The disarming of Adam and Grace's self-protective states was only the first part of their therapy, but it opened the way for them to become honest with each other about their needs and fears. Once the critical judgments ceased, Adam was able to disclose his terror of the kind of suffocating dependency he'd experienced as a child from his emotionally needy mother. Sensing his discomfort, Grace was able to assure Adam that she would respect his need for autonomy. Ironically, this made Adam want more connectedness with Grace. In turn, Grace was able to describe the feelings of insignificance she'd experienced growing up as the youngest child in a large family. This helped Adam understand her panic when he seemed inattentive. He was relieved to find that Grace didn't want him to take care of her; she simply needed him to check in more.
Their relationship improved because they learned perhaps the most important lesson that the brain sciences have given us: Our moods and attitudes play a more powerful role in influencing our partners than the persuasiveness of our arguments. Grace found that she could get the understanding and caring she needed from Adam not by trying to prove him wrong but rather by shifting to an unguarded place and honestly expressing her needs and fears. Adam discovered that when he tried convincing Grace that her criticisms were unwarranted, the self-protective mechanisms in her brain rejected his influence. But when he listened to the feelings that drove Grace's reaction, her internal wall came down.
Grace and Adam aren't unique. People often struggle mightily to influence each other's behavior, only to fail because they don't understand that their own critical attitudes and moods are triggering their partner's natural defenses. Couples must retrain lifelong neuroemotional habits in much the same way athletic or musical ability is honed through intense training and practice. Lasting change requires new impulses—ones that are formed only by making the same internal shifts over and over. If anything is clear to me from my new understanding of the brain, it's that we will never succeed in outmuscling emotional states with the power of rationality. My experience tells me that when partners are approached with compassion rather than cool logic or blazing argument, internal states will usually shift in ways that create the possibility for real intimacy. Our brains, after all, are wired for love.
Next: Try this audiotape exercise
We Hear You!