The Love Revolution: How A New Brain-Centered Therapy May Save Relationships

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Is there any topic that baffles the human condition more than love? And yet, how much do we really understand about its fundamental components? The general consensus, going all the way back to antiquity, has been that love is a mystery, both inexplicable and incomprehensible to the human mind.

It is something we all seek out and aspire to, regardless of how much pain the search may cause us. But forget those dated clichés for just a moment. Because today, with the help of a science that focuses specifically on how to maintain a stable and secure relationship, experts in the field are now almost certain that love is a basic survival code that has been hardwired into our brains over the course of thousands of years, a symbiotic relationship that kept us safe from predators while perpetuating the species and ensuring survival.

Of course, even eons of human evolution didn’t prepare us for a rapidly changing economy, which would further complicate the nature of human relationships. The way in which we find romantic partners, the courtship ritual, and even the longevity of romantic relationships are now subject to economics and technologies that simply refuse to slow down and wait for us. As divorces became more prevalent in modern society, couples wishing to get their relationship back on track went to counseling sessions. At one time, talk was the only option on the table.

But over the last 15 years, relationship studies have advanced exponentially, seeing the rise of a new systematic treatment known as “emotionally focused therapy” (EFT). It attempts to repair the bonds that erode over time with couples, helping them to deal with their emotions rather than having the couples talk about incidents that may have led to emotional discord within the relationship. Instead of finding faults about each other, the emphasis is on how they deal with disagreements and bad news.

EFT is now being hailed as the most successful approach to healing fractured relationships between dissatisfied couples. It has a 70 to 75 percent success rate, and is being taught to practicing therapists in 25 countries around the world. With the advent of functional MRI (fMRI), a procedure using MRI technology that measures associated changes in blood flow to the brain, clinical psychologists and relationship councilors can now analyze people’s neural patterns in real time. After monitoring these brain patterns they can then compare the results to data collected during the therapy sessions.

Dr. James Coan from the University of Virginia put several happily married women, separately, into these fMRI machines. He then took pictures of their brains as they witnessed tiny circles and x’s flashing before their eyes. These women were then told that when they saw the x’s, there was a 20 percent chance they would receive an electric shock to their ankles. The women sometimes faced the shock alone. Other times a stranger came into the room and held their hand. And finally the women faced the shock with their husbands clasping their hand. When the x’s showed up in front of their eyes when the women were alone, their brain patterns lit up with an alarming rate and panic set in. But when the stranger clasped their hand, they reacted with less alarm. However, when their husbands gripped their hand, they barely even noticed the shocks and their brain patterns were very calm.

These subjects all had another variable in common: they had received EFT prior to the experiment. For those who had not received EFT, clasping their husband’s hand had little or no effect. Thus in an insecure and unstable marriage, the spouse was not a safety cue. Dr. Sue Johnson, one of the leading global figures in EFT, explains the results of this experiment: “What the fMRI allows us to do is to look at the physiology that is going on,” she says. “It can help us look at peoples’ brains and how they are reacting to things.”

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