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THIS IS YOUR BRAIN IN LOVENew Scientific Breakthroughs for a More Passionate and Emotionally Healthy Marriage
By Earl Henslin Becky Johnson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Earl Henslin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThis Is Your Brain in Love ... or Is It on Drugs?
The brain in romantic love resembles a huge geological and meteorological event: earthquakes, cyclones, tsunamis. -JOHN COMWELL, SUNDAY TIMES ONLINE
We'd been platonic friends for five years. I had admired his creative leadership in our advertising company, along with his reputation for fairness and kindness," Annie explained.
"I admired her artistic abilities and her winsome smile and wit," David said, squeezing his wife's hand. "Of course I noticed her other obvious assets, but I never pondered them. In truth, I was grieving the loss of my first wife to breast cancer, and it took all my focus just to get through the day for a long time." The couple often talked by phone and e-mail, usually about a project, and saw each other only a few times a year. David worked in New York, and Annie worked out of her home in California.
"Looking back, as the years passed," David says now, "I think a certain tenderness grew between us. Annie seemed to understand the grief I was walking through, and I felt protective of her in a big-brotherly way, since I was several years older. We were fond of each other in the way ofcompassionate friends."
And that's as far as it went. A friendship of mutual admiration. Professional colleagues. Then one day, in basically one moment, that friendship was set on fire.
As a Christian therapist who uses brain imaging as part of my regular practice, I know that in the Playbook of Love, this sort of friendship-set-on-fire passion can be the most potent and sometimes the most lasting. That is why I asked Dave and Annie if they'd share their falling-in-love story for us in this book. They eagerly agreed, saying, "That's one of our favorite subjects!"
Annie dove right in. "My husband of twenty-something years walked out of our marriage during his apparent midlife crisis. This shocked my entire system to the core. I was stumbling along trying to remember who I was, groping for what was real, and in such agony of heartbreak, it seemed I'd never stop crying and grieving.
"Enter David, kindhearted friend, voice full of compassion. Steady, faithful, good ol' Dave. Having survived the loss of love, he became a rock in the storm, an understanding friend through the minefields of my own brand of grief. But I'd never considered David anything other than a dear friend.
"I was on a business trip and ended up on the shores of Toronto, eating alone at the hotel's restaurant, which happened to be a romantic Italian eatery. Couples all around me were holding hands and peering into each other's eyes or laughing in the familiar way of longtime lovers. I swallowed the lumps rising in my throat, willing myself not to cry. I looked out the window, hoping for a different view, but as fate would have it, couple after couple was strolling hand in hand along Lake Ontario. I reached for my second (or was it third?) glass of Merlot when I heard Dean Martin's recorded voice crooning, 'When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie ... that's amore!'
"That did it. I quickly downed the glass of wine, skipped dinner, and asked for my check. I made my way to my hotel room, threw myself across the bed, reached for my laptop, and sent an e-mail to my friend Dave. As if my heart had taken over my head, I found myself typing, 'If I marry again, David, I hope it is to a man exactly like you.' Whether it was the wine, the vulnerability of my drifting alone in a sea of couples, or a sudden true revelation of the heart, I found myself typing. 'You know what, Dave? I just realized that I think ... I love you.' I later read that C. S. Lewis, in speaking of his own longtime friendship with and ultimate marriage to Joy Davidson, wrote, 'No one can mark the exact moment at which friendship becomes love.' But for me, at least, the moment when my feelings for David turned to love is crystal clear.
"I pressed Send and held my breath, feeling like Meg Ryan in the movie You've Got Mail, knowing that with the typing of a few letters, I'd just risked the possibility of another painful rejection."
LOVE ARRIVES; LOGIC TAKES A VACATION
Annie swallowed a sip of tea and continued. "Within minutes, David responded as always, with kindness and candor. He was flattered-said he would pray for me to find a good man sooner rather than later. He was so terribly sorry about the deep pain I was in, as he'd been through a similar agony of soul. But he assumed my grief had left me seeing him through rose-colored glasses. 'You should know I'm not perfect, that I have flaws, that I'm not the Knight in Shining Armor you may imagine.' He wrote, 'Though I think I'd have been a lot better man to you than your sorry ex-husband was, I do not think you are able to be very rational right now. This is a vulnerable time for you.'
"Ouch. My wine-induced confession had been nicely sealed up and tied in a bow by David's sane and benevolent reply, and that should have been the end of that. Back to logic and reason-and to being good ol' platonic friends. But as Blaise Pascal once wrote, 'The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing,' and once the hint of attraction was let out of Pandora's box, we were both suddenly hit with a love potion so great that it took over our senses for the better part of the next year."
"We seemed the least likely of candidates for such a passionate and sudden romance," Dave shared. "Both of us were the middle-aged steady types. Our artsy, more roller-coastering friends would often turn to us as the pillars of stability. I loved my first wife deeply, but our marriage had been less than passionate. Even before her cancer, we were more like close friends and parenting partners than red-hot lovers."
"Though David initially brushed off my confession of love-which really broke all the rules of a normal dating game-our e-mails took on greater frequency and intensity, becoming increasingly flirtatious," Annie said. "Finally, Dave called me one evening after office hours, our first ever nonbusiness phone conversation. I was chatting on and on, and around and around, nervous as could be, and Dave was saying ... nothing. Finally I asked, 'Are you there?' and he answered, 'I am.' Long pause. 'I was just thinking how much I love listening to the sound of your voice.' I remembered immediately replying, 'Uhoh ...' and knowing we'd now officially gone past the point of no return. We would not be 'just friends' any longer. By the end of an hour-long heart-to-heart talk, we agreed to meet for a face-to-face date in Chicago."
Dave picks up the story. "I got off of that airplane and, walking down those long corridors to the baggage claim, all I could think of was holding her, kissing her. So strange to have this sudden unbridled desire after so many years of putting those emotions on hold. There's a Sinatra song 'Oh, Look at Me Now!' that describes a guy who didn't care much about love and diamond rings and all that mushy stuff. But love, it turns out, has a few surprises up its sleeve, and he finds there's a Casanova lover in him after all. That song could have been written for me."
Annie sighs, smiles, and then interrupts. "I, on the other hand, was thinking that maybe we'd greet each other with a nice side hug, go out to dinner, have some wine, listen to music, maybe dance, hold hands, take it slow ... maybe a kiss would come at the end of the date."
David winked at her. "But when I saw her in the flesh, and she saw me, it was like a dream. We were under the influence of a force more powerful than logic-two people with pent-up longings now suddenly free to feel again. There was no time to waste. We walked into each others' arms as if we'd belonged there always; our first kiss would have made Romeo and Juliet blush. Or at least, this is the way it felt to us. Does everyone who falls in love, think theirs is the grandest, deepest, and most passionate ever? That no one could have ever loved this way before or after us?"
Annie nodded. "From that first embrace, I was a goner. Every love song on the radio seemed written for me. The flowers in bloom looked like works of art that I'd never noticed before. I could not think two consecutive thoughts without a thought of David popping up between them. I struggled to work, to think, to communicate normally, without breaking into big, silly grins. My body might have been physically present in one situation, but my mind was gone-wrapped up in thoughts and feelings of being with my Love."
David smiled. "I tried to sleep, but every night visions of Annie would interrupt and keep me awake with longing to hold her."
"I could just be thinking of him and my body would respond as if he really were right there with me," Annie confessed. "I was a walking, grinning, sensual being, and every part of my heart that had been in such pain was now flooded with euphoric waves of love and desire. I know that Dave was, in part, my morphine for the aftermath of divorce, which is why counselors often suggest people wait a year after their divorce to date again. There was an addictive and pain-numbing, even crazy aspect to our romance. I once flew through a snowstorm, and on another occasion drove twelve hours to see Dave for six hours, then turned around and drove back."
Dave chimed in, "I was eighteen again. I never dreamed, at almost age fifty, a man could feel like this. I was walking on air and could not stop smiling. Is there anything better in life than loving someone and being loved back? I literally felt I was coming alive again. Waking up each morning and knowing that someone on this planet was thinking of me, as I was thinking of her, was beyond euphoric. I asked Annie to marry me as soon as I could, and she said yes before I got the question out!"
"That whirlwind romance started ten years ago, and we're still pretty much ridiculously in love," Annie added. "Sometimes we even get comments from strangers about how much in love we look and how refreshing it is to see. Of course, they probably assume, from our ages, that we've been married for decades!"
LOGIC COMES BACK FROM VACATION
"Not long after we married," Dave said, "I came out of a fog and for the first time felt I could see and think clearly. I realized I'd been in low-grade, long-term depression for at least five years. Then there was that long valley of grief. And when I fell for Annie, I was in that dizzy, love-drugged state of altered consciousness for another eighteen months or so, and suddenly it was like the song says: 'I can see clearly now the rain has gone.' The crazy-addictive type of love began to fade, but what remains is even better. It's what all the poets and musicians and romantics sing about. It's true love."
Annie reached for Dave's hand. "We created our own marketing-graphics company, then moved to a cottage on a beautiful vineyard in Napa Valley, where our adult kids and grandkids often come to visit. We have the most wonderful picnics right in our own backyard, complete with grape juice and pinot noir from our home-grown grapes. We're involved in a ministry of helping to comfort the brokenhearted during life crises and transitions. But most important of all, we flirt like teens and still have a hard time keeping our hands off each other."
As we continued talking, David told me that his parents had been married sixty years and were still crazy about each other, romantic and funny and flirty and touchy. "So I had great marriage mentors," he said. "And I've seen firsthand how a healthy love and healthy body seem to go hand in hand."
How many married couples do you know who still radiate with the passion they felt for each other on their wedding day? It is a rare and glorious sight ... especially in my business.
As a student of the brain, I know that what happened to David and Annie as their friendship was set on fire really was very much like a "mental kidnapping," with their limbic system (the mood center) overtaking their prefrontal cortex (the seat of logic). I know, I know. I sound like such a killjoy, evaluating the mysteries of love as if it could all be dissected and explained on a chart. So here's my disclaimer: Neurotherapists and brain researchers are only barely tapping into a few of the mysteries of what makes two people fall in love and stay in love. And no matter how much we science-types know about brain chemistry and emotions, we're all just as susceptible to the mysterious, tsunamilike forces of love and romantic attraction as the next guy. But humor me a moment. When two brains are hijacked by romantic attraction, they really are under the influence of chemicals as powerful as any street drug.
Once the "love potion" wore off, Annie and David, thankfully, found that the elements for long-lasting love were still there. This is why long-term friends who fall in love tend to have steadier, happier marriages. There was substance and enjoyable camaraderie to their relationship before the love potion hit and drugged their brains silly. Sadly, many a man and woman-married or simply dating-who don't have a long history of friendship wake from the love fog and realize, sometimes too late, that their passionate romance didn't automatically translate into the kind of love needed for a long, happy life together. When most of us said our vows at the altar of marriage, we hoped to experience the bright flame of passion, often and always, within the comfort and sanctity of marriage. By the number of couples in marital pain staggering into my office each week, I know those high hopes are too often dashed.
With the divorce rate sky-high, and the rate of the intact-but-unhappy marriages even higher, is lifelong passion a pipe dream? Is it possible to find and keep "true love" alive? Can monogamy stay hot? Yes, yes, yes, I am happy to say. At least, for the "blessed few," a term used by marriage and sex therapist Dr. David Schnarch, whose books on sexuality and spirituality have wonderfully influenced the way I counsel couples. Tragically, only about 8 to 15 percent of couples know this kind of love and keep their passion burning until death parts their lifelong embrace. And you'll read more about couples like this, still in their first marriages, who manage to keep the home fires burning for five or more decades. I write this book with hope of helping increase the blessed few to a blessed majority! For couples who are willing to learn the secrets of proactive passion and apply them to their marriage, a close union will be the greatest source of ongoing pleasure for life.
The brain is a magnificent organ; it starts from the moment you're born and doesn't stop until you fall in love. -Pat Love, When the Object of My Affection Is Your Reflection
What does a brain in the throes of initial romantic passion look like, feel like, behave like? The briefest explanation is that it looks eerily similar to a brain on cocaine. In the following scan, it would be very hard for me or a neurologist to tell if this person were in love or on cocaine-since a brain in either condition would light up like a tipsy Christmas tree. Humans are literally "high on love" when we first get hit with the drugs of love.
Two researchers, British brain mapper Semir Zeki and American anthropologist-psychologist Helen Fisher, used brain imaging to explore what happens to brains in the first months of romantic passion. What lit up (on the image above, this looks like eyes and a nose) was the deep limbic system and basal ganglia area, where Helen Fisher concluded that "the chemical storms, leading to infatuation, almost certainly have their physical origin." In romantic love, "the music of cortical sweet reason is drowned out by the primitive drumbeats of our limbic and reptilian brains." Dopamine is among the strongest neurochemicals associated with a feeling of extra energy and heightened awareness singularly focused on the object of desire. As these powerful chemicals (the "love potion") run amok in our brains, they do something very interesting-something that explains why love can make even PhDs seem dopey and wise people do remarkably crazy things. These love chemicals not only produce a natural high, but they also dilute and cancel out the nerve chemical called serotonin. Serotonin, besides having well-known antidepressant effects, also has anti-obsessive, calming influences on the brain. Healthy doses of serotonin in the brain tend to help us control impulses, unruly passions, and obsessive behavior. It aids the sense of power and logic over our irrational impulses and gives us the feeling of being in control. A severe depletion of serotonin, along with a sharp rise in dopamine, can induce all those classical symptoms that go with the first waves of romantic attraction: panic, anxiety, queasiness, manic behavior, depression, and obsession. This is why people say, "I can't get her or him out of my mind. I'm thinking about this person all the time. I'm obsessed!"
Excerpted from THIS IS YOUR BRAIN IN LOVE by Earl Henslin Becky Johnson Copyright © 2009 by Earl Henslin. Excerpted by permission.
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