“There are so few people we can count on to walk this difficult journey with us,” Adrienne Rich captioned the footage her wonderful definition of honorable human relations. The harshness of life is that along the way, people who once seemed capable of the task break down in character when life becomes difficult, so naturally do hardships visit all human lives.
When a relationship crumbles under the weight of life, the collapse is not only psychological but also physiological—something that becomes less and less surprising as we learn more and more about consciousness as a whole-body phenomenon beyond the brain. A quarter of a century ago, pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg began the demonstration how relationships affect our immune system. But there’s no system they affect more profoundly than the limbic: our neurophysiological center for emotion, which psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lennon explore in their revealing book A general theory of love (public library), who also gave us their insights music, the neural harmonics of emotion, and how love rewires the brain.
The profound disruption of relationship disruption, they note, is linked to our earliest attachments and how our system processes separation from our primary caregivers—a primal response not characteristic of the human-animal:
Remove a puppy from its mother, place it alone in a wicker pen, and you will witness a universal mammalian response to the breaking of an attachment bond—a reflection of the limbic architecture common to mammals. Short separations cause an acute reaction known as protestwhile long separations give way to a physiological state despair.
A single puppy is the first to enter the protest phase. He walks tirelessly, inspecting the surroundings from all vantage points, barking, scratching the floor in vain. He makes vigorous and unsuccessful attempts to climb over the walls of his prison, collapsing in a heap with each failure. He whines piteously, shrill and screeching. Every aspect of his behavior shows his distress, the same discomfort that all social mammals experience when deprived of those to whom they are attached. Even young rats protest: when their mother is gone, they let out a continuous ultrasonic scream, a plaintive chorus that our dull ape ears can’t hear.
Behaviorally and psychologically, the despair phase begins when arousal, which can manifest as anxiety in humans, turns into lethargy, a state that often accompanies depression. But a sudden and prolonged separation causes something much more than psychological chaos – it unleashes a full-system somatic shock. Various studies have shown that cardiovascular function, hormone levels, and immune response are impaired. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannan unequivocally record the result:
A breakup is a great bodily strain… Prolonged separation affects more than just the feelings. A number of somatic parameters go astray. As separation thins the body, the loss of a relationship can cause physical illness.
But as terrifying as this reality of intimacy and its ruptures is, it also shows something wonderfully confident in its mirror image—just as painful relationships can disrupt our regulation, healthy relationships can regulate us and recalibrate our limbic systems, forged in our very core. early affections.
Solving the eternal enigma of trust seems both mundane and profound—simply the practice of continually refining our discernment of character and cultivating intimate relationships that cannot be breached by life’s harsh edges, with people who are the human equivalent not of poison but of medicine, and striving for our own to become those people for the emotional ecosystems of those we love.
Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannan write:
Relationships are a physiological process as real and powerful as any pill or surgery.
Complete self-sufficiency turns out to be a dream whose bubble is burst by the sharp edge of the limbic brain. Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying close to them.
It may seem simple, almost simplistic, but it is one of the most difficult and life-saving arts – for, lest we forget, “Who we are and who we become depends in part on who we love.”
Complete with Alain de Botton the psychological moebius strip that keeps us in unhealthy relationships (and how to break them) and David White on deeper meanings of friendship, love and griefthen review Hannah Arendt further which actually means forgiveness.