Relationships are an amazing part of life.
Stop for a moment and think about all the different ways you're affected emotionally by your relationships.
No doubt, you've felt most of these at some point in your life...
- Sense of security
- Approval / Appreciation
- Disapproval / Dislike
- Longing for someone ( missing them )
- Lusting for someone
On top of these, your relationships trigger a whole host of other emotions as well, such as happiness, joy, contentment, frustration, disappointment, envy, fear, anger...
...and much more.
Why Do Relationships Even Exist?
When I want to understand human emotions & behavior better, the first place I look is at evolution and evolutionary psychology.
It's amazing what you can discover when you look at the purpose behind our emotions and behavior, so let's turn back the clock a wee bit and start with...
The Rise of Reptiles
About 320 million years ago, reptiles first appeared on Earth.
Reptiles are designed to focus entirely on their own individual survival, and on the survival of the species through reproduction.
Reptiles don't have social groups. They have no friends.
They don't build families or exhibit parenting behaviors. Reptiles lay eggs, and then simply walk away.
For reptiles, relationships just don't exist outside of a brief sexual encounter.
There is no concept of "friend" v. "foe"... to the reptile brain, everyone you encounter is either a predator, or competition, or food.
_Or, when the mood is right, a sexual fling._
The Rise of Mammals
Then roughly 250 million years ago, mammals came along, and survival behavior changed in a big way.
Mammals added social groups.
Suddenly, a whole range of new emotions appeared in the mammal brain, which drove us to want to connect with others in a myriad of ways.
With this came several different types of relationships, and all of them are about maximizing our survival and the survival of our species.
The Rise of Humans
Modern Human history is only about 50,000 years old.
While we've done an amazing amount in that time with our brand-new prediction engine the neo-cortex, the fundamental nature of our relationships haven't really changed that much at all.
Two notable points on this...
- Humans have new types of relationship groupings that mammals don't appear to. For example, ideologies such as religions, philosophies, politics and culture provide a new basis for who we consider "similar" v. who we consider "different."
- Humans may have more complex, hybrid relationships than mammals exhibit. Mammals are fairly clear-cut in the separation of friend v. foe, however Humans are more flexible in this regard. A good example would be Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, two elite competitors who were famous adversaries- but who also tested & motivated each other to be their very best. Bodybuilders Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu are another good example.
The Chemistry of Relationships
Everything about your relationships, and why you want them, begins with chemistry.
Your brain has a series of powerful neurotransmitters which generate and govern all of the relationship emotions that drive you.
This is why our relationships give us our highest highs, and our lowest lows.
Here are a few of the key ones;
- Serotonin. Drives you to seek social companionship, acceptance, and approval. You want to be around people, and to be liked & valued by them. To your mammal brain, all of this increases your security. Others are looking after you while you're sleeping, injured, or sick. You have a better chance of finding a mate, and you can capture and protect important resources far more easily as part of a group. There is strength in numbers.
- Oxytocin. Most closely associated with romantic relationships and parent-child relationships, oxytocin is ultimately about security. If you've watched a mother leave her child at daycare, often the child will panic and cry, and mom will find it extremely difficult to leave as well.
- Vasopressin. Similar to Oxytocin, Vasopressin is more dominant in males, and it appears to generate a strong desire to protect others. It may be why men often take up the protect & provide role in families, rather than the nurture role.
- Testosterone, Estrogen, & Dopamine. Your sex drive. They're a big part of what motivate you to desire sexual relationships, and reproduction.
Together, these neurotransmitters describe every relationship-related emotion you have, from love, to jealousy, heartbreak, lust, feelings of being accepted, or rejected. The desire to protect and to be protected. The desire for fame.
All of it.
How Important are Relationships to Us?
We care about our relationships so much that they underlie fundamental aspects of our identity. They shape our perceptions and decision-making in significant ways.
And, it's because we value relationships that people often face major emotional challenges around difficult relationship situations such as loneliness, social anxiety, stage fright, fear of rejection, and post-breakup depression.
Astonishingly, sometimes, even our own personal survival is less important to us than our relationships.
- A parent will risk or sacrifice their own life to protect their children.
- A soldier will give their life to protect their companions, or their country.
- Relationship breakdowns, rejection, and loneliness are believed to be leading contributors to suicide.
We care a lot.
But do we care more than we should? Or more specifically...
Are Relationships Always Good For Us?
You might assume that the answer is "of course, yes," but... think again.
Our mammal brain has the best of intentions, but our relationship neurotransmitters are so powerful that they can warp our perceptions and decision making abilities in major ways.
At the simplest level, group conformity and echo chambers exist in part because we value social approval.
Religions, political parties and cults are all examples of this powerful tendency to align and conform to those around us.
So is Nazi Germany.
A suicide bomber will give their life for the validation of the group, and the support of cause they are a part of. The bandwagon effect is a well known cognitive bias that can leads us to very crazy situations.
If you've ever met anyone who has been caught in a love scam, people regularly lose their entire savings to a scammer who knows how to manipulate their relationship neurotransmitters.
Hopefully, most of us will never experience these things, but we all need to be aware of them.
Tips for Making Your Relationships Healthy
This is a huge area of your life and you could easily spend several lifetimes exploring it. However there are a few basic tips that may help you in your social life.
- Understand how powerfully your relationships affect you. They affect your emotions and mood, your identity and sense of self, your thoughts, perceptions, decisions and priorities.
To the mammal brain, our relationships are as important to us as water is to a fish.
- Knowing this, choose and invest in your relationships consciously.
- Seek relationships in which there is mutual benefit. How do you improve each other's lives, exactly?
- Seek relationships that grow you positively, and challenge you safely. Relationships should not hold you back, rob you of motivation, or steer you into unhealthy lifestyles & risky situations.
- Recognize that you can be easily manipulated through your desire to find, create, and protect your relationships.
- Remember that relationships are a kind of agreement between people, or between groups... and since people are always changing, our relationships are too. Have realistic expectations... it's unlikely that any relationship you have will last forever, so be realistic, and appreciate it while it's here.
BROJO: Confidence. Clarity. Connection.
Join BROJO - the premier international self-development community - FREE!
- Connect with like-minded people who will support you with your goals and issues
- Overcome people-pleasing and Nice Guy Syndrome to build strong social confidence
- Get access to exclusive online courses to learn advanced social skills, how to master your psychology, proven career progression techniques and more
Notable Links between Breakups and Depression, & Suicide
How Dangerous Is a Broken Heart?
New research explores the link between relationship breakup and suicide.
Coping with a breakup: Negative mood regulation expectancies and depression following the end of a romantic relationship.
Suicidal risk following the termination of romantic relationships.
The termination of a romantic relationship is an established predictor of suicide attempt. Severing a relationship with a romantic figure can feel life-ending, based on attachment theory.