of friends they’ve never laid eyes on. Women and men have hot sex with a throaty voice on the phone or with words scrolling across a computer screen. No wonder that even partners who love each other sometimes become physically disconnected.
When two people first get together, they can’t stop touching. They walk holding hands or draped arm in arm. They sit leaning on each other. They talk to each other with their noses just inches apart. Think back to when you felt that way with someone: when you kissed hello or good-bye and really got into it; when you held a gaze, smiling into his or her eyes; when you held a hug, your body pressed against the other’s, feeling utterly content.
Yet once partners live together, they may become increasingly cut off physically. They may take each other’s presence for granted and quit taking the extra few seconds to look into each other’s eyes and smile. They may hold grudges and punish by withholding physical contact. So they kiss on the run: good morning, sweetie; see ya later, hon; good night, dear. Eventually their interactions are more likely to be shoulder to shoulder than face-to-face—especially when raising kids or running a business.
In fact, the only face-to-face communication the partners may have is likely to be verbal, and even then they may not look each other in the eyes. Too often when I’m working with a couple, I’ll notice that even though the two individuals are facing each other and one person is saying something really important, they aren’t looking at each other. One is staring at the carpet while the other is looking out the window. That’s a miscommunication in the making. In that moment, those two people are not connecting.
There is no doubt that we rely on words to feel loved and supported. We want to be understood. We want to be able to talk things over. We benefit from uncovering tacit expectations so they can be spelled out and negotiated. We feel valued when we hear “thank you” when we’ve been sweet and “I’m sorry” when we’ve been wronged.
“I love you” are the sweetest words in any language. Life is good when love is spoken here. But words can also do damage. When two people are having trouble getting along or getting it on, words are often part of the problem. Words can be wounding, shaming, inaccurate, and spoken in anger or fear. It can be harder for partners to recover from the words exchanged than from the problem they were hoping to talk through.
Interactive repair.When a body meets a body
It pays to take a closer look at why emotional balance cannot be achieved through words alone. Good words may be reassuring, but verbal reassurance is a quick fix, and it can even be counterproductive when a word triggers a fear or anger reflex in one or both partners.
It doesn’t take much for individuals who are already primed for hurt to be offended by even an innocent comment. It doesn’t matter who starts it. If the other person responds in kind, that completes the circuit, and the couple is off and running. Automatically, the old neural imbalance and insecurity return.
A major limitation of words is that when you’re tense, the tension is present in the words you speak. Your face tightens and you look different. Even if you don’t intend to judge, there’s no way to avoid being read as condemning or blaming. If you lose it and yell, you’ve discharged your built-up pressure, but you’ve now infected your partner, who will have to expel it somehow. Then around and around it goes. When two people are in close physical proximity and one body radiates anger and fear, the other body will very likely catch the emotional infection.
Scientists have found that there’s a close physiological connection between the positive quality of feeling empathy for another and the detrimental tendency to be contaminated by the other’s feelings.
Interactive repair and empathy
We are born with the ability to read minds. Developmental researchers have discovered that one of the first interactions between mother and infant occurs when the infant opens his or her eyes, looks into the eyes of the mother, and reflexively begins to mimic the expression on the mother’s face. This is the beginning of a primitive form of empathy activated in infancy that continues throughout life. It’s a process in which individuals of all ages understand what another is feeling by reflexively and unconsciously mirroring the emotional expressions of the other.
Paul Ekman of the UCSF Medical Center did the classic research that showed the profound connection between facial expression and emotion. In one study, subjects whose facial muscles were wired to an electromyogram (EMG) were shown films of people displaying a variety of emotions, like happiness, sadness, anger, and disgust. While the EMG recorded the subjects’ facial muscle movements, a camera was also trained on their faces and videotaped their facial expressions.
To the naked eye, no visible changes in the subjects’ facial expressions were discernible. The subjects themselves reported no awareness at all of making any facial movements. Yet when the data were analyzed, the EMG recorded facial movements consistent with the emotions projected. When the videotapes were slowed down to microsecond slices, minute emotional expressions consistent with the ones displayed were completely visible. Although these emotional micro-expressions are clearly well below our conscious threshold, they have an enormous effect on us. In one study, people were asked to recall certain emotional experiences. Again, there were microsecond changes in facial expression, but the changes in the body were more than just facial.
Simply remembering an emotional experience triggered responses in the autonomic nervous system that would typically accompany the feelings of those experiences. The linkage between the face and the nervous system is so powerful that even when people were asked to make pretend facial expressions corresponding to different feelings, their nervous systems were still triggered to reflect those emotions.
The positive side of this is that we can actually feel another person’s sadness and have compassion for what he or she is going through because it reverberates inside us, and our spirits can be lifted by an inspirational story and the warmth and caring of others. The downside is that we are capable of contaminating each other with fear and anger, escalating and intensifying painful emotions.
Interactive repair and emotional contagion
Psychology professor Elaine Hatfield and her associates at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu have shown that it is not only through mimicking faces that we feel each other’s feelings; we also automatically mimic and synchronize vocal and movements almost simultaneously with those we’re observing. This is accomplished through a class of neurons that run alongside motor neurons that are called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons fi re in response to observing movements in another that trigger the same muscles in the observer that are being activated by the person who is actually moving. Although there are no external discernible movements in the observer, internally his or her body is subtly replicating what the “mover” is experiencing. In addition, the right brain of the observer also picks up subtle cues from the mover that signify danger or safety. These microexpressions and microgestures either alert or calm the nervous system of the observer. Again, the underlying mechanism is automatic and unconscious.
Hatfield and her associates provided substantial evidence that it is through this process of unconsciously mimicking the facial expression, vocal tone, posture, and movements of someone close that one person can “catch” the anger, fear, or sadness of another. The observer’s face tightens, the tone of voice and movements shift to match those of the mover, and the brain and the nervous system of the observer are triggered to experience the same emotion.
When Emotional Contagion Becomes a Habit
Janie and Theo were fighting too much over a lot of rather insignificant issues. They had been living together for three years, and they loved each other very much but were thinking of calling it quits. Most of the time they wouldn’t even remember what started the fight but their communications would deteriorate into insults, name calling, and bad feelings. They knew they were in a power struggle, and they understood the childhood issues that had programmed each of them for conflict. They just couldn’t control themselves. The constant combat particularly affected Theo, who had lost all interest in sex with Janie.
Janie was offended by a recent incident. They were supposed to meet friends for dinner, and Janie was running late. She was tones, postures, feeling insecure, probably because of a problem at the office, but she just couldn’t decide on what to wear, so she was trying on several different outfits. Theo was getting anxious about not getting to the restaurant on time, so he went to the bedroom where Janie was dressing and tried to hustle her along. Janie lost it and screamed at Theo to leave her alone. He screamed back, and they ended up so enraged at each other that they made up an excuse and canceled their dinner date.
This is clearly an emotional infection that’s being passed back and forth. It’s like sneezing in someone’s face when you have a cold, only with emotions, the effect is immediate.
I have a metaphor that seems to reach couples with a habit of this sort of contamination. If two people are walking together along a riverbank and one of them falls into quicksand, it makes no sense for the other to jump in, too. The solution is to throw the sinking person a lifeline and pull him or her out. Otherwise you’re both going to go down—and as it is with quicksand, the more you struggle, the faster you’ll sink.
How does one person in a couple resist getting infected when his or her body is naturally responding to contamination? The first step is to get into the habit of self-regulating stress independent of the partner. Self-soothing is a key aspect of emotional fitness: we have to take good care of ourselves. The second step is to help to regulate your partner’s stress. If both of you are willing, you can learn to repair the relationship more quickly after an argument or a disagreement, soothe each other’s hurt feelings, make nice, and move on.
Interactive repair and mutual regulation
We’ve looked at the role of self-regulation, particularly in the early steps of the Loving Sex Program. If we don’t regulate our own stress, our family programming can turn us into automatons, dictating how we react emotionally to the inevitable tensions in a relationship. If we weren’t loved and reassured enough as a child, or if we got too much of the wrong kind of attention, we’re more likely to misinterpret a partner’s actions or overreact with an alarm reflex and become defensive. These reflexes are often old painful feelings that were never sufficiently soothed and resolved.
We can calm our nervous systems by breathing and reassuring ourselves. Ultimately, however, what it takes to enjoy a more long-term inner felt-sense of security and lovability is coming into attunement with another safe body. By sharing love and affection, two people can come into a neural as well as a physical attunement. They are more than simply activities. As we shall see, these primal pleasures provide the foundation for an attuned connection on which emotional, romantic, and sexual intimacies are built.
Empathic touch: mutual stress regulation and interactive repair
Everyday life has its everyday stress. Getting from one place to the next—geographically or metaphorically—is stressful. Some days are emotionally challenging. You may suffer a bout of self doubt or have to stare down a dragon, and you come home carrying the day in your body. Your muscles are tense and achy.
We know that physical contact is a life-or-death factor in the health of babies and young children. There’s now a great deal of evidence to indicate that this is true for adults as well. Studies show that physical touch balances the right and left hemispheres of the brain and coordinates the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system, creating greater integration and efficiency in the body. Touch can reduce stress, ease pain, slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and relax tense muscles. The result is an enhancement of attention, cognitive ability, and mood as well as a boost to the immune system.
Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Medical School, and her team of researchers have focused their efforts on examining the health benefits of touch and the effectiveness of touch in the treatment of disease. In one study, the staff and faculty of a medical school were given a fifteen-minute massage every day for a month, and their brain waves were recorded before, during, and after the session. They were also given a series of mathematical computations to do before and after the session. The results showed that the massage increased their alertness and greatly improved their performance on intellectual tasks.
Massage therapy has been shown to increase the production of serotonin and dopamine, the neurotransmitters in the brain that are associated with positive mood, and to reduce stress hormones like cortisol. Empathic touch stimulates the production of natural killer cells, which have been shown to protect us from illnesses such as autoimmune disease and cancer.
If a massage can do all this, then people who live together have the capacity to bestow greater health and well-being on each other every day just by holding and caressing each other.
Clearly, we never outgrow the need to be physically close to a warm, loving body. Unfortunately, people who were not held and touched enough when they were children typically remain touch deprived as adults because they’re not in the habit of reaching out for contact. That could have been my story.
Therapist, heal thyself
I have no doubt that I was a touch-deprived child. I don’t remember my mother ever holding or cuddling me. I do remember her sitting between my grandmother and me in the backseat of a car on a trip to upstate New York when I was about eight. I recall going up a mountain road and squeezing toward the window to avoid her upper arm touching mine as the car shifted from side to side. I can still hear my mother saying to my grandmother, “Look. She can’t stand my touching her.” It was true—her touch actually disgusted me.
I learned a great deal about myself in the years I was in training as a therapist, and I was able to lift myself out of the constant undercurrent of anxiety and depression that had characterized the first twenty-eight years of my life. But I still didn’t seem to be able to make a relationship work. I yearned for love and was jubilant whenever I found it, every three years or so. But invariably it came to no good. Either the love was missing or the sex was missing. And I wasn’t capable of settling for less than both.
Finally, I met the man who would turn out to be my life partner. We fell in love one weekend riding our bikes along the beach in Santa Monica, bought a little house in a canyon, and moved in together. But instead of feeling loved, safe, and secure, I found myself becoming more and more anxious.
In those days he was doing a lot of traveling for his work, and it wasn’t easy for me when he left for four or five days at a time. Many nights I couldn’t sleep; I would panic at every creak that someone might be breaking in through a window to attack me.
One afternoon, as my sweetheart was leaving for a few days, I stood at the front gate with him as his taxi waited. I was sobbing, convinced that I would never see him again. It was hard for him to leave me like that, but I finally let him go.
I didn’t recognize myself. Wasn’t I a strong, capable woman— confident and tenacious? Who was this lily-livered whimpering fool crying because her man wasn’t going to be around for a few days? Here I was with the love I had always wanted, but when I should have been stronger and happier than ever, I was totally losing it. I was determined to heal myself of this affliction. I was an embarrassment to myself.
A few days after he came home, I was once again filled with anxiety. This time, I approached him in tears, saying that I didn’t know what was wrong with me because I was afraid all the time. When he sympathetically took my hand and told me not to cry, I got angry.
“Time out,” I said. “How can you tell a therapist not to cry? We believe in tears. Tears are our stock-in-trade—tears are cathartic, cleansing.”
Then he got angry and retorted, “Well, what should I say?”
Good question. I didn’t know, either. I thought for a minute, and what came out was “Just hold me. And if you say anything, just say, ‘There, there. Everything’s going to be okay.’”
He said, “I can do that,” and he did.
For several months after that, he held me silently or assured me that everything was going to be okay whenever I came to him with anxious feelings. I breathed into that sense of safety and let my trust in his love fill my heart.
I became aware that it was no wonder I suddenly felt this terror. This was the first time in my life that I felt safe enough to feel fear. When I was a child I had developed a bravado, a facade of imperturbability growing up in a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn with no one at home I could go to for comfort.
I was ashamed to show fear. I didn’t face my fears, I barreled through them. Being held and comforted by my sweetheart finally gave me an inner felt-sense of safety that I had never felt before. I’ve now come to recognize this as an inner state of primal security. An individual has that sense of self-possession when he or she has been cherished as a child.
My husband was cherished when he was a child, and he has that sense. It’s a body-based primal sense of love and safety. Just by holding me and loving me through my fear, he was able to pass that sense of love and safety on to me. In effect, he reset my nervous system.
Interactive repair. How love can rewire your body’s default settings
We know that a warm, empathic, nurturing parent balances a child’s nervous system. The parent’s ability to calm the child’s stress and also to play and have fun with him or her sets the child up to become an adult who operates with efficiency energetically. The nervous system becomes wired that way. Essentially, less emotional energy is wasted on psychic “gas guzzlers” like worry, shame, and old unresolved resentments.
Through self-regulation, mutual regulation, and interactive repair, partners can do that for each other. Empathic touch is a critical part of the process.
Ilana Rubenfeld, the developer of a highly regarded system of touch therapy, has pointed out that touch is a nonverbal communication that has the power to heal. Some people touch with a great deal of intention that imposes on the other person. Rubenfeld proposes a way of touching with a “listening hand” that picks up on the messages sent through the muscles and the skin about where energy flows or is blocked. The listening hand listens, then speaks back through touch, communicating presence and caring.
We’ve already seen how empathic touch stimulates health and immunity. Other studies have shown that just remembering how it feels to touch or be touched by a loved one can boost antibodies in the immune system for more than an hour.
Loving touch is healing. Touch that senses the other is a silent way of speaking and listening to each other.
Practicing empathic touch: holding and breathing. Interactive repair
As I became aware of the attachment research and the critical interaction between the mother and the infant in her arms, it reminded me of an exercise I learned many years ago when I was studying Tantra, a spiritual approach to connecting with sexual energy.
Tantric yoga began in India thousands of years ago and has been developed today into a series of meditative practices for lovers. I adapted an exercise I learned as “breathing the one breath” or “matching breaths” to replicate what a warm, intuitive, attuned mother practices when she follows, rather than leads, the internal rhythms of her infant.
Whenever I see stressed-out partners who are out of phase with each other, one of the first homework exercises I suggest is holding and breathing together. It’s my not-so-secret formula for success with couples.
I give some instruction in my office that starts with breathing and taking an emotional inventory. Then I ask one person to be the holder and the other to be held. The one being held is to lie comfortably, relax, and breathe. The one doing the holding is asked to match his or her breaths to the other. I tell them that it’s not that easy to breathe the same way your partner does, but it’s good to know how it feels to follow your partner’s breathing rhythms. Then they switch, and the holder becomes the one held. Finally, I ask them to lie together and hold each other any way they like and for them to silently slow down their breathing, inhaling and exhaling deeply and in sync.
Here’s an example. I gave this assignment to Janie and Theo, the couple who had explosive fights over insignificant issues. It took them two weeks to finally get to it, but once they did, practicing matching breaths had an amazing effect on them.
In their next session together they talked about the experience. Janie said that when Theo held her, he really got into just holding and being with her. He seemed to be totally patient and loving with her. She could feel her heart relax, and she just sobbed. Theo said there was nowhere in the world he wanted to be. He could feel Janie’s sadness in his own chest and in the lump in his throat, and that made him feel protective of her.
When Janie held Theo, he said he felt complete contentment, as though he didn’t have to do anything but receive. Janie held him and enjoyed feeling both her strength and his softness and vulnerability. She rocked him and even sang a soft lullaby to him. Theo said he loved it. They both laughed at that.
I was delighted to see how friendly they were toward each other. Theo added that holding and breathing together was especially helpful because it gave them something positive to do when one of them began to freak out, something each did periodically.
This was an especially effective tool for this couple because neither one of them had gotten much parental love, comfort, or attention as a child. It was as though they were both suffering from a vitamin deficiency. Vitamin L, maybe? It’s probably why each had had such a low resistance to emotional infection.
Eye contact: mutual attunement. Interactive repair
Eye contact is the first point of intimate communication, whether for sweethearts or for mother and infant. We can learn a great deal about this very basic intimacy from what takes place in the brain during the earliest phase of nonverbal communication.
In the brain imaging studies in which both mother and infant wore electrode caps to compare the parts of their brains being stimulated, the results showed that when warm looks passed between mother and infant, the exact same part of the brain in each of them was stimulated at exactly the same time: the limbic area of the right brain.
The right hemisphere’s limbic area is one of the first brain systems to be shaped by the parent-child interaction. It consists of a set of brain structures—the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala—associated with emotions and bonding, regulation of the autonomic nervous system, memory, motivation, sexuality, play, and pleasure. The limbic system also holds the ability to adjust to the inner state of another.
UCSF medical researcher Thomas Lewis and his associates, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, used the term limbic resonance to describe how two individuals can become attuned to each other’s inner states. One of the most powerful ways, which replicates the earliest intimacy of infancy, is simply by silently looking into each other’s eyes.
Earlier we saw how empathy is directly associated with an inborn propensity to mimic the facial micro-expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements of people in close physical proximity. Eye contact takes empathy even deeper.
Interactive repair and entrainment
The research consistently shows that eye gazing makes people feel more in touch with one another because they are actually becoming more physiologically entrained. They can read one another because their nervous systems come into what’s called neural synchrony.
According to the Institute of HeartMath, a center in Boulder Creek, California, recognized for its valuable contributions in stress management and heart-brain research, entrainment can occur within an individual or between two individuals.
Within an individual, entrainment consists of achieving an increased synchronization between the heart and the rhythmic activity of other physiological systems—especially the respiration, hormonal, and immune systems. As a result, self-regulation encourages the body to function with a great deal of efficiency and harmony. Inner entrainment can be achieved through deep breathing and consciously generating loving thoughts that release tension in the heart, a process that enhances PNS activity and autonomic balance; reduces anger, anxiety, and depression; promotes a positive state of mind; and enhances health and healing.
Between two individuals, entrainment enables them to regulate each other’s physiology in the same way that mother and infant regulate each other. In essence, two loving people can silently transmit information back and forth through eye contact as well as through touch that will adjust each other’s heart rate, hormone levels, disease-fighting blood cells, and more.
Interpersonal neurobiology and interactive repair
UCLA medical researcher Dan Siegel calls this kind of connection “interpersonal neurobiology.” He identifies the experience as one in which the nonverbal signals unconsciously sent between two responsive people promote a sharing of mind and emotion and a quality of intimacy he calls “feeling felt” by the other.
The data show that it’s this sense of connectedness that enables two attuned individuals to amplify positive emotions and reduce negative emotions. According to Siegel, this shared state is the foundation for the feelings of love. Even more, he asserts, this sense of attunement with another has healing properties in that it puts attuned people in touch with their authentic selves, enabling them to know and express their emotional truths. How can simply looking in the eyes of a beloved possibly accomplish all this?
There are obvious evolutionary advantages to being born hardwired to look into the eyes of the other and to see love and delight mirrored back. It stimulates the pleasure centers of both intimates, secreting dopamine, the stimulant associated with reward, and oxytocin, the bonding hormone that plays such a crucial role in physical health, emotional attachment, sexual desire, and orgasm. At best, when we look into the eyes of a beloved and see love reflected back, we feel lovable and worthy.
Limbic rewiring and interactive repair
Unlike people who had a loving childhood and learned that love was protective and respectful, those with a difficult childhood may have learned that love is painful, suffocating, or unreliable. Lewis and his associates have suggested that when someone who suffers from a pattern of unfulfilling relationships comes for therapy, the therapist’s task actually involves restructuring the client’s limbic system through the therapist’s ability to resonate warmth and understanding.
Loving partners who are willing to regulate each other with emotional warmth can also revise their individual brains’ neural networks. These researchers consider loving intimate relatedness as a form of “simultaneous mutual regulation” that achieves a deeply gratifying physiological state.
When lovers tune in to each other’s emotional states and calm each other’s breath and heart rhythms, they are influencing each other’s neural physiology, emotional stability, hormones, and immunity. Partners who can generate this state of limbic regulation together feel centered and energized and are more resilient to stress, particularly in their relationship.
Gut feelings: we know more than we think
I mentioned earlier that couples can get into the habit of not looking each other in the eyes when they talk. In fact, our right brains are continually in conversation when we are in close physical proximity. Even without looking directly, the eyes still pick up and send information to the brain. The brain receives and responds to the totality of implicit messages that include the other’s grimaces or gestures, tone of voice, and posture, and it sends a message of comfort and security or tension. A soft and loving direct gaze between intimates reinforces a true meeting of the minds and hearts of equal partners.
There’s no doubt that eye contact also imparts an added level of transparency between intimates. Although it is possible for a practiced liar to look someone in the eyes and maintain a complete fabrication, it’s not easy for principled people to do so, especially with someone who is loved and valued. When I was a child, I remember trying to lie to my father, whom I adored, but whenever I did, I always ended up giggling uncontrollably and completely giving myself away.
This is called a tell. It can be a seemingly casual sniff, a shoulder shrug, or a quick glance away. It’s the microgesture that professional poker players look for to detect if someone is bluffing.
Scientists call it emotional leakage, and when emotions are aroused, it’s impossible to prevent it. We may not be aware of where the information is coming from, but our right brains can still pick up on it and send a twinge to the gut in warning.
In general, we’re more likely to get a visceral sense of trust with someone when we make good eye contact. It’s not a big leap to see that the more two people look each other in the eyes and have genuine smiles for each other, the healthier and happier they’ll be together. It can be as simple as talking eye to eye or grabbing a glance, a smile, and a lingering little good-bye kiss before rushing out the door in the morning.
Interactive repair and practicing eye contact
When I notice that partners have a tendency to look away from each other when they talk, I give them a little experiment to try. I ask them to silently face each other, look into each other’s eyes, and relax their faces, for just one minute. I say that I’ll tell them when the time is up.
With some couples, I can see the partners’ faces soften and their bodies relax and become less defensive. At the end of the exercise they say that looking in their partners’ eyes brought up tremendous feelings of love and gratitude.
Other couples have more difficulty. I’ve seen some people with their faces frozen in a smile or a smirk. One woman who felt tense holding the gaze for a minute said she felt awkward because she realized that with two young children, she and her husband hardly ever looked at each other, especially when the kids were around.
Janie and Theo, the couple who had a bad case of emotional contagion, noticed that they hardly ever looked into each other’s eyes when they fought. When one yelled and was nasty, the other usually looked away. Then the second one yelled and the first looked away. What they yelled at each other were the typical blaming and cutting remarks that each had come to expect, the standard claptrap that two people fling at each other in a fight: you’re letting me down, this is not what I signed up for, you’re so selfish, it’s all your fault, and if you were different we wouldn’t be having this problem.
I had Janie and Theo do several exercises in my office sitting opposite each other in silence. In one exercise, I asked them to recall a particularly pleasant memory of a time they shared together and then to hold on to the feeling as they looked into each other’s eyes. The more these two people were able to comfort rather than intimidate each other, the easier it became for them to look into each other’s eyes.
They also took it upon themselves to notice when they were talking about feelings without making eye contact and to stop talking until they were both looking at each other. That way, they weren’t just on automatic, flinging insults; they could see the impact of their words or actions on each other’s face. Really looking at each other enhanced their ability to feel empathy for each other.
Intimate kissing: the biochemistry of affection
Whenever I see people who are dissatisfied with the quality of their sexual connections with their partners, there is one question I have learned to ask that is the most informative of all: “Do you kiss?” It no longer surprises me when the answer is no. In fact, it’s pretty standard.
One man, Chet, complained to me that he wasn’t getting the strong erections he used to have before he and his wife were married just a year ago. When I asked Chet what he thought was going on, he said that his wife had a very specific way she liked to make love, and although he would prefer to be more spontaneous, he also wanted to please her.
Then I asked the magic question. “Do you kiss?”
He shook his head sadly. “Annie doesn’t like to kiss. Or she doesn’t like the way I kiss. I’m not sure which. But she usually just wants to get it on.”
It’s a commonly held belief that foreplay is what men do to accommodate women to get them in the mood. But I’m finding that it’s increasingly the woman who is in a rush to get it on and get it off.
Recently, I heard a similar complaint from another young man. Brian had a problem of staying turned on with his live-in boyfriend, Ray. Ray was also impatient to get it on and didn’t like to kiss. Yet like holding and breathing together or making eye contact, kissing is one of the essentials of primal intimacy that is at the foundation of emotionally gratifying sexual intimacy.
Interactive repair and primal kissing
We’re born with the primitive urge to suckle at the breast. There is no doubt that kissing is a more complex behavior that is built on early infant sucking and evolves from that basic reflex. Sigmund Freud wrote that the child sucking at the breast is the prototype of later love relations. Renowned psychologist Erik Erikson noted that it is during the oral stage, through sucking and stimulation of the mouth, that the individual first begins to build his or her basic sense of trust.
Child psychologists distinguish between the sucking behavior associated with food intake and nonnutritive sucking, which reduces agitation and calms the baby. Whether it’s through sucking a finger, a dry breast, or a pacifier, nonnutritive sucking triggers the PNS and increases autonomic balance.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher pointed out that cross-cultural studies have found that more than 90 percent of the world’s population engage in kissing, and most involve the use of the tongue. Even in the few societies where kissing was unknown prior to contact with the West, lovers still licked, sucked, or nibbled at each other’s face.
Many animals kiss, such as “man’s best friend,” the dog. Bonobos, the famously sexy chimps that have sexual contacts frequently throughout the day, also take obvious pleasure in kissing and are the only other species besides humans who enjoy face-to-face sex.
There are many kinds of kisses. There are social kisses, in which the lips kiss the air or a cheek, and family kisses, which are on the cheek and always with closed lips even if the lips briefly touch.
Here we will focus primarily on the intimate kiss: lips, mouth, and tongue to lips, mouth, and tongue. I call it the “wet kiss.”
Interactive repair and wet kiss
This intimate lover’s kiss starts with a drawing together of two faces as their lips pucker and touch. Abundant nerve endings in the lips, the mouth, and the tongue send signals to the brain that cause an increase of blood flow to the lips, making them redder and stimulating the secretion of saliva.
The mouth and the tongue are mucus membranes, like the genitals—sensitive tissue that secretes moisture. The nose, another mucus membrane, draws in pheromones and other chemical messages in the close encounter and adds to the internal sense of arousal.
As two people share a wet kiss, hormones and neurotransmitters are exchanged in the saliva that arouse the body and activate brain mechanisms associated with safety and security, romantic love, and sexual desire. Adrenaline stimulates the heart.
The Heart of Desire
Keys to the Pleasures of Love
STELLA RESNICK, PHD
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