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May 30, 2011 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Healthy Minds on Campus – Balancing Relationships

We receive lots of advice on getting over failed relationships and little on preventing breakups. relationships leave us puzzled as we fail to understand relationship process. Relationships demand balance between individuality and togetherness.

Balance begins at birth. Survival requires relationships, but thriving as an individual is essential. We must be in relationships in order to grow as individuals: this balance continues through- out life.

We sense threat about establishing and maintaining a relationship and when we believe that we are losing ourselves somehow in a relationship. We then react, and emotional process between these two threats looks like a see saw that can destroy a relationship. The lack of awareness of this process can further the demise and drown us in feeling states that we use as guides to tell us what to do.Feelings represent secondary re-assessments for threat or safety. For example, if a relationship overwhelms us, we sense threat to our individuality.

Feelings flood us reinforcing the relationship is somehow a threat to us. We react to that feeling and decrease the importance of the relationship in our lives. As soon as we sense some kind of relief from the intensity of the relationship, we then begin to sense threat about the possibility of losing the relationship.

Feelings flood us again that push up back toward the relationship. We are confused, and our confusion confounds others. While we are reacting, our partners are engaged in their own emotionally reactive process. Neither the relationship nor the sense of Self is reinforced during these emotional reactions. Another factor complicates our ability to perceive and interpret emotional process: our families teach us what is threatening and safe. During this process of learning, we establish physical body states and are jerked back into these states when a situation is even remotely similar to a past threat. A neuro-researcher/psychologist, Joseph LeDoux, states these physical body states are formulated by age four and remain unchanged through adulthood. This means we react to our current lives based on four year old logic. Many times as we are able to gain perspective on what has happened in our relationships, we find that we have acted much like a four-year-old.

The brain recalls recent events first, keeping original events shielded from recall furthering the illusion we are acting vs. reacting. Everything seems about here and now instead of about original events that set up our reactivity, and we react with illogical intensity. We cannot expect others to understand the importance we place on here and now when we are reacting to the past.

So how can we manage this?

• Be careful about reacting based on feelings
• Check your reaction for past influences—does the reaction seem too strong for the circumstances
• Know that your partner experiences the same emotional process
• Sit down and work to understand the circumstances of each of you


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  1. Sharon,

    This is a very important idea for college students — and really, everyone — to consider. The push and pull of relationships and of maintaining independence without pushing people away can seem like a force bigger than us. Same with the idea of discerning whether our reactions are truly in response to the situation at hand, or our brain trying to protect us based on past events. Both of these issues came up a LOT with the high schoolers I was working with last year, and it seems like with many other problems and growing in maturity, it all has to begin with awareness.

    Your comment about Joseph LeDoux was surprising to me, as I’m unfamiliar with his work but definitely intrigued now to look into it.

    Thanks for the good post. I’ll be following your column, and I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that I’ll have the chance to intern with you at Victoria next spring.

    -Valerie Kusler
    University of Texas MSSW Candidate

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