Section 4: Relationship Framework (CLICK HERE to print entire Map.)
© Al Turtle 2006
The Traditional Family
I want to focus now on what people know before they fall in love – what they bring with them to Romantic Love. I have already mentioned that after divorcing, people start a new Romantic Love with the experience of previous romance and power struggles. Previous knowledge and disappointment doesn’t stop them from trying again, but it does give them some direction – some idea of paths to chose or avoid.
But there is much more. Even before the first experience of falling in love, I believe there exists in all of us two great collections of information – two great guides along the way.
The first I call the Traditional Family. This is all the knowledge a person collects internally about relationships, during their childhood. Much of this is concentrated before age 8. These experiences come from caretakers and the society they live in. The Traditional Family includes many theories and ideals. There are gender roles, responsibilities, rules of obedience, and often a lot about control. Also included are lots of skills and habits. Kids learn a lot about emotional reactions, expressions of anger and sadness, proper ways of holding back expressions, when to keep quiet and when to speak out. Home often includes details of punishment systems, how to denigrate and shame people, and how to dismiss them. The theories, rules, and skills of the Traditional Family become a background to getting married. Some people want a marriage just like Mom and Dad’s. Some people want a relationship nothing like mom and dad’s. And some want a little of what they knew and a little of something else.
Whichever it is, people enter the Romantic Period with many internal ideas, principles, and goals learned at home.
I believe there is something else in all of us before Romance begins. I call it the Biological Dream, for it is based on the design of our nervous systems – our neurobiological self. This material took me 15 years to discover, collect, synthesize, and test. I’ve been teaching it in this latest form since 2000, and haven’t found a flaw. Remember the 4-traits goal from that outcome study: intimacy, passion, commitment and above all safety. I think the Biological Dream is a better way to look at what we are all looking for when we fall in love. It seems to describe the best guide, or directions, for seeking our goal. And I believe this is pretty universal, lying in the “hearts” of all of us.
I offer it as a solution to the great mystery. How do people fall in love and dream of a great relationship when they’ve never seen one? How do they look at the only marital relationship they have seen, their parents, and know that it is somehow wrong. Where does this perspective come from? I think the answer to both questions is found in the basic underlying structure of the human brain. It is in our DNA, our biology. The goal of the “relationship of our dreams” is hardwired into our bodies. I think it can be described by a set of needs and expectations.
Let us explore the Biological Dream and its five components: Safety, Reliable Membership, Diversity, Autonomy, and Purpose.
Down in the base of our necks is a primitive brain – sometimes called the Reptilian Brain. This autonomous part of our nervous system is fully formed several months before birth. It never sleeps and handles all the automatic operations of our bodies: heart pumping, lungs breathing, digestion, skin temperature – all of it.
It also manages our Survival Function. With great speed it moves us toward Safety and away from what it determines is dangerous. Working from well before birth, it does not need instruction. And it just gets better with experience. This is the part of you that causes your rapid reactions. While this part of your brain operates completely automatically, extremely quickly, and you can’t stop it, you can easily observe it in operation and learn to cooperate with it. When it determines that it is not safe, it kicks off one of four behaviors: Fleeing, Freezing, Submitting and Fighting.
Fleeing – is visibly running away, like the rabbit in the forest, like the child hiding under the bed, like the man resigning from a bad job, like the woman getting in her car and driving off. Fleeing is all about getting away.
Freezing – is invisibly getting away, like the deer standing still in the headlights, like the child who stands still when slapped, like the man who says nothing, like the woman who says, “I don’t know!” all the time. Freezing is all about being invisible.
Submitting – is visibly giving in, so that you can survive to live another day, like the dog that rolls belly up, like a child who goes to bed when they want stay up late, like the man who says, “Yes, dear.” all the time, like the woman who meekly serves dinner every night. Submitting is all about surviving now and putting the resentment off till later.
Fighting – is visibly contending for survival, the defending her berry path from other animals, like the child who strikes out at the parent in the store, the man hitting his wife, the woman yelling back. Fighting is all about survival of the fittest.
When this part of our brains determines all is safe, it initiates another set of behaviors: Play, Mating, Nurturing, and Creative-Work.
Play – is silly, ridiculous, full of laughter and never competitive, like kittens with a ball of yarn, like the child digging in a sand box, like a man laughing at a comedy show, like a woman dancing in the living room all by her self.
Mating – is an extension of play, is silly, ridiculous, full of laughter, like monkeys at play, like the puppy love of a 5 year-old child, like a man laughing as he chases his laughing wife up the stairs to their bedroom.
Nurturing – is happily investing energy in the well-being of another or of yourself, like a purring mother cat nursing her kittens, like the child feeding the ducks, like a man tending his flower garden, like a woman throwing clay to make pottery.
Creative Work – is the kind of work you do whether there is a reward or not, like the bird collecting bright stones, like the child drawing a picture with crayons, like the man building a sail boat in his back yard, like the woman putting great amounts of extra effort into the beauty of a Christmas Dinner.
By these behaviors one can tell if a person is feels Safe or not — is free from threat.
The human brain desires a community, a world, where there is safety. And this desire is hard-wired in all humans.
The next part of the Biological Dream is a hard-wired function of the mid-brain. I call this need, Reliable Membership.
I recall reading about wild-horses on the prairies and how the lead mare would discipline young ones. When the young acted up, the old mare would face and glare at it. That behavior by the older mare makes a young one back up. The mare would continue this staring until the little one was being driven out of the herd. Horses, the book told, sense that being alone means death. The young horse, sensing the threat of being expelled, would lower its head in a sign of submission. The mare would stop the threatening and would allow the now obedient young one back into the herd. This is called joining-up, among horse trainers who use this technique.
This need for connection is a characteristic of mammals – and humans. We are all hard-wired to need to be in a community. Think of the dog on the front porch when you are leaving. The look they give you is the look of abandonment. And it is this drive that makes us seek a family, marry, and re-marry even after a painful divorce – swearing never to marry again. It is the cause of my needing attention. If we get too little connection, we cling, pursue. Stalkers are not born. They are made. If we get too much, we pull away for a time, we avoid, withdraw. Hermits are people who need connection, but whose experience of connection is so painful that they prefer isolation.
Thus the human brain desires a community, a reliable connection with other humans, where there is safety. And this is hard-wired in all humans.
(If you want references for this, seek out one of the many books on Attachment Theory.)
The next two parts of the Biological Dream are due to the structure of our wonderful, thinking cortex. The first characteristic of the cortex I call Diversity. All humans experience reality differently. In the scholarly field of General Semantics, they refer to What Is Going On or WIGO. They point out that while we all sense “What Is Going On”, each of us values and appreciates it differently from all other humans. Our brains associate what we see, smell, hear, etc with what we remember. Recognition is finding connection between what we sense from outside of us and a collection of memories.
I recall hearing of a person, blind from birth, who was suddenly given eyesight by surgery. He could not recognize a glass of water by sight, until he touched it. One way of saying this, is that 90% of our experiencing is in our heads.
Now, our cortex develops slowly during childhood. Children, very early in life, discover that they experience things differently than those around them. They experience this as something to be explored. The share what they see, and request assurance that their difference is not dangerous.
Depending on how caretakers handle this development, the children may develop quite differently. For example, the children of critical parents may come to experience “being different is being defective.” This is the source in adulthood of those phrases, “Do I make sense?” “You know!” or “Ok?” Conformists are not born. They are made.
Our brains dream that, “It is OK to be different, to see things differently, and to share differences.”
Now we have three components of this Biological Dream: the human brain desires a community, a reliable connection with other humans who express their differences, and where there is safety. And this is hard-wired in all humans.
(If you want references for this, seek out material on General Semantics – the study of meaning. e.g. The Art of Awareness, Joseph Samuel Bois)
The fourth component of the Biological Dream, I call Autonomy. It turns out that human action is determined inside the brain. While we take input from the outside, we decide what to do about it in a ruminative process. This trait of Autonomy develops through childhood. I think you first see it when a one-year-old says “No,” or gets out of your arms and runs off.
Again, depending on how caretakers handle this development, children may become quite different. The children of critical or controlling parents may come to think “if I make an independent decision, I will be punished.” In adulthood this fear surfaces as phrases like, “Is this the right way to do this?” “Is this permitted?” “I don’t know.” Or my favorite, “I’m just trying to do it right!”
The human brain dreams that, “It is OK to make my own decision and to do things differently.”
Now we have four components of the Biological Dream: the human brain desires a community, a reliable connection with other humans who express their differences, can act independently, and where there is safety. And this is hard-wired in all humans.
(If you want reference for this, seek out Choice Theory by William Glasser.)
I am not sure whether the fifth component of the Biological Dream is part of the cortex or part of the soul or both. I just firmly believe it is there.
All humans seem born with a purpose, a reason for being. It seems as if they are designed to do something specific. When doing this thing, people feel meaning in life. When not doing it, they often feel as if they are wasting their lives.
In Western Africa they say that all children are born with the seed of genius – each with a different kind of genius. It is the responsibility of the community to fertilize this seed, to help the child recall and develop their unique gift. In our world, this capacity is often called Self-Actualization, and was considered by the psychologist, Abraham Maslow, to be the highest need of all humans. Joseph Campbell spoke of it when he told us to “follow our bliss.” I didn’t even know I might have such a purpose until about 15 years ago. With much help and investigation I figured out what I am here for. And part of my personal genius has to do with building and sharing all of this with you.
Yet everyone has a purpose. The human brain/spirit dreams that, “It is OK for me to be me, to be unique, competent and confident at doing my thing.”
And so with all five components of the Biological Dream we have: the human brain desires a community, a reliable connection with other humans who express their differences freely, can act independently, can reach their full unique productive potential and where there is safety.
And this, I believe, is hard-wired in all humans. We come into the world with these five needs and expectations: Safety, Reliable Membership, Diversity, Autonomy, Purpose.
Biological Dream vs. the Traditional Family
I’d like now to make two comparisons between the Biological Dream and the Traditional Family – these two pre-cursors to Romantic Love.
First I’d like to look at the content. Many of us are brought up in homes that are more about controlling than about nurturing. Few of us experienced safety, reliable membership, permissible diversity or autonomy, or support at being ourselves. Many homes use fear of pain or the threat of abandonment to get control. Many homes use punishment to suppress individual thinking or initiative. And finally many homes teach the value of fitting into society, rather than developing unique potentials. I believe this is partially due to parental lack of education in how to act in nurturing ways. But a deep root, I believe, is that our culture still has the structure of the military, each family acting like a little platoon of soldiers. Whatever the reason, there are often very large differences between the “average” home and the needs of the Biological Dream.
Next, I want to point out that while the Traditional Families are full of skills, the Biological Dream has none. Here are some examples of Home Style skills:
- “interrupting” or “arguing” when a difference of opinion appears,
- “keep your opinions to your self, or tell lies to avoid conflict,
- “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything.”
- “Children are to be seen and not heard.”
But the Biological Dream contains no skills.
- What are practical ways to be a source of safety to someone?
- What are practical ways to deal with too much closeness or too little connection?
- What are practical ways to support the expression of differences?
- What are practical ways to support shared decision making?
- What are practical ways to support people discovering and pursuing their goals in life?
Romantic Love Revisited
It is amazing to me how many things become clear when I understand the Biological Dream. So, let’s see what is really going on in the Romantic Period, the Power Struggle and in Divorce. At its bottom, romantic love is fueled by the belief that the negative parts of the Traditional Family are a thing of the past and that the Biological Dream is finally realized. I believe that the bigger the difference between the Biological Dream and what a person experienced growing up, the more powerful the “love attraction.” Another way of saying this is, I think that one contributing factor to a passionate romance is a dysfunctional childhood.
Romance is fueled by the beliefs that
“Now I am going to be safe,
We’ll be together forever,
I will always be understood,
No one will order me around,
I now get to be fully me.”
I think this dream goes all the way back to birth when the baby awoke to hope for this kind of caretaking. Now, in romantic love, we all awaken to this hope one more time. That, I think, is why Romance is so powerful. It is a life-awakening event.
The Trouble with Expectation
Notice that the form of the form of the Biological Dream evoked during Romantic Love is often very passive and full of expectation. “I don’t have to do anything. This is just going to happen.”
Let me stop for a moment on the word “Expectation.” As I understand it, babies are born “expecting” to have all the skills of the Biological Dream lavished upon them. Our DNA design is for about 7 years of growth, surrounded by specific nurturing skills: safety, sense of belonging, creative diversity, guidance in self-responsibility, and appreciative interest and attention. Whether we receive this or not, I believe we expect with great eagerness.
After age 7 or 8, things shift. At this point our DNA points the way toward living independently, or perhaps interdependently, in a community and becoming productive. The way I often say it is, “Up thru age 7 you expect and have a right to everything. After age 7, you are lucky to get oxygen. You have to earn everything from then on.” This can be a rude awakening.” This is what the Aesop’s Fable, “Grasshopper and the Ant” was about.
I mention this, because a remarkable number of people reach my office expecting things from their partner without a thought to earning what they get. I think this has a lot to do with the re-awakened baby form of the Biological Dream. It certainly seems a major part of Romance Novels, Movies, etc.
Power Struggle Revisited
And now we can revisit the Power Struggle and see what is really going on. This is a period of time when we use the skills, familiar to us from our Traditional Families in a vain attempt to get the Biological Dream. Ask yourself, “Don’t those hurt ‘em actions look familiar? Who were your teachers?”
If you find yourself being critical, who taught you to do that?
If you find yourself yelling, who taught you that?
If you find yourself holding your emotions in, who taught you that it was safer to hold back?
If you find yourself withdrawing to reduce conflict, who taught you that?
If you find yourself never grieving, who taught you that?
If you find yourself unable to speak, where did you see this before?
If you find yourself interrogating your partner, who did this when you were a kid?
I gift you with this idea. “For a while, forgive yourself and acknowledge the teacher. But only for a while. After that, it is your responsibility to change.”
Of course… hurt ‘em actions never work with adults. Traditional Family skills build a Traditional Families. Day after day, month after month, as you use those skills or are the target of those skills, your hope of the Biological Dream wanes, —– until…..
Hope reaches zero and there you are at the Choice Point: Door #1, Door #2, and Door #3.
Let’s take one last quick look at what is really going on in Divorce. Divorce is a move toward Safety. The pain of the threatening togetherness, of being on the receiving end of all those hurt ‘em skills, is over. But breaking the connection with your partner hurts a lot. Why? Separating directly threatens your need for Reliable Membership. Divorced people talk often of the freedom and the peace of living alone. And I think all that is true. Now there are no threats, no arguing, no pushing, no hurting. Ain’t it great!
But after a while, loneliness appears. That’s the basic need for Reliable Membership which you cannot escape. As that need grows, people begin to think of seeking all this safety and peace with another person. They begin to miss that one component of the Biological Dream that is missing for them – togetherness, belonging. Thus they go out looking for a mate once again –seeking all five traits of the Biological Dream.
To people considering divorce I often share two phrases:
“Don’t divorce your partner. Divorce the way you are trying to get along with you partner.”
“Seek the benefits of being single, while you are together.”