Being Better, Being In Love

A new field of study called interpersonal neurobiology is providing new insights into how we form and maintain romantic relationships and how our partnerships can help us improve our lives. This field is grounded on the simple but ground-breaking discovery that our brain continuously rewires itself throughout our lifetime in order for us to adapt to our environment. (Formerly, it was believed that our brain stops developing at the end of adolescence.)

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That discovery implies that, by altering how our brains are wired, the relationships we get into shapes who we are. So when we engage in a relationship that we are happy about, we can’t help but absorb our partner’s personality into our own. We take on his or her opinion, tastes, and even habits. Conversely, he or she also takes on ours.

If the relationship goes on ideally, you and your partner will function like a single entity, each of you being able to understand and speak for the other. You will be each other’s better half or – as the romantics like to call it – soul mates. If everything goes well, you will even create something that is literally half of each of you – your children.

Marriage needs to be emphasized here, as there is a big difference between the love between two people who have grown with each other and those who have only recently been in love. In a study at Stony Brook University, psychologists found that reward centers of the brain light up when a person looks at a picture of his or her loved one. But the difference is that long-married couple registered calmness, while sites associated with fear and anxiety lit up for new sweethearts.

A different experiment conducted at the University of Virginia adds another dimension to that finding. In this study, which was headed by neuroscientist James Coan, it was observed that when women were exposed to a pain stimulus, their brain registered significantly lower response if they are holding their spouse’s hand. This implies that if you are in a loving and committed marriage, just feeling your partner’s presence is enough to sooth the negative effects of physical pain.

And there is more than one advantage. The study also found that in the absence of external distress or worries, our brain works much better to improve ourselves – able to focus on an important task, for example – when we are around the person that we love. In a career-driven society such as that of Singapore, that’s an important thing to know for couples: you function better when you’re close, emotionally and physically, to the person that you love.

That, however, may also work against you if both you and your partner genuinely love each other but just can’t seem to go along together well anymore. When this happens, a separation becomes doubly difficult instead of being a relief. But because we are capable of rewiring our brains (that is, change our attitudes) it’s possible that with the right changes, and with the guidance of a professional therapist, any marriage can be salvaged as long as each partner still feels some love for the other.

It’s a sad fact that the divorce rate in Singapore is increasing. But perhaps with better understanding of how love works, we might be able to bring it down and save more families from troubled relationships. We already know that there are more advantages to being married: a wealth of studies conclude that marriage is a reliable indicator of longevity, medical and emotional health. Now that we know we can will ourselves to remain in love with our partner, there’s really little reason not to be.

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