What are relationships? What causes them to form, and why do they fall apart? Why do relationships feel so complex and ever-changing?
And why do we want them to begin with?
Our relationships mean a lot to us.
When a relationship is doing great, we feel like our whole life is sorted and nothing can go wrong. When a relationship is falling apart, nothing in our world is "right." Our future is in shambles, and we imagine we'll never be happy again.
Good or bad, relationships affect us in big ways.
Although there is certainly a rational side to relationships, I'd estimate at least 90% of the relationship experience is driven entirely by emotions.
And, this can be a problem.
Many of us - I'm looking at you men especially - don't pay much attention to our emotions. We see them as a kind of inconvenient anomaly in our brain that interferes with clear thinking and happiness. We react by ignoring or suppressing them, until they're too strong to hide.
Often we feel confused and challenged by relationships, including the most basic things like how to define our relationships as they change over time.
- Is this a friendship, or a romance?
- Is it about sex, or love?
- Are we friends with benefits? or dating, or building a future together?
Sometimes it seems unclear.
In truth, relationships can take all of those forms, and everything in-between. There are no built-in definitions or boundaries to relationships- except those we invent.
Once you get this, relationships aren't that difficult to understand. But to see this clearly you have to start with a question.
"Why do we want relationships, anyway?"
Evolution, and why we value our relationships
Relationships are very important to us, but if you look at the story of evolution, it wasn't always that way.
Reptiles don't care much for relationships. They're pretty solitary creatures. In general, they lay eggs, and walk away. They don't look after their young, and if they encounter them someday, they're just as likely to see them as a tasty snack.
A reptile's idea of a relationship begins and ends with sex. Any other interaction is much more likely to be as food, or competition, rather than involving cooperation.
Mammals changed all of that
Mammals took a very different approach to survival. Rather than competing with their own species, mammals formed cooperative groups- packs, tribes, and family structures, that enabled them to improve survival together.
Groups form, often with a structure like a pack hierarchy.
Couples come together to reproduce, but then often stay to protect the children until they are strong enough to be independent.
All of these social behaviors have a huge impact on our ability to survive.
Your brain, on relationships
As humans, we take this even further. We build our social structures as a series of concentric circles. Our immediate family, our broader family, our friends, our local society, our larger society, our civilization.
If you zoom out and look at what drives us to want relationships, you can identify at least three fundamental neurological triggers that motivate everything.
- Dopamine - formed in the reptile brain, dopamine motivates lust and the pursuit of opportunity. Combined with sexual hormones like testosterone and estrogen, dopamine is predominantly felt as sexual desire. We feel this as lust.
- Serotonin - formed in the mammal brain, serotonin drives our broader social relationships. We experience this as a desire to be liked, and approved of. We feel a huge burst of serotonin reward when we win at something - particularly in a competitive situation - or when we are recognized by others. A standing ovation, an award, public adulation - that feeling. We feel this as like, respect, appreciation, and the feeling of being empowered.
- Oxytocin- also formed in the mammal brain, these form our pair-bonding relationships, between parents and children, or between a couple. It drives them to want to be together, as much and as closely as possible, and to desire to protect each other. We feel this as love and it's overwhelmingly intense. Parents would give their lives for their kids, and coming out of a love relationship is very difficult. It's why one of my primary specializations as a coach, is breakup recovery.
All three of these neurotransmitters are independent. At any given moment, you can have several neurotransmitters active, at different levels of intensity.
Every emotion you feel about relationships - love, like, trust, distrust, hate, protectiveness, desire, jealousy - is tied to these neurotransmitters.
They also fire differently with different people.
You can like this person, but not desire them sexually. You can want that person, but not love them. You can even love a person, but not really like or respect them. Everything interesting about relationships and social emotions can be described and explained by these underlying neurochemical dynamics.
The types of relationships we form
These neurotransmitters form the foundation of every relationship you've ever had, or wanted to have.
Here's how they interact to form our entire universe of relationships.
Mike's Model of Emotional Relationship Dynamics.
( I'll find a better name later. )
Your friends, your family, your lovers, your romantic relationships and long-term partnerships, even your gym buddy all fall neatly on that map.
Stop and think about some of your relationships, and how you'd position them. Where are they now? How did they get there? Where were they before?
You can even ask- where is each relationship going, and why?
What we can learn about relationships
When I first sketched this dynamic in Venn form, my brain nearly exploded.
I was struck by the simplicity and clarity of it, but also how it explained so many things about relationships.
- Why we have so many different kinds of relationship
- Why some of us ( women especially ) often feel the need to "define" the relationship
- Why some relationships feel more special & important, than others
- Why two people in a relationship can be in different places at different times
- Why our relationships keep changing
- How men and women tend to develop relationships differently, and why that first connection often feels difficult
- Why it's so difficult to find, and keep "True Love"
- How and why relationships break down
- And... why breakups are so #%!# difficult
I just spent the next few weeks thinking about it. It just made so much sense - that I seriously considered tattooing it on my forearm, where I could always see it and explain it to people.
Here are some of the key things I've realized;
The more chemicals you have, the happier you feel
Dopamine feels great. Dopamine + serotonin together feels awesome. Dopamine + serotonin + oxytocin all at the same time feels epic.
These three neurotransmitters happen to all hit your pleasure center, but in combination, my perception is that they don't add together- they multiply each other.
If I were to lay my Venn diagram flat on a table, and add a Z-axis to show the intensity of positive emotions we feel, it would look like a mountain peak.
1 neurotransmitter by itself would be lowest. 2 neurotransmitters combined would be more than double the intensity. 3 neurotransmitters combined would be off the charts. "Soul mate" would be the highest peak- the Mt. Everest summit.
Have you ever wondered about our fixation with love, and the perfect relationship? Have you ever wondered if love can be addictive?
This is why.
Disney's total assets are valued in excess of $200 billion, because the fairy tale story of a perfect romantic connection captivates our imagination like nothing else.
Relationships change, continually
Did you think you'd find that perfect partner, build the perfect relationship, and then BOOM you'd have it made, forever?
I did too, and I blame Disney.
I hope this doesn't disappoint you but...
You and your mind are living and ever-changing things, and so are the minds and lives of everyone in your world - your friends, your parents, your kids, and your romantic partner.
Chemistry itself is the study of change, and your neurotransmitters are continually shifting in response to changes inside and outside of you. You're driven through relationship patterns by your evolutionary psychology, your biology, your immediate situation, and your environment.
As an analogy, perhaps the "perfect relationship" is more like a glacier, than a mountain. It's constantly shifting, bit by bit. Sometimes with major adjustments, and sometimes just minor ones. Just keep it away from that global warming.
It is difficult to maintain all 3 at high levels, long-term
People expect to reach the top of that glacier-mountain and stay there, but if you've ever been in a long-term relationship, you know difficult this is.
Take two people with a whole lot of great chemistry. Give them some time, some life challenges, a career change, throw in a couple of kids, some financial stress, difficult in-laws and maybe a lockdown or two, and what do you get?
Chaos. Disappointment. Stress. Friction. Exhaustion. Confusion.
These challenges can tear a couple apart, or they can bring them closer together. It all depends on their expectations, their perspective, how they approach those problems. It can be as partners, or it can be as resentful adversaries.
The difference is huge.
Maintaining a solid "soulmate"-level connection is not impossible, but it is a major juggling act that demands two professional-level jugglers.
Because... navigating those changes together is the only way to survive them.
You have different neurotransmitter configurations for different people
You feel slightly differently about each of your friends. Differently again about your parents. Differently again about your children.
Every romantic relationship you've ever had, has no doubt been at least slightly different- even though you enjoyed the same overall characteristics of feeling in love.
Our brain is exceptionally good at creating and maintaining hundreds of very different neurotransmitter configurations, and associating them with different people. I'm kind of in awe when I stop and think that all my brain is doing in this regard, without me even noticing.
Two people in the same relationship have different neurotransmitter levels
Ever been in the friendzone? You may have developed a strong attraction towards a friend, who didn't feel the same way. You both had serotonin, but only one of you had the dopamine-driven sexual attraction. A months years later, the story could be completely different. I've even seen it flip, to the exact opposite situation.
Ah life, you certainly keep things interesting.
The higher you are, the further the fall
Have a fling, and never see them again, you'll probably feel fine. You had a big splash of dopamine, and you both enjoyed it- but you never ascended very high on the mountain. Even if you never see them again, you haven't lost anything.
But if you feel a soul-mate level connection towards someone and that connection suddenly ends, the fall can be devastating.
It can be so difficult, that the end of a romantic relationship is considered to be a reliable predictor of suicide risk.- particularly among teens who have little experience dealing with the extreme intensity of emotions and grief.
I've experienced this. It absolutely sucks.
It's also why one of my specializations as a coach, is break-up recovery. It's a harsh, crippling experience, and you want to get through it as quickly as possible so that you can start enjoying your life again.
Men and women tend to take different paths to relationship-land
In the formation of a relationship, it's common for two people to progress differently and even from entirely opposite sides of the diagram.
Men often start with dopamine. The physical attraction is the thing, and it draws them into wanting to know this person better. Soon, they may develop an appreciation of this person that goes beyond sexual attraction, and then from there, men can develop the desire to build a long-term family relationship.
Women often start with serotonin. They need to like this guy, and women are often attracted to men who are funny, popular, and who their friends like. Huge attraction there. From there, it may develop into sexual attraction, or, she may lean into commitment-style tests. Learning about this guy, his past relationships, what he's looking for, who he's seeing.
At a fundamental level, women seem to want to know if there is long-term potential here. Once she begins to feel secure in that relationship prospect, then she is likely to feel added sexual attraction too. From an evolutionary psychology standpoint, this makes a ton of sense. For women, it's safer to consider sex and the possibility of pregnancy with a man when he is likely to stick around, protect, and provide for the family.
It's also entirely possible for women to enter a relationship from the dopamine end of the map in exactly the same way that a man does. She sees a hot guy, and she wants to take him home. But for women, it seems relatively rare for those types of connections to progress into a long-term, committed relationship.
Women seem to separate relationships into fun-centered rather future-oriented.
Learning about your own relationships
In the past few years, ever since I created this model, I've been using it in my own relationships, and it has given me amazing clarity.
I can see where we're at, and what we want. I can identify the cause of any emotional stress that either of us are experiencing. I can see, and correct harmful expectations before they become a problem.
For me, it has become the tool-to-end-all-tools.
If you're in a relationship, I'd encourage you examine it carefully using the relationship dynamics model and ask yourself these questions;
- Where are each of you at in your relationship? Try to identify not only which neurotransmitters are part of your relationship, but at what level ( 1-10 scale )
- Where are each of you wanting to go in your relationship? Is one of you wanting change, which the other is content where they are now?
- Are there any situations in your world that threaten the stability of where you're currently at in your relationship?
Then, to further your learning, reflect on past relationships you've had.
- How did they start, for each of you?
- How did they progress, change by change?
- How did they fall apart?
- How did they end? Was one of you totally surprised, while for the other one, the relationship had ended long ago?
There's a lot to learn about love, and all of it will improve your future.
How to build better relationships
Relationships are strongest if you are intentional about them. They are not automatic things you can take for granted.
Just like a car that you've never maintained, it will start to get wobbly and then one day it just won't start. Or maybe it will explode in a ball of fire on the motorway.
Between coaching and my personal life experiences, I've heard so many stories of neglected relationships falling apart, until it was too late to do anything.
There are better ways to live your life, and to care for those you love most.
Understanding relationship dynamics and how you each relate to your relationship emotionally is very useful in understanding how to maintain a healthy, happy relationship.
In coaching, I can often spot exactly where things began to go wrong in a relationship, and the moment it began to unravel.
The best advice I can give is this-
See yourself, your partner, and your relationship as three separate, living, breathing things. Your relationship is a garden. It needs to be watered, fed, weeded and cared for. It needs sun and water, but not to be scored, or drowned.
If you care for it well, and listen to what it needs, it will improve your world forever and bring joy and happiness to your life- but expect it to change. You will have seasons where some things grow, and others don't. Maybe this month you're great friends, and next month you have an intense sexual connection, and the month after, you're building your future together.
Embrace it all. Change is beautiful, as long as you expect it.
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