Is Your Brain Stretchy Enough for Maintaining your Relationships?

Humans have been trying to crack the love code for millenia. We’ve fought wars, written books and songs, made arduous journeys, and sought advice from every corner of the world all to discover the secret sauce that makes love stay, and stay well.

Not just romantic love – the love we bear our siblings, parents, friends, children,  neighbors, bosses, employees, and even strangers.

We yearn for it – the connection, the mutual respect, the security. And yet we struggle against it. 

Recently, a conclusion has been reached concerning what’s missing from those of us who struggle and what’s present in those of us who thrive. The Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science did the hard work for us – they weeded through 174 studies chronicling more than 40,000 people to zero-in on the super-skill we should be strengthening to climb the pinnacle of love and stay there:

Psychological flexibility.

Don’t worry, we’ll break that down in a minute.

Its counterpart would be mental rigidity – like how having a tight hamstring or an unstretched mid-section thwarts any attempt at rigorous and fulfilling activity. 

And in that context, we can easily see how rigidity has been or can be an impediment to lasting and mutually affectionate love relationships – whether they’re with our spouses, our children, our parents, or our pals.

Let’s get into what it looks like to be psychologically flexible.

Stretchy Brain is the Best Brain

Physically, there is actually an expression of flexibility in the brain, and it’s called neuroplasticity.

The result of these studies focuses more on mindful and pliable attitudes, on choices about our behavior based on bigger-picture big-brain thinking and less on competitive and small-brained thinking…

But it’s important to remember that your physical brain and emotional selves are not two separate beings. The strength, plasticity, and health of your brain directly affects your emotional health, and vice versa.

The study describes psychological flexibility through a series of examples… Like the ability to remain in pursuit of your “deeper values” (such as being a loving and patient parent) even during stressful moments (such as your child screaming ad nauseum.)

Those who are psychologically flexible come by it only through hard work.

Sometimes, that work is spiritual – such as dedication to the practice of meditating, focusing on gratitude, praying to and trusting in your higher power, or remaining steadfast in your spiritual practices. 

But really, psychological flexibility is attained through consistent engagement and exercise of your brain. 

Neural plasticity itself is a burgeoning field of research in overcoming trauma, learning new skills, managing your day to day emotions, striving for justice, (environmental, racial, gender-based, etc.) and more. 

So what’s the trick? How do we get there?

Psych Hacks Slouching Towards Flexibility

There are myriad ways to begin or continue your journey, but the first step is pretty universal: Self-acceptance. 

Often, a seemingly insurmountable barrier in gaining flexibility towards others is rigidity towards the self. 

We tend to judge and expect things of others when we feel lacking in ourselves. 

Would your perception of your partner’s emotional resilience bother you so much if you had an infinite well-spring of energy to draw from? Would your child’s trouble grasping algebra affect you if you didn’t have unaddressed trauma from your own experiences learning algebra? Would your neighbor’s parking habits ruin your day if your emotional foundation was solid enough to allow them grace?

Abandoning self-judgment also means giving yourself permission to have the feelings you’re having – whether or not you think you should. You’re having them. Acknowledge them. Be with them. And then continue on with the work you must be doing. 

Self-work is the bedrock of most other successes. 

And once you’ve gotten past that roadblock, neuroplasticity exercises are enormously helpful in widening the limitations of a tired and strained brain.

Here are a few ways you can keep your psychology flexible and your emotions resilient:

  • Intermittent Fasting: As the body’s leptin levels are lowered during fasting, the brain receives a signal to produce more energy, which then repairs cells and promotes neuron growth. 
  • Expand Your Horizons: Tricky to do right now, but even simply driving or walking to places you’ve never been keeps the brain on high alert for absorbing new environments. 
  • Learning a New Instrument/Language: This doesn’t need to be as complex as the violin and Ancient Greek. Even learning new vocabulary – which activates memory processing – or just one song on the harmonica – which activates multiple sensory receptors – does work. 
  • Using Non-Dominant Hand: Forcing your brain to perform familiar tasks with an unfamiliar tool (your non-dominant hand) can increase neuroplasticity and flexibility by building up strength and dexterity where it wasn’t before.

Ultimately, the work you do on yourself and your own flexibility comes back to you in kind. 

That’s why people who have successful relationships in one area of their life often have them in other areas – it’s about who you are, not about who you’re around. (Although that’s certainly a factor.)

The secret to making love stick is creating a version of yourself that is psychologically flexible enough to handle the distress of the hard work that it takes.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.