Empowered Love: Use Your Brain to Be Your Best Self and Create Your Ideal Relationship

Empowered Love: Use Your Brain to Be Your Best Self and Create Your Ideal Relationship

by Steven Stosny


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"Readers will garner valuable negotiating strategies, learn interactive exercises (including a 'bedroom scoreboard') to engage more proactively with their partners, and apply practical knowledge on shepherding their own relationships away from destructive behaviors and toward a unifying, durable connection. Readers on the lookout for self-development and a deeper loving connection with their partner will find ideas and guidance galore in this sensible relationship manual." — Kirkus Reviews

Ever wonder why your self-control, rationality, and compassion seem to go out the window when dealing with your partner? Couples therapist and relationship expert Steven Stosny explains it all in this revelatory book about the divide between our adult and our toddler brains. Too often, conflict in our intimate relationships reactivates our least-regulated "toddler" side, bringing out an instinctive desire to assert our own way and make everything a zero-sum game. Dr. Stosny shows the way toward overcoming these destructive impulses and nurturing our more loving and clear-eyed inclinations. Drawing upon his decades of experience in working with troubled marriages, he distills his insights into an actionable guide for embracing our best impulses in our relationships.
Empowered Love is a valuable guide for married and live-in couples who struggle with an unhealthy dynamic; those already in individual or couples therapy who want a highly effective aid to help them communicate with their partner; and licensed therapists and counselors looking for an in-depth perspective on the developmental stages in play with relationship strife.

"This book is for anyone who wants to learn from their painful relational past; rescue and revive a current relationship; and receive promise and hope for their future. This refreshingly brilliant book not only identifies the bottom line issues in relationships, it provides a concrete formula for creating mature, passionate relationships. In this book Dr. Stosny brilliantly identifies the underlying cause of all relationship dissatisfaction and distress. Refreshingly practical, the book draws a clear line between unhealthy and healthy interactions, enabling the reader to identify and prevent relationships disasters long before they happen. Steven Stosny's work never fails to inform, inspire and draw a clear roadmap to happier, healthier relationships." — Pat Love, Ed.D., LMFT, co-author You’re Tearing Us Apart: Twenty Ways We Wreck Our Relationships and Strategies to Repair Them

"If you've ever wondered why all of your relationships are a breeze except for your intimate one, wonder no more. Steven Stosny explains how intimate partners often get stuck in repetitive and unproductive ways of interacting, and how, more importantly, to break free of these hurtful relationship habits. If your relationship isn't what it once was or what you hoped it would be, before you convince yourself that you picked the wrong partner, read this book! It combines cutting edge information about how our brains drive our choices in day to day interactions along with Stosny's extensive experience in helping people love each other more. This book is a must read!" Michele Weiner-Davis, author of The Divorce Remedy

"Combining the latest in neuroscience with decades of experience as a couples therapist specializing in the most difficult cases, Steven Stosny has written a clear, practical, immensely readable guide to arm and activate our better angels. Empowered Love is for anyone who wishes to show up more humanely in our closest and most important relationships." — Terry Real, author of The New Rules of Marriage

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486819402
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 02/15/2018
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 581,071
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Steven Stosny, Ph.D., is the founder of CompassionPower, which offers counseling on emotional reconditioning. His most recent books include Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress and Living and Loving After Betrayal. Stosny's numerous television appearances include The Today Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show. A consultant in family violence for the Prince George's County Circuit and District courts as well as several mental health agencies, he has treated more than 6,000 clients and has taught at the University of Maryland and St. Mary's College of Maryland.

Read an Excerpt


Love in the Wrong Part of the Brain

We fall in love in the Toddler brain, the wonderful, emotional, impulsive, and volatile limbic system, which reaches full structural maturity by age 3. We stay in love in the profoundest and most stable part of the Adult brain — the prefrontal cortex, which reaches full maturity around age 28. Toddler-brain love is filled with wonder and joy at first, but, as we shall see, inevitably causes irreconcilable conflict and pain due to its cognitive limitation, especially the inability to see other perspectives. Adult love rises from our deepest, most humane values of compassion, kindness, nurturance, and desire for mutual growth.

Most people would agree that, despite the moodiness and occasional temper tantrum, toddlers are joyous, loving, fascinating, and fun. And that sounds a lot like a description of falling in love, doesn't it? Toddler love can be lots of fun for adults when they emphasize curiosity, wonder, and affection. But when we retreat to the Toddler brain under stress, as we're wont to do, we become impulsive, reactive, self-obsessed, and demanding.

You may have noticed that you and your partner are more likely to shift into the Toddler brain in reaction to each other than in any other kind of relationship. You can be a sophisticated adult at work, in friendships, and at parties. So why is it so darn hard to maintain Adult-brain behaviors at home?

For all the wonderful things it adds to our lives, love exposes our deepest vulnerabilities, in ways that most of us haven't experienced since toddlerhood. In early relationship conflict, when habits of interacting are formed, most lovers have not felt so emotionally dependent and powerless over their deepest, most vulnerable feelings since they learned to walk.

Toddlers are powerless over their own emotional states, yet they wield a great deal of power to make people around them feel good or bad. Adults who love like toddlers make each other feel bad simply by having interests, tastes, and vulnerabilities that fail to mirror the fragile sense of self embedded in the Toddler brain. Most complaints in toddler love take the form of:

"Why can't you be more like me? Why can't you know what I need and just do it?"

Confusing intimacy with having their partners think and feel the same way they do, they perceive rejection and betrayal when loved ones think and behave like the unique individuals they are.

Love Comes Easy to the Toddler Brain

You may have heard the saying, "Love is easy; relationships are hard." The truth is, relationships are hard because love is so easy in the Toddler brain. In the beginning, euphoria and boundless energy flow from hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin, which are instrumental in social behavior, sexual motivation, and pair bonding. They make you feel like you're walking on clouds and barely have to eat or sleep. And then there's the hyperfocus of newly acquired love; you can think of little else besides the beloved. You can tell the "in love" couples in a restaurant; they're so into each other, they barely pick at their salads, oblivious to the sights and sounds around them.

Lacking the ability to make social inferences based on evidence, the Toddler brain relies on projection to discern other people; that is, Toddler brains attribute their own emotional states and unconscious impulses to others. Love makes the Toddler brain attribute our best feelings and ideals to our new objects of fascination. We focus on what we like, while pretty much ignoring what we don't like.

As the bonding hormones that brought us together wane (they can only last a few months), the euphoric feelings of falling in love fade. We stop the idealistic attributions and begin to see things in our lovers we don't like. It's not so much that we don't like who our lovers really are, it's just that previously they seemed to be everything we really liked.

If we just stopped the idealistic attributions, it wouldn't be so bad. But the self-obsessed Toddler brain cannot stop projecting. When it feels bad, it projects negative qualities onto the now disappointing loved one. The inevitable disillusionment is what couples begin to fight about, as early as the second year of living together. They struggle, in the wrong part of their brains, to balance what I call the Grand Human Contradiction.

The Grand Human Contradiction

Human beings are unique among animals in the need to balance two opposing drives. The drive to be autonomous — able to decide our own thoughts, imagination, creativity, feelings, and behavior — must compete with an equally strong drive to connect to significant others. We want to be free and independent, without feeling controlled. At the same time, we want to rely on significant others — and have them rely on us — for support and cooperation.

Other social animals — those who live in groups and packs and form rudimentary emotional bonds — have relatively little or no discernible sense of individuality to assert and defend. Solitary animals are free and independent but do not form bonds with others that last beyond mother-infancy. Only humans struggle with powerful drives that pull us in opposite directions, where too much emotional investment in one area impairs emotional investment in the other.

Competition between the drives for autonomy and connection is so important that it emerges in full force in toddlerhood, which is why "the twos" can be so "terrible." Toddlerhood is the first stage of development in which children seem to realize how separate they are from their caretakers, when they become aware of emotional states that differ from those of their parents. They had previously felt a kind of merging with caregivers, which provided a sense of security and comfort. The new realization of differences stirs excitement and curiosity but also endangers the comfort and security of the merged state. Now they must struggle with an inchoate sense of self prone to negative identity; that is, they don't know who they are, but when aroused, they know who they're not — they're not whatever you want. Thus we have the favorite two words of the toddler: "Mine!" and "No!"

The increasing conflict with parents wrought by the drive for autonomy endangers the other powerful human drive: to connect, to value and be valued, to be comforted and to comfort. Hostility toward their parents, however short in duration, stirs uncomfortable feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety, which fuel intense emotional distress — the classic temper tantrum. Internal conflict is overwhelming for toddlers, because they have so little development in the regulatory part of their brains — the prefrontal cortex.

The Two Brains

The primary survival function of the Toddler brain is to generate an alarm. Toddlers can't take care of themselves, solve problems, or keep themselves safe. Their negative emotions are alarms to summon adults who will do those things for them.

All alarm systems, negative feelings included, are calibrated to give false positives. You don't want a smoke alarm that doesn't go off until the house is in flames; you want it to go off when there's just a little smoke, even if that means it occasionally gets triggered when someone is cooking or having a cigarette. The Toddler brain functions as if the smoke alarm is the fire, instead of a signal that a fire might possibly exist. That's like hearing a smoke alarm and screaming, "We're all going to die!" We actually come close to that level of error by assuming that Toddler-brain emotional alarms represent certain reality.

The Adult brain reacts to smoke alarms by checking out the signal to see if there really is a fire or just something cooking. If there is a fire, the focus is on putting it out, rather than reacting in panic, trying to ignore it, or blaming it on someone. In the Adult brain we pay attention to feelings as important signals but don't validate them as reality. Negative feelings are regulated with reality checks (is there really a fire?) and plans for improvement (put out the fire).

In addition to reality testing, the primary features of the Adult brain are appraisal, calculation, judgment, self regulation (of emotions and impulses), and what psychologists call theory of mind, which is the ability to reflect on mental states of self and others. With these tools it interprets and explains experience: This is why I feel this way.

Most important in regard to love relationships, the Adult brain creates value. Creating value is holding persons (objects and ideas) as important and worthy of appreciation, time, energy, effort, and sacrifice. In the process of creating value, the Adult brain constructs the meaning of our lives.

The Toddler brain is impulsive, simplistic, self-obsessed, and given to power struggles: "Mine!" and "No!" Most relevant when it comes to maintaining love relationships, the Toddler brain is subject to splitting — all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking. You're all good when I feel good, and bad when I don't; you're interesting when I feel vibrant, and dull when I feel bored. In the Adult brain, we can regulate negative feelings and impulses, integrate enjoyment and disappointment, see other perspectives, and analyze our own experience. There we can plan, weigh evidence, make sound judgments, and build a life of value and meaning.

Most parents recognize that toddlers have a very low tolerance for discomfort and frustration. We monitor their physiological states to be sure that they are rested, hydrated, and fed, to prevent sulking or temper tantrums when the least thing goes wrong. Most of their discomfort is physiological, but a significant portion comes from their struggles with the Grand Human Contradiction; it's hard for them to feel autonomous and connected at the same time. Only the Adult brain can accomplish that.

The downside of late maturity in the Adult brain (in the third decade of life) is that it comes online long after the Toddler brain has already formed habits of coping with the alarms it raises, mostly through blame, denial, and avoidance. Under stress, these fortified neural patterns, reinforced countless times over the years, hijack higher cognitive processes. Instead of modifying Toddler-brain alarms with assessments of reality, the hijacked prefrontal cortex validates its alarms and justifies its impulsivity and overreactions.

To the extent that Toddler-brain habits are reinforced in adulthood, distorting the interpretations and explanations of the Adult brain, we confuse the alarm with reality. This confusion makes Toddler-brain alarms self-validating:

"If I'm angry, you must be doing something wrong."

"If I'm anxious, you must be threatening, rejecting, or manipulative."

"If I'm uncomfortable, you must be failing me."

If the couple remains in the Toddler brain, the blamed partner will inevitably blame back, creating resentment, hostility, and greater distance between them.

It's All About Feelings

Toddler love is all about feelings, with no sense of deeper values to guide or anchor them. In the Toddler brain we vacillate between autonomy and connection; sometimes we feel like losing the self in the relationship and sometimes we feel like sacrificing the relationship for self-indulgence. The popular culture has come up with a label that covers both vacillations: "Getting your needs met." Of course, the "needs" we want to get met are the competing drives of the Grand Human Contradiction, which, when out of balance, necessarily gives us a hot-and-cold, on-and-off relationship style. (Don't worry, Part II of this book will show how to keep them in balance.)

Feelings processed primarily in the Toddler brain are highly volatile, leaping from the very positive to the very negative without a moment's notice. This is what psychologists call "splitting" (the wellspring of "all-or-nothing" thinking). You're either all good or all bad; I love you or hate you; I think the best about you or the worst. You're on a pedestal when I feel good and you're a demon when I feel bad. I appear needy or aloof. I either cling or pout. If my feelings are hostile, I'm prone to passive aggression, abuse, and even violence.

Why Toddler Love Must Turn Negative

Did you ever wonder why people are more likely to notice things that stir negative emotion than those that might invoke a positive response? I don't just mean the "negative people" who constantly look for the possibility of a dark cloud somewhere amid silver linings. On autopilot, we all give disproportional weight to the negative. Consider how much time and energy you devote to recalling and thinking about negative experiences compared to the positive.

Emotions have what psychologists call "negative bias." Negative emotions get priority processing in the brain because they're more important for immediate survival. They give us the instant adrenaline jolt we need to avoid snakes in the grass and fend off sabertooth tigers, at the cost of noticing the beauty of our surroundings.

Ironically, positive emotions are more important to long-term well-being. You'll live longer and be healthier and happier if you experience considerably more positive emotions than negative ones. Life is better for those who are able to appreciate the beauty of the rolling meadow and the sun dappling the edges of surrounding trees, as long as they are able to notice the snake in the grass, too. We have to survive the moment to appreciate the world around us.

Negative bias is why loss causes pain disproportionately to the joy of equivalent gain. Having a nice meal is enjoyable but, in most cases, is incomparable to the distress of missing a meal altogether. Finding $10,000 will be pleasant for a day or so; losing $10,000 can ruin many, many days. More poignantly, having a child is a joyous occasion; losing a child takes a lifetime of recovery.

In my Toddler brain, the negative bias of emotions makes it unlikely that I'll notice all the things my partner does that benefit me (appreciation is the province of the Adult brain), but I'll surely resent when she doesn't do what I want. In family relationships, research shows that it typically requires at least five positive gestures to counterbalance one little negative remark. If research just measured Toddler-brain exchanges, the ratio of positive to negative no doubt would be higher just to maintain neutrality.

Love in the Grand Human Contradiction

Connection in the Toddler brain is illuminated by what the pioneering family theorist, Murray Bowen, described as emotional fusion, a process by which parties in a relationship become undifferentiated extensions of each other's feelings. When adults try to love in the Toddler brain, "getting their needs met" means being joined at the hip. Any individual growth or development in one threatens the other.

Toddlers in love assert autonomy by rejecting connection, as if they can't have a self without pushing away those they love. They cope with the inherent guilt of rejecting loved ones by finding fault in their partners. The more they perceive that a romantic connection threatens their autonomy, the more fault they find.

Ironically, we lose ourselves as we find fault in our partners, and that's the subject of the next chapter.


How Can I Be Me While You're Being You?

Do you occasionally feel like you become a different person around your partner? Does it seem like he or she has to change — or that you'll have to change partners — for you to be your true self? Do you take turns acting like a stubborn toddler and feeling as powerless as one?

Well, you're not alone. Just about all lovers go through a stage of high emotional reactivity that threatens to destroy their relationship. If one makes a request or an "observation" with any hint of negative emotion, it automatically triggers an unpleasant response in the partner. It doesn't matter how the request and response are worded, the negative emotion underlying them makes both parties feel wronged and like they can't be themselves around each other.

"You're always complaining."

"I'm not complaining, you're criticizing."

"You're so controlling!"

Emotional reactivity is an automatic, usually unconscious response to specific events, situations, or people. Sometimes this is a great thing. While we are falling in love, the mere presence of the beloved fills us with fascination and joy. We thrill at the smiles of our infants and revel in the excitement of new friends. But under stress, emotional reactivity is almost entirely negative. The environment seems more threatening or fraught with uncertainty. Our "buttons get pushed" more easily. We're more likely to lash out or, if we hold it in, emotionally shut down. In couples afflicted with high emotional reactivity, a negative feeling in one partner triggers chaos or shutdown in the other.


Excerpted from "Empowered Love"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Steven Stosny.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface: Love Relationships: A World of Their Own vii

Part I Toddlers in Love 1

Chapter 1 Love in the Wrong Part of the Brain 3

Chapter 2 How Can I Be Me While You're Being You? 13

Chapter 3 Toddler-Brain Coping Mechanisms 23

Chapter 4 Toddler-Brain Relationship Destroyers 31

Chapter 5 Toddler Love Is a Jealous God 49

Chapter 6 Relationship Dynamics in Toddler Love 55

Part II Adults in Love 69

Chapter 7 Overcoming Intimate Relationship Dynamics in the Adult Brain 71

Chapter 8 The Adult Brain Uses Values to Balance the Grand Human Contradiction 81

Chapter 9 The Adult Brain Uses Metaphors to Balance the Grand Human Contradiction 95

Chapter 10 Closeness and Distance: The Laws of Emotional Bonds 101

Chapter 11 Binocular Vision 117

Chapter 12 Adults in Love Respect Individuality and Honor Differences 127

Chapter 13 Developing Adult-Brain Habits 147

Chapter 14 Power Love Negotiation 159

Chapter 15 To Get the Partner You Most Want to Have, Be the Partner You Most Want to Be 171

Chapter 16 Sex and Power Love 177

Chapter 17 Empowering Power Love 189

Chapter 18 The Most Loving Thing You Can Say to Your Partner: Teach Me How to Love You 203

Epilogue and Summary 209

Appendix: The Toddler Love Epidemic 213

Index 223

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