In my previous blog post, It’s Not Cheating, It’s Just Sex, I discuss weighing the benefits of a committed, loving relationship against leaving a partner for a lusty indiscretion. The feedback I received (all privately) was varied, but among readers’ responses there appeared a defensive despair. “It’s not that complicated. If it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t. Why bother remaining in a relationship if it makes you feel shitty? At that point, you’re just settling.” I would like to address the credence we afford our “feelings.” Socrates stated, “The unexamined live is not worth living for a human being.” And while there is something to be said for “going with your gut,” there is also something to be said (particularly in the context of romantic relationships), for asking ourselves why we feel the way we feel. Why are some excited by the notion of multiple sexual partners, and others deeply offended?
Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of WHY MEN WANT SEX AND WOMEN NEED LOVE, attributes the individual’s romantic inclinations to his “love map.” A “love map” is a “blueprint that contains the things we think are attractive…determined by the brain’s hardwiring and a set of criteria formed in childhood.” Sigmund Freud believed a child’s amorous interest in his parents “fixes his attraction to later lovers.” His repressed memories and emotions remain in pristine condition, to be exhumed at a later date, unchanged. Freud wrote, “The unconscious, at all events, knows no time limit.” Indeed, many scientists believe love maps begin forming around age six, and are firmly in place by age fourteen.
This supposition not only dooms us to re-live the lives of our parents, but to pass their dynamic on to our children. And it is flawed for two reasons. First, memory is not a thing. Your heart is an object but the pulse it generates is a physiological event; it occupies no space and has no mass. Secondly, memory is not only mutable, but the nature of the brain’s storage mechanisms dictate that memories must change over time. In their book, A GENERAL THEORY OF LOVE, authors Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., and Richard Lannon, M.D., assert our love maps are determined at the crossroads of implicit versus explicit learning. Lewis et al., states, “The physiology of memory determines the heart of who we are and who we can become…the plasticity of the mind, its capacity to adapt and learn, is possible only because neuronal connections can change…The stability of an individual mind—what we know as identity—exists only because some neural pathways endure.”
Explicit learning encodes memories of events including autobiographical recollections and discrete facts. This is commonly described as our perceptions. However, there is a wealth of learning human beings absorb without being consciously aware of it; this is implicit learning. We tend to give greater credence to explicit knowledge of facts, but this is misplaced, as evidenced by distorted eye witness accounts, and those small moments of, “Huh, I remember it differently…” we experience on a daily basis.
For example, Mr. Underwood suffered catastrophic damage to his hippocampus, destroying his explicit memory, and leaving him perpetually living in the present. Researchers taught Mr. Underwood to braid, a skill he did not have prior to suffering brain damage. After he had mastered it, researchers asked him if he knew how to braid. He replied, “No,” a truthful statement from his perspective. But when three strips of cloth were placed in front of him, he wove them together without hesitation.
In my post entitled, The Four Phases of Love: It’s All About Chemistry, I examine the impact of brain chemistry on physical and emotional reactions to potential mates. In my post, Its Not Cheating, Its Just Sex, I go on to illuminate how those lusty reactions are biologically different from love, though they might eventually come together. But what makes one lusty relationship evolve into bonded bliss, and the next fizzle in a matter of weeks?
When it comes to mate selection, overwhelmingly, it is this mysterious, implicit learning mechanism—our unconscious knowledge—that tends to take charge. A person’s brain chemicals could compel him or her to be sexually attracted many potential partners, but he or she is only likely to fall in love with a fraction of those. And of those love objects, he or she is only likely to commit long-term to one of them. Even amongst non-monogomous or polyamorous relationships, more often than not, there is an essential diad at the center of a network of lovers, a “primary” partnership. “The One,” in the end, may be a complete disaster for you on paper, yet, when you met, the “chemistry” was perfect, and deep down, you “just knew.” But did you ever stop to ask yourself, why? Why do we assume this mysterious intuition a beacon of truth? How do you know a broken love map isn’t steering the boat, and your love object isn’t necessarily “The One,” simply familiar? Why, no matter how many different choices you’ve made with each subsequent partner, do you still end up in the same type of relationship?
If you don’t ask yourself these questions, you may negatively crystallize a potentially malleable romantic dynamic. Lewis et al states, “If a child has the right parents, he learns the right principles…love means protection, caretaking, loyalty, and sacrifice. He comes to know it not because he is told, but because is brain automatically narrows crowded confusion into a few regular prototypes.” Equally, if your parents have a dysfunctional relationship, this will produce implicit schema as well, planting “an erroneous generality” in a child’s brain. His implicit or unconscious knowledge “distills but does not evaluate” how applicable the early lessons of family life are to the larger adult world.
Murray Stein, author of CARL JUNG’S MAP OF THE SOUL, might suggest these “prototypes” are another term for Carl Jung’s archetypes, which are psychic structures that organize unconscious learning. Stein offers an example:
If a man reminds a woman of her harsh abusive father by his tone of voice, way of reacting to life, intensity of emotional response, and so on, he will [stimulate] her Father Complex. If she interacts with him over a period of time, material will be added to the complex. If he abuses her, the negative father complex will become enriched and energized, and she will become all the more reactive in situations where the father complex is [stimulated]. Increasingly, she may avoid men entirely, or on the other hand, she may find herself irrationally drawn to them. In either case, her life becomes restricted by this complex; the stronger the complex, the more restricted is the range of the ego’s freedom of choice.
Before you sever a connection to a loved one–for any reason–make sure you are operating under freedom of choice, and not explicit knowledge based on ill-informed, implicit experiences. In other words, examine your ego and the extent of it’s pride. What if sometimes a bad relationship feels good because it’s what you know, and a good relationship makes you feel shitty because it challenges self-destructive patterns, and nothing hates to be disproven like a cyclical negative thought?
Remember, both implicit knowledge and explicit knowledge are equally subject to censure. And you cannot tease out reality from fantasy, unless you place both under a microscope. What is important to you in a relationship? What do you share that is unique and special and beyond prideful reproach? And most importantly, why?
A reasonable person might assume analyzing pivotal moments in childhood will resolve his troubles, turning talk therapy into a treasure hunt for the explicit past. Autobiographical memories are useful, but “explicit memory is not a shrine.” People rely on the rational mind to solve problems, and are naturally baffled when it proves useless to effect emotional change. Recounting a timeline of your past alone will not navigate you out of these muddy waters. You have to engage in relationships, see what comes up in the present, and be able to withstand the discomfort of when your wires cross with your partner’s–long enough, at least, to determine the origin of the conflict, and whether or not it is rectifiable. Keep in mind, those wires can change, but not when left alone in isolation.
I’d like to end with a quote that summarizes it best for me. In her book, THE STRUGGLE FOR INTIMACY, Janet Geringer Woititz states,
Knowing what you don’t want does not mean you know what you do want. You need to learn what a healthy relationship is. You need to learn how to achieve one…Struggle is inevitable. Discouragement is inevitable. However, so is –sharing, loving, enhancement, joy, excitement, companionship, understanding, cooperation, trusting, growth, security, and serenity. The choice and the challenge are yours.