Magical Thinking in Your Marriage

What about the magic of love and marriage? How much is scientific, real, and how much is illusion, a supernatural belief in destiny?
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In the April 8 edition of the Sunday New York Times, Mathew Hutson's "In Defense of Superstition" reviewed several studies that provide evidence of the positive role of magical thinking. By magical thinking he is referring to the subtle or unconscious belief in superstition, illusions, miracles, or destiny -- the supernatural. For example if you knock on wood for good luck, or carry a lucky charm, these rituals provide you with an illusion of control, or enhanced self- confidence which in turn can affect your fate. In other words, if you wish or fantasize something positive will occur, you may act in such a way that you fulfill your wish. It may not be scientific, Hutson says, but it helps us psychologically.

What about the magic of love and marriage? How much is scientific, real, and how much is illusion, a supernatural belief in destiny? Can you act in ways to fulfill your illusions, or your magical thinking?

Remember when you first fell in love? No doubt you were heady, on cloud nine. That was when your spouse-to-be and you were so into each other, when chemistry, love, sexual desire, was thrilling beyond words. You both held the illusion that your love was destined to last forever. And this very supernatural or magical thinking is what propelled you into marriage. Turning to science, we can see that this magical thinking is supported by new and exciting brain research.

In an intimate relationship, mirror neurons -- miniscule brain cells located behind the eye sockets -- connect partners at an internal level. Each partner mirrors the other partner's actions and feelings of attraction, romance, love, lust, good memories, and happy times. To ensure that these heady experiences occur, the brain triggers the release of love-inducing chemicals such as oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, testosterone and natural opioids along with mood enhancing neurotransmitters, serotonin, and GABA. And so the chemistry we feel has a scientific explanation. Indeed, the brain is the seat of love and mirror neurons are its beating pulse.

Notwithstanding the scientific explanations of falling in love, what exactly is the impetus that drives this remarkable deep connectedness? It is the magic of love -- that ineffable emotional experience of mind, body, soul; of illusion, the belief of destiny, of magical thinking -- that prompts the creation of these brain chemicals.

In case you are wondering when magical thinking and love first come onto the scene, it all begins in infancy. It is in infancy that the neural tracks of our thinking and interactions are laid down and continue into adulthood. That means that if our magical thinking in infancy brings us love and satisfaction, we will continue to use magical thinking in our adult love lives. Here's how it works:

A quick look at the research tells us that we are born to bond, wired for love. An infant fantasizes about, or has the illusion that, he or she controls the outpouring of milk from the mother's breast (or bottle substitute). In the case of optimal mothering, the milk instantly "comes down." In effect, the infant's fantasy or wish has come true. Like magic, nature makes sure the hungry infant quickly nurses from the breast. With infant and mother both satisfied, the intricate dance between reality and illusion begins. Not only that, but it is precisely during early childhood that the neural pathways that influence our adult love lives are laid down.

That means that the early interaction of infant and mother has lasting effects. In the case of emotionally healthy mothers, like magic, when the infant coos the mother coos back, when the infant gazes, the mother gazes back, when the infant fusses, the mother comforts, when the infant cries the mother soothes. The template of a loving caring interaction has been set. Here again, the research shows a correlation between the neural basis of maternal and romantic look.

As an adult, this unconscious world of connectedness through love and security buoys us in the face of the insecurity and cruelty of the reality of the outside world.

Of course, not all mothers are so well attuned to their infants; they may be depressed, anxious, traumatized, or otherwise preoccupied. In these cases, the interaction is less than optimal and can influence the adult's love life in less than sanguine ways. The brain, however, is malleable and can change itself and so even here, with help and therapy, if you want to change your interactions, you can change your brain.

Hopefully you are one of these fortunate people who experienced early optimal interactions with your caregiver. If so, no doubt, you held the illusion of a dream partner. Sure enough when love walked in the door you were emotionally open and available.

No matter our childhoods, magic, illusion, and our 'dream partner' are coiled into our common experiences. The haunting lyrics of a lamenting lover, "You call it madness, but I call it love," sung by Nat King Cole rings true even today.

Whether you call it madness, loving and being loved in return is a universal illusion that we all strive to realize. Not only backed by science, love and marriage are intertwined in a delicate dialect between reality and magic. In the words of Toni Morrison, "Thin love ain't love at all." And so love without magical thinking ain't love at all. Spring is for lovers and so I wish you all the magic of love in your marriage.

To learn more about love, the brain, and the magic of marriage, read my new book "The New Science of Love: How Understanding the Brain's Wiring Can Help Rekindle Your Relationship" (Sourcebooks, Casablanca, 2011).

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