Full text of family therapist Elizabeth Gillespie’s talk: The Science Behind How Close Relationships Change Your Life atTEDxCU conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Elizabeth Gillespie – Family therapist
I’m going to start with the assumption that all of the people sitting in this room want to have close relationships. For some of us, it’s a felt need; for others a practicality. But for all of us, close relationships are a biological necessity.
Finding and maintaining strong relationships has been the hardest and most important struggle of my life. And as a therapist specializing in couples, I’ll make an educated guess: I am not alone.
We desperately want and need relationships but we don’t know how to do them well. Alongside my own struggle, my training and experience in the therapy room has taught me that our very survival depends on finding someone close.
I know this, because we’ve been accumulating research since the 1970s on close, or to use a more clinical term, secure relationships. Secure relationships are best described as effective dependents based on a deep knowing that we can count on our person to be there for us.
According to Sue Johnson, relational expert and personal hero of mine, the markers of secure relationships are: accessibility, responsiveness, and emotional engagement.
Ideally we start with a close relationship with a caregiver as an infant. And as we age, we grow to depend more on romantic relationships or friendships. Hundreds of research studies in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology have a lot to tell us about the positive impact of close relationships.
We know that close relationships help us live longer, lower inflammation levels in our bodies, make us more socially competent, allow us to take more positive risks.
We know that secure relationships drastically improve mental and physical health, including the reduction of anxiety, depression, and even heart attacks. Even holding the hand of a loved one lowers our body’s stress response to a threat.
There’s no getting around it. Relationships make us healthier and happier people. Tonight I’m going to examine relationships from two perspectives: as a human, and as a therapist.
I invite you to join me, bringing all of yourself to the table, not just your mind but also your relational history, bodily sensations, and emotional experiencing.
As a human, I want one of those rom-com relationships where we stare into each other’s eyes, finish each other’s sentences, and can read each other’s minds without effort.
I want my husband to know what I want at all times, so that I never have to ask him for anything. I know I’m not alone here.
How many of you have found yourself irate when your partner failed to buy the perfect birthday present? Or didn’t have the response you needed at the end of a hard day?
Because that moment of asking for what we need and waiting for the response is excruciating. It allows us to feel our vulnerability and our need; it’s such a risk and to make matters worse, our culture tells us, to be this dependent and this vulnerable makes us codependent and weak.
But as a therapist, I know that you cannot have close relationships without risk and awkwardness. The most beautiful and connected moments in the therapy room are also filled with deep fear and awkwardness. Picture red faces, stuttering speech, a struggle to make an eye contact, the temperature of my room goes up 10 degrees, and my clients say the most incredibly brave things, like my entire life, I have been afraid of taking up too much space in relationships.
I’m afraid that I’m too much for you and eventually you will grow tired of me and leave. Can you reassure me, can you reassure me that I’m not too much for you?
Imagine saying this to the person you love the most in the world. Notice how it feels, if you’re honest you’re probably squirming.
I also know that without someone else, without a close relationship it’s really difficult to stay okay. It’s difficult to regulate our emotions so that they don’t overwhelm us or cause us to shut down.
In the past 14 years of providing relational therapy, I can confidently say that my clients with the most pain and confusion are those either very relationally isolated or in relationships without support and security.
But when my clients do start to lean into their need, to feel their dependence, and have their partner catch them, those moments can only be described as sacred.
We know going forward no matter what happens, they will make it through together.
As social beings we are wired for co-regulation rather than self-regulation. Most of us are familiar with the idea of self-regulation; it’s the idea that we can manage our emotions without becoming overwhelmed with them inside ourself and by ourself. It’s often considered a sign of strength or health. I call bullshit on that.
Sure many of us can keep it together in the moment when something awful happens, like getting fired, or being butt-dumped by someone we love.
But what comes next is co-regulation. You call a friend, they offer their care and support; they feel angry and hurt with you and if you’re really lucky they might even offer to punch your ex-boss in the face.
Your breathing calms; your heart rate slows. You know you’ll be okay.
Self-regulation cannot exist without co-regulation. Co-regulation is a dance between two nervous systems where each system is supporting the other. Our brains expect that there will be someone we can rely on to help us stay regulated; it’s how we are hardwired.
One research study shows that if we were to stand in front of a hill alone, your body will perceive the hill to be higher than if you were to stand in front of a hill with a friend.
Think of it this way: you can take a tricycle to get to work in the morning, but by the time you arrive you probably wish you had taken just about any other form of transportation.
Sure, the tricycle got you to work, but at what cost? By the time you arrive you don’t have the time or the energy to do anything else.
You see the cost of being alone is quite high. At this point you’re probably feeling a limited number of things. Some of you are feeling intense gratitude for that person in your life with whom you found security. Others are feeling pretty hopeless. As I’ve made it pretty clear that you’re going to die tomorrow, if you don’t find someone to love and to love you in return.
Others find the idea of needing someone this much unbearable, and are dismissing what I have to say by feeling bored, distracted or numbed out.
I have been every one of those people. I have found that the emotions involved in relationships are way too much for me. I don’t like feeling scared or angry or sad or even hopeless. Like many of you, I learned early on from a variety of places that showing up with my big emotions left me rejected and alone.
Being alone with our big emotions is unbearable. So over time I simply stopped feeling them. Problem solved.
Or so I thought, because as a therapist I know that you cannot have close relationships, if you cannot connect to your own emotions.
Earlier I mentioned that secure relationships require accessibility, responsiveness, and emotional engagement. All three of these require comfort with our own emotions.
To be accessible, you must be able to stay connected and engaged with your partner even when in a fight, even when you’re angry and afraid. And here’s a hint: if you can’t tolerate your own fear and anger, you certainly can’t tolerate it in your partner.
To be responsive, you must be able to see a negative emotion in your partner such as sadness, connect to your own deep sense of sadness and move toward them, without trying to minimize or fix their pain.
If you think this is easy, try it the next time someone you love is struggling, because almost every couple I see finds this part nearly impossible when we begin our work together.
To be emotionally engaged, your mind, heart and body must move towards your person, feeling and communicating you are special, you matter to me, I will be with you to carry the load. Having the privilege of watching accessibility responsiveness and emotional engagement grow in my clients has been one of the greatest joys of my life.
But as a human, I have found that my attempts to be accessible, responsive, engaged, as a parent, partner, and friend, fail more often than I would like to admit.
My kids drive me crazy and I withdraw or explode in anger. My husband disappoints me; I pretend I don’t need him. So many times I don’t listen and respond as I should when my friends are hurting.
Sometimes I even know I’m not getting it right or even doing it how I wish I could and I still can’t change the path. Even thinking about it now causes a sinking feeling inside of me. I wonder if you’re feeling that too.
But as a therapist I want to close with some really good news.
I’ve learned that we only have to get it right 30% of the time to maintain close relationships.
30 percent! Yeah.
The expectation is that we as therapists, partners, parents and friends will fail more often than we will get it right. I’ve learned that when we get it wrong, we only have to be willing to stop, move toward our person, hear about our mistake and care about the impact.
Now we all know that is definitely not easy but what a gift it is, we don’t have to get it right to keep our loved ones close.
In the therapy room I have seen couples recover from even the worst betrayals in relational failures, coming back together with more connection than all three of us thought was possible. It takes courage to long for, yet struggle with relationships.
And more than anything tonight, I want you to know that the fear and the pain and the struggle, they are worth it. And I want you to know that you are not alone in your struggle.
I’ll say it again: you are not alone.
As a human and as a therapist, I know all too well how hard it is and how sacred it is, to love and be loved by a safe person, in a secure relationship.
I wish that for every one of you. Thank you.