Marriage makes a difference to your brain – and the safety of your world by Dr. Sue Johnson

Marriage makes a difference to your brain – and the safety of your world by Dr. Sue Johnson

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We live in a co-habiting world. Many of us do not even bother to walk down the aisle anymore. So my neuroscientist colleague Jim Coan’s recent finding (link to it) that our brains make a real distinction between formal marriage and living together in terms of how we deal with danger and threat is totally fascinating.

Love is now coming under the microscope and scientists are laying out its laws. Einstein suggested that the most incomprehensible fact in the universe is that our complex world is indeed comprehensible – we can understand it. In the 21st century, this includes our deepest relationships with those we love. A couple therapist, like myself, can now work with a neuroscientist like Jim and document how, after therapy, my client’s brains respond differently to danger cues. In this case, the cue was a big red X appearing in front of your face, signalling that an electric shock to your ankles might be coming as you laid out on the metal bed in a brain scan machine. In this earlier study, we found that after, and only after, you have learned to shape the loving conversations that are part of our emotionally focused couple therapy (or EFT as it is called), the comfort offered by just holding your partner’s hand seems to turn off the brain’s alarm system and lessen pain when a shock is delivered.

In a nutshell, we can study how, in the bonding animals we call human beings, trust and a sense of secure emotional connection with a loved one calms the fear centers in our brain and lowers our reactivity to threat and our perception of pain. The sense that we belong and that we are loved is a giant safety cue that releases us from chronic vigilance and stress.

What is amazing is that Jim’s latest study found that this soothing effect only works IF YOU ARE MARRIED TO YOUR LOVER!  The partners in his latest study were all pretty happy and had been together for a while, but ONLY the brains of the married partners responded to hand holding with their significant other by moving into calm equilibrium in the face of red X’s, threats of shock and promises of pain. So, loving contact turns off neural alarms. It calms us – if we are married!!!

Now how come our brain cares about whether we have a ring or have signed a book? Seems like the best explanation is that this is about commitment and the sense of secure bonding that public commitment fosters. Marriage is a public declaration that you matter to each other in a unique way and that you intend to be there for each other over time and to face life’s challenges together. I can remember my wedding day and my brain was definitely telling me that this was some BIG event that was going to change my life. That is why I was shaking.

In our research with distressed couples, we see the healing power of moments when partners risk, show their need and reach for each other and find that the other is there – open and responsive. We call these moments Hold Me Tight conversations. The partners who do this in our session most often leave with a repaired relationship and a more secure bond. A marriage ceremony is kind of like a Hold Me Tight conversation where each person asks the ultimate bonding question – “Will you be there for me and treasure and hold me?”  and receives “YES” response, this time witnessed by each partner’s tribe of loved ones.

Interesting – the emotional consequences of declared commitment. It seems to offer us a sense of safe haven and freedom from fear. This might be one reason why marriage isn’t going to die out anytime soon.


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