Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships (2015)

Chapter 8

E IS FOR ENERGETIC

Reconnect Your Dopamine Reward System to Healthy Relationships

How do you know if a relationship stimulates your Energetic pathway? It feels like this:

This relationship helps me be more productive in my life.

I enjoy the time I spend with this person.

Laughter is a part of this relationship.

In this relationship, I feel more energetic.

Take a look at this couple in trouble, and think about how you’d describe their problems:

Melissa and Maggie sat on the couch in my office. Unlike many couples who come in for therapy, they were sitting together, holding hands. But something was clearly wrong. They looked more like tired colleagues at the end of a long shift than partners in love.

The complaints tumbled out. Melissa had started drinking. First one glass of wine every now and then; then a glass every night; and soon she was buying a couple of bottles of pinot at the grocery store on Saturdays, just to see her through the week. Maggie didn’t drink. “I’m too busy,” she said, a bit primly.

Melissa arched an eyebrow. “Not too busy to watch hours of TV at a time,” she noted. “And it’s stupid TV.”

A backstory emerged. Melissa and Maggie began seeing each other in college, where each was hundreds of miles from her family. As the romance progressed, they started to spend most weekends together. Melissa was aware that Maggie was close to her family, but it wasn’t until their senior year, when Melissa and Maggie moved in together, that it became clear Maggie called or texted them multiple times a day.

Which elective sounds better: Kinesiology or Intro to Theater?

Remind me what kind of tomato sauce Mom buys.

How did the twins’ basketball practice go today?

Maggie rarely made a move without discussing it first with her family. Melissa found this odd, but not terribly troubling. The Melissa she knew was strong and capable, a woman who’d majored in electrical engineering and who had once told off the track coach for intimidating a freshman at practice.

The summer after graduation, Melissa and Maggie were married. When Melissa found herself at the altar of a large, progressive church, she paused . . . and then she panicked. Glancing out at the church pews, she saw plenty of people but few familiar faces. Maggie’s guests outnumbered hers by at least five to one.

“Hundreds of people,” Melissa said to me, when the two of them came in for couples therapy a few years later. “And almost all were members of her family!”

“Well, who was I supposed to leave out?” Maggie asked. “You don’t exclude family!” She turned to me for confirmation. “Right?”

It was an argument they’d had several times over. Melissa marked the ceremony as the point when her life became overrun by weddings, funerals, christenings, football games, and weekly Sunday dinners with her very large and very committed clan of in-laws. Melissa had agreed to move back to Maggie’s hometown after they married, imagining that it would help them save money and give Maggie the emotional support she needed as Melissa started a career in finance with long hours. Within a couple months, though, Melissa realized she was leading her in-laws’ life, not her own. The weekends that Maggie and Melissa used to enjoy together as a couple changed dramatically. Sundays in particular were all-day family events. After church—where everyone went together and sat in the same pews every week—they all gathered at the parents’ house for lunch. They would eat a big meal that was served in the midafternoon, often with several courses. Then they sat around and talked and watched TV until night fell. Spending the day in a different manner was out of the question. In a broader sense, Melissa felt that Maggie’s family was trying to suck them into their groupthink. At college, Melissa had enjoyed debating issues with Maggie, who’d held her own opinions. But now Maggie, her brothers and sisters, and her mother planned events together, painted their family rooms the same colors, consulted each other about what to eat for dinner, and were similarly critical of their spouses as a group—as if all the loves in their lives were an identical lump. The day that Melissa’s sister-in-law came over to suggest some improvements to their front yard, Melissa broke.

“My God, your family can’t let us alone! They expect us to be with them, all together, all of the time. It’s like we’ve been absorbed by a giant amoeba.”

Maggie lobbed back. “Oh, would you rather live the way your family does? They’ve only come to visit us once! And your mother didn’t even give you a hug when she got off the plane.”

“At least my family loves me enough to let me go and live my life!”

Since the landscaping incident, Melissa had refused to attend any of family gatherings. Melissa suspected that she’d become a scapegoat, with Maggie and her family bonding behind her back by talking about how different and strange Melissa was. It was about this time that the drinking had started.

Maggie treasured her family bond. When they were all together, she felt cozy and cherished. She could admit to some problems, though. Having expanded her beliefs, her likes, and dislikes during the four years away from home, she occasionally bristled at the way her mother tried to run her life. Often her mother would announce plans and simply assume that the “children” (all fully grown adults) would go along with them. Maggie had loved the independence she had in college, not to mention the togetherness she’d felt with Melissa. As they talked, a wave of missing Melissa swept over her.

“But there’s the drinking . . .” Maggie said.

“There’s your lack of interest in my entire life,” Melissa said simply.

Maggie and Melissa are clearly at a crisis point, both in their marriage and in their lives as new adults.

What’s gone wrong? What should Maggie and Melissa do?

• • •

This chapter is called “E Is for Energetic,” so it’s probably obvious that I’m thinking of Maggie and Melissa’s problems in terms of their Energetic pathways, which transmits the feel-good, animating neurochemical, dopamine. But first let’s look at their marriage in the same way that popular culture views couples’ issues. Let’s look at it through the lens of separation and individuation.

In this view, a few aspects of Maggie and Melissa’s problem are clear. The first is that Maggie’s family is pathologically unwilling to let her separate. If Maggie wants to do the essential work of growing up and forming a family of her own with Melissa, she will have to understand that her parents and siblings have been stunting her emotional growth with their demands for closeness. Their desire to have Maggie with them may look like love, but it’s not: it’s a desire to prevent her from growing into her own person, from developing boundaries between herself and them. If Maggie wants to survive as an individual, she will have to kick at her family, much the way a rebellious teenager would do, and push them away in order to recapture the independent self she forged in college. Only then will she be a mature person, ready to pull her weight in her marriage.

In this scenario, Maggie will have to forfeit the closeness and warmth she feels with her family. Would she be willing to do this? She might. If a trusted therapist tells Maggie that her family has deprived her of something that is essential for her growth, she might be so angry at her family that she’ll want to push them away. If she feels she’s been wronged, the loss of her family closeness won’t sting as much as it otherwise might. One likely outcome is that Maggie will develop a kind of angry, amused tolerance of her needy family members. Instead of joking about Melissa with her family members, it’s the family members who will become a sort of shared joke between Maggie and Melissa, one that helps the couple forge their own bond more securely.

A separation-individuation therapist would have some clear advice for Melissa, too. Melissa is not drinking a tremendous amount—not enough to affect her functioning—but she is definitely leaning on her nightly glasses of wine. And in separation-individuation theory, dependence is always a bad thing. Melissa’s task is to grow strong enough that she doesn’t need the wine. Or anything, or anyone, else.

At this point in the book, you might not see their problems in terms of the need to separate. You might see their problems differently. I certainly do. Right off the bat I notice that this relationship lacks sparkle. They’re not bringing out the worst in each other—no one is uttering curses or breaking furniture—but they don’t exactly come to life in each other’s company, either. Trying desperately to feel better, Melissa has turned to wine. Maggie is hoping that a busy schedule, family time, and a whopping dose of television will produce good feelings.

These are classic signs of trouble with the Energetic pathway, which begins deep in your brain stem and travels a winding road until it ends in your orbitomedial prefrontal cortex, a part of your brain that helps you make decisions. Dopamine is a neurochemical that zips along this path and helps you feel simultaneously fulfilled and motivated. When dopamine is flowing, you don’t feel like you’ve become a different person. That’s what makes it so great. When you’ve got a steady supply of dopamine, you still feel like yourself, except that you feel like yourself on a really great day.

The human brain has evolved to get a burst of dopamine when it does something life-sustaining. Eating, drinking water, exercise, sex, and healthy relationships are all supposed to trigger feel-good sensations, to make us want to do the things that are good for us. But the brain loves to get dopamine, and if it can’t get dopamine the ideal way, it will turn to other, less healthy, methods. Drugs and alcohol are common dopamine sources, but so are shopping, gaming, and obsessive eating. And, in Maggie’s case, tight bonding with both one’s family and one’s television.

Problems that run along the Energetic pathway often look a lot like Maggie and Melissa’s, in the sense that there is a basically loving relationship in which the fizziness has gone flat. I’m not speaking solely of romantic relationships here; dopamine is present in healthy friendships and family relationships, too. When the dopamine trickles out of one of those relationships, things don’t feel fun anymore. You may try to accustom yourself to the drab, lackluster days. You may tell yourself that adult life isn’t supposed to be fun. But eventually your brain will beg for some excitement. And, frankly, your brain is doing what it’s built to do. It’s telling you that it wants to claim its birthright; it wants to feel energized by its relationships. We are supposed to feel a sense of motivating satisfaction when we’re with the people we love. Maybe not every minute, but most of the time. Moreover, we are capable of feeling that pop of good energy even in long-term relationships. In fact, our permanent relationships can be the most rewarding.

When a basically good relationship loses its sparkle, it’s the Energetic pathway that is most obviously affected. Just look at Maggie and Melissa. Not only are they drinking and watching junk TV, they’re so depleted they barely have the energy to snipe at each other. But often these Energetic symptoms are just the tip of the iceberg. To understand why the dopamine isn’t flowing, you need to look at what’s going on with all the C.A.R.E. pathways. Both women filled out the C.A.R.E. Relational Assessment, but I think you’ll get a good sense of what was happening to them by looking at just Maggie’s:

Here are Maggie’s C.A.R.E. pathway scores:

Calm (add up scores for statements 1 through 7; maximum total score is 175): 128 (moderate)

Accepted (add up scores for statements 5 through 11; maximum total score is 175): 144 (high)

Resonant (statements 12 through 16; maximum total score is 125): 84 (moderate)

Energetic (statements 17 through 20; maximum total score is 100): 64 (moderate)

Maggie’s C.A.R.E. Relational Assessment Chart

Energy and Resonance: A Synergistic Pair

The Resonant and Energetic pathways tend to go up and down together—not always, but often. Maggie’s low Resonant scores underscore what happens when your family doesn’t want to see your full personality—and your partner can’t see how much you need your family. No wonder she didn’t feel so energetic. Imagine trying to squeeze good energy out of a relationship where you feel stifled. With these scores, Maggie is still highly functional, able to work and go through the motions of the day. But don’t most of us hope for more out of life than just going through the motions?

We agreed to try boosting their energy by attacking some of the resonance issues.

We also talked about how to see their marriage and their extended families in terms other than the “individuality versus sameness” debate. If Maggie wanted to feel good again, if she wanted to feel more emotional resonance with her family, she’d have to be her real self in front of her family and (this is the hard part) negotiate the awkwardness and conflict that would almost inevitably occur. Maggie’s task would be to help her family see that her maturity was not a threat—it wasn’t a sign of rejection, just a difference.

After several conversations about the best place to begin their efforts, Maggie and Melissa decided to take on the all-day Sundays at Maggie’s parents’ house. Maggie and Melissa decided that they would meet the family at church, but that they would go back to her mother’s only once a month; they explained kindly to her family that this was one of the only days they got time alone, and they needed to spend it on their many projects and to simply catch up on their relationship.

If you can’t imagine how an innocuous little announcement like this could have caused a problem, you’ve never lived in a family like Maggie’s. Her mother immediately wondered aloud if Maggie and Melissa’s marriage was in danger. Her sisters suggested that Maggie and Melissa were being snooty. Her brother felt generally angry and betrayed. For a couple of months, this new plan was the family’s favored topic of conversation. Melissa felt embarrassed and excluded, and Maggie was surprised by the intensity of the pushback they’d received. But instead of returning to the either/or options that they once felt they had, they decided to ride out the discomfort. They stuck to their guns by staying away most Sundays—and they kept their promise by coming once a month. They showed the family that they were committed to being both independent and close. The time away allowed Maggie and Melissa to come to the gatherings once a month in a more refreshed state, in which they could be more appreciative of the group. It wasn’t perfect. They missed the threads of many inside jokes, and for a while, they were mildly punished by being treated as outsiders. But after a while, everyone adjusted to the new normal. Miraculously, even Melissa started to enjoy visiting her in-laws.

You don’t have to wait for relationship nirvana to get more dopamine, though. Early in the therapy process, I asked Maggie and Melissa to tell me about the beginning of their relationship. I often ask couples this question, and I do it for several reasons. When people first fall in love, their neural circuits are flooded with dopamine, in the same way that alcohol and drugs can flood the brain with dopamine. If the couple can revisit that blissful time together, they can wake up some of the good energy that’s gone dormant. Maggie immediately remembered how thrilling it was to find someone like Melissa, so solid and well defined. So different from her family! At this point, both women started telling the story of their early relationship, sometimes finishing each other’s sentences. It was as if they had transported back to a time when they could see each other clearly. Our goal, I told them, was to get that energy and clarity back into the relationship.

What if you can’t remember the good times? This is a clue, telling you that the relationship is suffering from serious disconnection. You may still be able to plug back into each other, so if the relationship is important to you, please don’t give up on it. For a few couples, the relationship has never gone through those initial heady days; these are usually relationships that were built around responsibility or guilt or some other compulsive feeling. These couples have a harder road ahead.

Ways to Reconnect the Dopamine Reward System to Healthy Relationships

Melissa and Maggie were enjoying each other more, but they found it difficult to give up their substitute sources of dopamine: wine and TV. I explained that during their year or two of crisis, their Energetic pathways had become rewired. Melissa’s dopamine reward system was still connected to wine, Maggie’s to TV. Now that they could feel some pleasure in their relationship again, it was an ideal time to step in and break this unwanted neural connection.

How Are You Stimulating Your Dopamine Reward System?

This exercise helps you get in touch with the primary ways you stimulate your dopamine pathways. You can pose the question like this:

How do I make myself feel better?

There is an endless number of things in the world that can supply dopamine, and that you can become addicted to. Here are some suggestions to get you thinking:

Relationships

Food

Drugs

Alcohol

Risk-taking activities

Shopping

Gambling

Sex

Working

Exercise

Internet surfing

Watching pornography

Check off any categories that apply to your life. If there are other behaviors that apply to you, add them. Then make a rough assessment of what percentage of your feel-good time is spent with each activity.

Source of Dopamine

Percentage of Feel-Good Time

Hanging out with my friends

10%

Shopping

20%

Exercising

15%

Eating

50%

Bungee jumping

5%

This exercise can unmask all sorts of interesting facts. Like, hmmm, you often turn to food, sweets and carbohydrates particularly, when you need a lift. Exercise makes you feel good but you don’t do it that often. You don’t call friends when you’re glum because you think that makes you “too needy.” Shopping always makes you feel better, at least until you’ve spent too much money, and you run to the mall or shop online more often than you realized. Bungee jumping is not a frequent source of happiness, but you have done it a couple of times and had to put it on the list because the euphoria afterward lifts your spirits for days.

When Rufus, the office worker who was addicted to Internet porn, did this exercise, he was shocked:

Source of Dopamine

Percentage of Feel-Good Time

Surfing porn sites

90%

Being with friends and family

5%

Ice cream

5%

As Rufus reflected on these results, he could easily see that over the course of the last few years he had become consumed with looking at pornography. His life had gotten very, very small.

For her part, Maggie’s assessment helped her see she was spending more time with the TV than she’d realized. This unleashed some complicated feelings. For one thing, she didn’t feel that the TV was “stupid.” She described the relief she felt at the end of the day, when she’d jump into her pajamas, pour a cup of tea, and tune in to shows that were well-written dramas with intelligent character development. Some days, Maggie joked, she started to believe these characters were people in her actual life. In fact, this was Melissa’s fear—that was she being elbowed aside by fictional people.

Identify Relationships That Are High in Zest

The next step is to identify your strongest sources of relational dopamine; these form your best shot at reconnecting your reward system. When Jean Baker Miller described growth-fostering relationships as producing a feeling of energy or zest, she was not thinking of dopamine. That zest is a palpable increase in energy, however, generated in part by elevated levels of dopamine, created by both of you. So go back to the C.A.R.E. Relational Assessment Chart and see which relationships produced the highest Energetic scores. Consciously stirring up good experiences with these people will exercise the neural circuitry between dopamine and relationships, making the Energetic pathway stronger.

Rufus liked his guy friends, but in a placid, passive way. His most obvious source of relational zest was his sister. He thought she was sweet and kind and really cared about him. He asked her to dinner, and she was psyched; Rufus noticed that he felt a little lift in his chest when he realized she wanted to spend time with him. It was not the buzzing excitement and arousal of porn, but it was a sensation worth his attention. The more time he could spend in relationships that created this feeling—and the more he paid attention to that feeling—the better. One day his friend Drew announced that he was getting married. Rufus was shocked: he thought that all his guy friends were bachelors for life. He found that he was curious to hear about Drew’s experience with this woman, how excited and unembarrassed Drew was when he described her. Rufus felt a longing, halfway between his chest and belly, for a relationship with a real woman.

Melissa felt that drinking wine wasn’t a big problem; it was a pleasant way to relax after a long, intense day at work. But she acknowledged that wine was taking focus and energy away from her relationships. She and Melissa agreed that two evenings a week, they’d make an extra effort to connect. Melissa suggested that they make dinner together and sit down to eat it without any distractions. This ended up being a pleasant and engaging way to spend time together. Melissa still had her glass of wine or even two, and sometimes Maggie joined her. On those evenings, drinking felt different—not a way to numb out or escape, but simply a fun part of the meal.

Melissa also surprised herself by discovering that her parents—who were emotionally and physically distant—nevertheless scored high on her Energetic pathways. A few times a week, she called them at the end of the day. At first, they begged off the phone, saying that they knew she’d rather be with Maggie. Then, alarmed by the increased communication, they instructed Melissa to get off the phone and go take care of her marriage instead of calling them. But—and this is important—Melissa didn’t let this awkwardness put her off. She kept up the phone calls, and kept asking questions about their lives, and as time went on, her parents were sharing funny stories about their day and their stresses at work. There were no big reveals, but there was enough connection to produce a nice shot of happiness.

Relabel and Refocus

Now it’s time to make concrete change. First, recognize your habitual patterns. Do you turn to your addictions or bad habits when you have emotions that are uncomfortable? Twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous talk how about the urge to drink predictably comes on when you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Those emotional and physical states form the acronym HALT, which perfectly describes what you should do when your feel the urge to participate in your bad habit. But in a culture that values logic over emotion, it can be hard to interpret what your body and mind are trying to tell you. If you have the urge to “use” something to feel better, try to pause and look inward to see if there is some emotion attached to the urge. For help identifying a full range of emotions, see here.

If you’re able to identify and label the feeling, see if you can watch it move by. Although a feeling can seem incredibly dangerous, it will not kill you. Feeling states are like the clouds; with time they simply dissipate.

If the feeling does not move on and your craving continues to be strong, relabel the craving. It’s defeating to think of a troublesome habit as a failure of character or something that you just can’t stop yourself from doing. Instead, label it for what it is: a neural pathway that’s grown stronger with repeated use. I told Melissa that it would probably be too much for her to give up wine right away—her default neural pathways for wine were so strong that she would probably end up giving in. In a classic cycle, she’d feel bad about giving in . . . and then turn to more wine to help her feel better.

Instead, Melissa could say to herself, “Hmmm. I notice I really want to wind down with some wine. Okay. That’s interesting. That neural pathway is very strong.” Identifying the pathway for what it is—a series of neurons and not an inborn character flaw—is a first step toward releasing its hold over you. Recognize that whatever craving you have is just a desire to feel better, to get more dopamine. You can acknowledge that there are many other ways to stimulate dopamine that are healthier for you.

At this point, it’s time to refocus your attention on one of those zestful relationships. Call up a positive relational moment with that person, one that is full of joy and humor—the more good energy, the better. (For an explanation of PRMs, see here.) If you’re in a romantic relationship that’s lost its energy, try mining your earliest days together. Chances are you’ll find moments that are rich in dopamine.

If you feel comfortable, you could invite one or two of these people to participate in the refocusing process with you. They may have some dopamine-stimulating strategies they’d like to change, too. Agree that when you have a craving, you’ll reach out to each other. If you can meet in person, great: you’ll have the complete physiology of connection working for you and against the self-destructive craving. But if that’s not possible, a phone call or text will help to break the immediate craving and ground you in healthier coping strategies.

I asked Rufus if he would call his sister in the evenings, just to catch up on the day, and see if that helped dislodge his habit a little. He disliked the idea but tried it twice—and on one of those two evenings, he found that calling his sister helped him avoid porn. He wondered aloud if this was cheating, because it wasn’t the quality of the conversation that helped him; rather, he thought it was creepy to watch porn after speaking with his little sister.

“I’ll take that,” I said. “Talking to your sister allows you to pause and think.” Rufus wasn’t cheating. It was the brainless drifting to porn that was so problematic for him. When he could interrupt that drifting, it was possible for him to make better choices . . . including reconnecting healthy relationships to his dopamine reward system.

By lifting your thoughts up out of their well-worn neural track and moving them toward a healthy relationship, you’re putting all three rules of brain change in motion. And by pairing your neural pathway for craving dopamine with your neural pathway for feeling connected to a friend, you’ll eventually wire those two pathways back together. You’ll begin to crave relationship, not wine or ice cream or even bungee jumping, when you want a lift.

Starve Neural Pathways That Say, “You Should Learn to Feel Better on Your Own”

How many times have you been encouraged to self-regulate your emotions, deal with pain on your own, work out your troubles independently? This strategy is endemic in societies that see separation as a sign of maturity. This value is stored in your mind and in every cell in your body, so that when you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired you learn that you are to take care of those needs on your own. That’s what adults do! In fact, if you regularly turn to others for comfort, you can be called codependent. A whole self-help industry has built up around battling codependence in people—mostly women. The truth, though, is that when humans successfully manage their emotions, they never do it alone. In fact, being completely alone is so toxic to the human brain and body that in most prison systems the last-ditch disciplinary tool is solitary confinement. If our brains were truly meant to self-regulate, solitary confinement would be a piece of cake and a pleasure. Instead, it’s considered radical punishment and, according to some, a form of torture.

The goal of this exercise is the opposite of self-regulation. It’s to learn how to regulate your emotions within growth-fostering relationships. Give this one some time; this is perhaps the most difficult relational skill to master when you’ve been steeped in a world that undermines relationships. Mutual regulation means that you and another person are invested and engaged in your growth and development. As we mutually grow, we each develop rich positive relational images tied to our pathways for connection—deep, strong body and mind memories stored in our cells of what human connection feels like. Intentionally or not, we refer to these images constantly to help us manage our stress levels. They’re like a soft blanket to protect our psyches.

We’ll call again on the first rule of brain change: Use it or lose it. Neural pathways compete for brain space, so if you want these good relational images to flourish, you must starve the pathways that are vying for real estate in your head. These are the pathways that carry the social messages that it is better to do things on your own, or that you are weak if you turn to others with your sadness or anger. Spend an afternoon or a day watching how often these messages float through your brain. Whenever you catch one, simply relabel it as a cultural message that sabotages your goal of reclaiming your connected brain. Immediately move your mind to a PRM, or to a stored image of a time you were supported and how good that felt. With practice, the world can transform in front of your eyes from one filled with competitors to one filled with helpers.

• • •

With this step, you’ve reached the end of the C.A.R.E. program. People who take the C.A.R.E. workshops often comment that the program works directly on the relational issues that have troubled them the most. For all its transparency, they say that the C.A.R.E. program is also rich, textured, and surprising—just like the best relationships. As you continue to grow within your relationships, a word of caution: whatever struggles you encounter, don’t judge yourself harshly. Judging yourself will only throw your sympathetic nervous system into hyperdrive, making it harder for you to create the kind of change you’re looking for.

As I see it, the C.A.R.E. program is a bridge that leads from isolation to connection. Exactly how far that bridge extends is up to you. Does the bridge arc toward a better relationship with your spouse? Your entire family? Your workplace, neighborhood, or community? Once you experience relationships that feel Calmer, more Accepting, Resonant, Energetic, and you may be surprised at how far you decide to travel.