A common problem that married couples encounter is what I call the "blame game." By the blame game, I am referring to fights in which each spouse insists on being right and that the other is wrong. We've all played the blame game at some time or other. With matching mirror neurons, spouses attack, criticize, defend and blame each other.
On the surface, you find two "strong-minded" people, both with fixed, rigid opinions and behaviors. Dig a little deeper and you will find two fragile people who hold onto their rightness for dear life. Why? They both suffer from poor self-esteem. Indeed, at the core of the blame game is a weak sense of self or poor self-esteem that is rooted in childhood.
The neural pathways laid down back then influence our self-esteem in adulthood. To establish a strong sense of self, a good parent climbs on board with the child's moods, feelings, thoughts. Mirror neurons and empathy are on track, so that the child develops a strong sense of self -- a true self -- that is firmly rooted.
Emotionally unavailable, depressed, anxious, preoccupied, hostile or controlling parents fall short in this crucial task of a child's brain development. Their mirror neurons misfire. A parent who insists that you follow in their footsteps in terms of personality, aspirations, interests or proclivities is not climbing on board with you. You either follow that parent's lead, or you're out in the cold.
Did your parent accept you as you truly were, or did that parent criticize and devalue you if you didn't conform to his or her views? If so, here are some scripts you may have written.
Perhaps, in your wish to please and your eagerness to conform, you lost your true self in your parent. In another script altogether, you may have rebelled, lost favor with your parent, and now feel unacceptable and unworthy. In either case, your self-esteem -- built on a shaky foundation -- may well be tenuous. In a fight with your partner, you may defend your shaky self-esteem and blame and attack your partner. You may fight to be right or you may give up quickly, sulk and feel even more unacceptable or unworthy.
Those with a strong sense of self are flexible and don't fear losing themselves when taking responsibility. In contrast, those with a fragile sense of self are rigid and unable to take responsibility. They defend themselves, attack and bring out the worst in their partners. Heated blows further weaken a brittle sense of self in the blame game, where it's all about proving you're right.
When self-worth is contingent on being right, stomping on your partner's self-esteem is the name of the game. In this war of right and wrong, a weak sense of self is further weakened and both partners wind up losing.
Two types of trees come to mind here. Well rooted and nourished, when a strong wind blows, one tree is flexible, bends to the wind and does not topple over. Another tree not as well rooted and nourished, in the wake of a strong wind, breaks and topples over.
The keys to relationship repair entail understanding that the brain is plastic and that new positive experience in the present can change the dynamic. Because a married couple is linked by mirror neurons, change in one of them will create change in the other.
In marital therapy, I work with couples to enhance their respective self esteems. I have found that when one spouse begins to savor his or her own strengths, the other spouse climbs on board and points out even more strengths. Feeling more valued, the first spouse will be able to recognize the other one's strengths.
With mutual respect, the couple is in a stronger position to listen to the other person's views, to place themselves in the other person's shoes, to bend and to compromise. Instead of blaming each other, happily married, loving spouses try to see their role in an argument and to take responsibility. Indeed, getting along with each other trumps being right.
In my book, I outline the steps to strengthening your self and getting the marriage back on track. The name of my book is The New Science of Love: How Understanding the Brain's Wiring Can Help Rekindle Your Relationship (Sourcebooks, Casablanca, 2011). In this primer on love, you will learn about the power of mirror neurons on your marriage, how love comes, goes, and how you can bring it back.
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