The wedding was wonderful! The flowers, the gown, the music, the food -- everything pulled together to make an amazing evening. Madly in love, you gazed into your spouse's eyes as he gazed into yours, reflecting love, lust, loyalty, happiness. And it felt like this marital bliss would last forever.
When you fall in love and marry, the remarkable power of the brain is in play behind the scenes. Mirror neurons -- miniscule brain cells -- link you and your spouse in the most thrilling, sensual experience. These very mirror neurons trigger the release of love-inducing brain chemicals -- oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, testosterone, estrogen, serotonin, and GABA -- to ensure those ecstatic feelings.
High in the skies of euphoric love, if any red flags pop up, you manage not to see them. And that's because love is blind. Not only is this a saying but there are neuronal underpinnings to explain just why love is blind. Once you fall in love, parts of the brain go dormant -- the parts responsible for wariness, suspicion, discrimination. These are the very characteristics that your prehistoric ancestors needed to anticipate a predator.
Because of your blinders, those red flags I mentioned may not be visible to you, but that doesn't mean they disappear. One of these red flags may be the unequal power relationship that is underway between you and your partner. By unequal powers, I am talking about the choreography of domination and submission, in which, for the most part, women submit and men dominate.
Despite the influence of feminism, women's empowerment in the workplace, powerful women like Michelle Obama, Mika Brzezinski, and Hillary Clinton making a difference in our political lives, in our personal lives, unequal powers lives on.
Part of the problem in unequal power relationships stems from traditional family dynamics and societal messages that do not value strong, independent, autonomous women. Not only that, but the brain gets in the act. Here then is a little more about how the brain's mirror neurons connect two people in a dynamic of control and submission.
Mirror neurons, discovered in the 1990's, reflect the visible action as well as that which is not visible -- the unconscious intentions and feelings of you and your partner in an intimate relationship. These remarkable mirror neurons set up a mirror image of your partner's internal experience in your brain and yours in his brain (whether these experiences are similar or not). In the case of a dynamic of control and submission, your partner's controlling behavior is reflected in your brain and your submissive behavior in his brain. Before you know it, mirror neurons that reflect your inner worlds back and forth have created an unhealthy link of domination and submission between you.
Meet Emma and Gary, a couple, whose mirror neurons connect them in a dynamic of control and submission with a modern- day twist.
"I think I'm going to make partner at my law firm. We need the money, but it will mean working longer hours." Emma said.
With clenched fists, Gary's voice rose, "We're only married four months and already you want to work till all hours of the night and leave me to shop and cook."
"I'll cook then," Emma said meekly.
Hands thrown up in the air, Gary said, "If I have to shop and clean, I'll feel like a slave. It's out of the question."
Raised in a traditional male-breadwinner home, Gary had trouble accepting that Emma made more money than him. That she was proposing to make even more money posed an additional threat to his manhood.
As for Emma, not only was the additional money a necessity, but she loved her work as a lawyer. Her past, however, got in the way. Influenced by her traditional family, Emma felt ashamed that she was not pleasing her husband. To solve her dilemma she overdid her efforts to please Gary, by cooking, cleaning, shopping, and waiting on him. She became stressed, overworked, and unhappy.
Emma continued to shine at work, but at home, she became the slave with Gary as the master. Uncannily they played out the dynamic of control and submission. The magic of marriage had eroded.
In therapy, Emma and Gary learned how to rewire their brains and revise the master-slave interaction to one of equality. Because they are linked with mirror neurons, once Emma began to change, Gary changed as well.
When they saw how old ghosts were still haunting them and hurting their relationship, they gave them the heave-ho. By examining her communication skills Emma found that at work her words and nonverbal cutes depicted a self-assured, direct, independent woman; at home, however, her communication depicted an insecure, hesitant, and selfless woman. This awareness led to a new style of communication.
As Emma conveys her needs and desires to Gary in a more self-confident, forthright way, Gary is responding in a more accepting and cooperative way. Once she stopped sacrificing herself he became more supportive and has tried to please her. Gary is rewriting the definition of a powerful man whose wife does everything to please him to one of a powerful man who can actually please an accomplished woman like Emma. They are rewiring their brains and moving from an unequal power relationship to one of equality.
The story of Emma and Gary is one way a power struggle plays out, but there are many other ways it can reveal itself. If your marriage is showing any signs of unequal powers, begin revising the dynamic now. The sooner you recognize the issue, the sooner you work on it, the longer marital bliss will be yours.