Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Rethinking Your Relationship with Dr. Julia DiGangi
[0:00:03] PF: Thank you for joining us for Episode 454 of Live Happy Now. It’s February, which means a message of love and Valentine’s Day is all around us. But did you know that this is a make-or-break time for many couples? I’m your host, Paula Felps. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Julia DiGangi, a neuropsychologist and author of the new book, Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading with Emotional Power. She’s here today to talk about some of the common mistakes we make in our relationships, and how we can improve those relationships by learning more about what our brains, not our hearts are doing to complicate things. Let’s have a listen.
[0:00:42] PF: Well, Dr. Julia, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[0:00:45] JD: I’m so happy to be here, Paula. Thanks for having me.
[0:00:47] PF: It’s February, love is in the air, but sometimes it’s not. That’s what we want to talk about, because we have Valentine’s Day coming up. This is a whole month, I know it’s Heart Month. We talk about our hearts and we talk about love. That puts a lot of pressure on people. One reason I wanted to talk to you is your team had sent me some pretty revealing stats about what this time of year does to couples. It said that a survey showed 19% of respondents say that Valentine’s Day is when their relationships hit the breaking point. What’s going on with that?
[0:01:22] JD: I think that one of the hardest things. I’m a neuropsychologist, which means, I’m a clinical psychologist with specialized expertise in the brain. I’m always thinking about our relationships through the lens of neurobiology, which sounds not romantic, but I swear to God, it’s very romantic. The brain hates nothing more than dissonance. The brain is a prediction machine. It’s a pattern detector. So your brain is moving you through life going apple, apple, apple, fill in the blank. Should it be an apple?
Well, on Valentine’s Day, what this means when our brain is quite literally in the business of predicting things based on context, your brain is going, Valentine’s Day, hearts, love, romantic love, super intimate connection, sexual satisfaction. All these expectations really start to get pretty intense. For those of us who don’t feel like our relationship meets those expectations, that disconnect between what we think it should be, and what the brain is actually experiencing can be quite painful.
[0:02:27] PF: Do men and women experience that differently.
[0:02:30] JD: Let me approach the question this way, and then you can tell me if I’ve answered it. Is the brain a pattern detector on both men and women? Absolutely. But then, when we get into these questions of like, well, what are the patterns that are programmed in our brains as women, versus what are the patterns that are programmed into our brains as men? So I think what happens is the function, the structure, and the function of the brain, we’ve done a lot of research around this. And we do not today think there are meaningful differences between the women’s brain and the male brain.
What I do think happens is there’s different predictions, which a lot of us call expectations, which a lot of us call culture, which a lot of us call roles. What those are at the neurobiological level, though, are these predictive codes. I as a woman should do X. You as a man should do Y. One of the things that I do a lot of is I work with a lot of men. A lot of men gravitate toward my work. What I have seen over and over again is, society has set up a pattern, where men, when they were boys, when they were tiny, tiny boys were told to sever themselves from their emotion. The brain undergoes spectacular – I mean, it gives me chills to think about. In the earliest years of life, in year zero through five, the brain is doing something like a million, a million neural connections every single second.
[0:03:51] PF: A second?
[0:03:53] JD: A second.
[0:03:54] PF: Wow.
[0:03:55] JD: I know, it’s incomprehensible. Well, what happens is we say, “Well, I don’t really remember when I was born, one, two, three, four, five. So maybe, it didn’t get me. Well, no, your brain was encoding your most formative lessons, specifically around relationships, around what love feels like, around what we’re supposed to do with difficult emotions, about how safe intimacy is or isn’t. So we’ve gotten messages in our childhood, we all did about how safe people are, about how much access we have to them. We continue to play that out.
One of the things I think is very healing for people to understand, I got a couple of things to say about this. The first is, there’s no relationship on the planet, there’s not a single relationship on the planet that is more complex than the adult long-term romantic relationship.
[0:04:47] PF: I think many people agree with that. We’re relieved to hear that, because sometimes, we’re made to think it should be easy if the media makes it look easy and it’s not.
[0:04:57] JD: It’s not. It’s not easy at all. I think for a lot of us, because we have either shame, or we’re confused, we then – I call it a pain sandwich, our relationship doesn’t feel good. Then, because we don’t know how to get the relief we want, we’re in even more pain. But the things that we ask from our long-term partners, the number of roles. They’re supposed to be our lover, or confidant, our caretaker, our coparent, our house manager, our business partner, it’s insanely complex. So when there’s a lot of complexity, there’s always confusion. The confusion is happening in real time, meaning it’s happening in our households on a day-to-day basis. But also, and this is a piece I would love to talk to you about. We do not partner for life by mistake, we partner for life to finish our unfinished childhood business.
[0:05:54] PF: Oh. Yes, let’s talk about that. Because I see a lot of articles where people say, “Well, maybe we weren’t meant to be with one person for the rest of our life.” Is that true? Or is it that it actually gets so difficult or so intense, that it’s like, “Hmm. I think I’m going to go start this with somebody else”?
[0:06:13] JD: I do not think that there’s an answer to it. In other words, I think some relationships are meant to go on forever. I think some relationships are meant to end. I don’t actually think that’s the most powerful mission, if you will, of the long-term relationship. I think the holy hope, believe it or not, of our long-term romantic partnerships is to show us precisely where we still hurt. Where we hurt has been where we have hurt since childhood. Why? But like, most fundamentally, the brain is moving us through our life. I mentioned patterns. But it’s even more fundamentally than just any type of pattern. It’s moving us through our life based on emotional patterns.
What does an emotional pattern sound like? It sounds like some – I’ll give you a couple examples. “I never get what I want. I never get what I want. I never get what I want” or “No one will help me. No one will help me. No one will help me” or “People don’t listen to me. People don’t listen to me.” So then, what happens invariably, there’s always two relationships that there are tremendous similarity. That of our parents, and that of our partner. In other words, how we were parented, that plays out always in the long-term romantic relationship.
So if I feel from my childhood, I’m still carrying these wounds, I just feel like people don’t hear me. When I try to communicate my distress to my parents, they’re too busy, they work too much, they have their own mental health issues, there’s too many kids in the house. I mean, there could be a million good reasons. But nonetheless, I, as a four-year-old have this feeling that I’m not heard. I promise that plays out in the long-term romantic relationship. I know how excruciating long-term romantic relationships can be. I’m not being funny; they really can be devastating.
Well, I think a lot of us think, “Let me get out of this and let me try to partner again.” But there’s an interesting, you mentioned statistics at the beginning of our conversation, there’s other really interesting statistics. Second marriages fail more than first marriages. And third marriages fail more than all of them. If this doesn’t make logical sense, in other words, the more I try to do something, the better I should get at it. Ride a bike for two years instead of one year, and three years instead of one year. My bike riding skills should get better. They don’t. Why? It’s because until we address the underlying childhood injuries, they continue to play out.
Now, of course, and I think this goes without saying, but you’ll humor me. Plenty of us are in abusive relationships where there’s violence and there’s abuse. I think there are relationships that are meant to be left. But I think for part of the, both the curse, and the blessing of the romantic relationship, is that it brings to the surface injuries. The greatest power of the long-term romantic relationship is in its potential. Meaning, my old injuries are going to get activated, am I now going to exacerbate them or am I going to heal them?
[0:09:13] PF: As people are in that state, where the injuries have surfaced, it presents as turmoil within the relationship, it can present as discontent with your partner. One thing I see a lot of times when I’m feeling very discontented with my partner, and I sit down with myself, it’s actually things I’m mad about with myself. That has nothing to do with what she’s got going on. Because her actions have not changed, it’s what’s going on with me. I think that’s probably pretty common too.
[0:09:40] JD: It’s very common. I think we all relate to that, and I think it’s incredible that you’re giving yourself that pause and that reflection, because I think when we’re around people, and we feel bad, it’s very natural. Like there’s no shame, there’s no weakness. It just seems like you were in my environment when I was having this bad feeling, you must be the source of it. Now, this is complex because our partners do legitimately do like, in other words, if your partner had a bad day, and they’re being gruff with you, that hurts. But I think the work is so much around, what are the kinds of the pattern conclusions that I’m drawing?
One of the things I would love to talk to you about, because I think it’s so healing in relationships is when we get upset with our partners, when our relationships start to fall into distress, we draw all these conclusions. Again, like these patterns, “You don’t really love me, you don’t really care about me, you don’t really validate me, you don’t really desire me.” I mean, we could go on and on. What I’m saying is, what we have to understand that never gets talked about is the emotional state of confusion, the emotion of confusion might be singularly the most difficult emotion for the brain to process. Let me explain this.
If the brain is a pattern detector, going Apple, fill in the blank, the only emotion that works against the fundamental design of the brain is confusion. In other words, if I’m angry, the brain knows what to do about anger. If I’m sad, the brain can predict what to do about sadness. If I’m afraid, the brain can predict what to do about fear. But when I’m confused, it literally stops the pattern detection abilities, because the brain goes, “Apple, apple, apple. Well, what’s next?” What happens is, because your brain is always fundamentally invested in survival, meaning, keeping you out of pain. This is a great paradox.
Your brain will predict conclusions that actually make you feel bad. In other words, the brain says, “It’s better that you’re vigilant and defensive, rather than soft and connected.” When my partner walks in, after a long day of work, and he doesn’t greet me, it violates my expectation. I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m going to see him, we’re going to talk, da, da, da.” He walks in, kind of nods me, and walks upstairs. I initially had that, “Huh?” But the brain can’t huh for long, it has to very quickly move that.
Instead of interpreting that violation to the pattern is like, maybe he’s tired, or let me give him 15 minutes, I start to stew. I don’t know why he treats me like this. Does he think I didn’t have a hard day? Why can’t we ever connect? Before I know it, my whole marriage is on the rocks. But can you see that all of that actually started if we really dismantle it, and talk about the emotional math. All of it really began based on the energy of confusion. I just wrote a Book Energy Rising, and I talk extensively about this energy of confusion, or sometimes we call it unclarity or uncertainty. It’s this energy of who do I become when I don’t know.
[0:12:55] PF: I think that is so important that you brought that up, because anybody who’s in a relationship has seen this exact thing play out for them. I’ve got a friend who talks about when she and her husband disagree, she’s in the next room. They’ve been married for 30 years, and she’s in there figuring out like, “Okay. Well, how are we going to divide up the house?” It goes from fine this morning to like, “I’m going to file for divorce.” We have talked about how ridiculous it is, but that’s just what happens to her. It just sets off this little domino effect, and she’s got herself signing papers by the end of the night.
[0:13:28] JD: It’s great that we can all laugh about this, but I just want to normalize. It’s so normal, and the reason it’s so normal really has to do with our neurobiology.
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[0:14:46] JD: The reason it’s so normal really has to do with our neurobiology. In other words, it sometimes tickles me and sometimes frustrates me, like we pay more attention to the intelligent operating of our cell phones, and ChatGPT than we pay attention how to intelligently operate the most exquisite machine on the planet, which is our own brain and nervous system. Well, in order to intelligently engage with the nervous system in the brain, we’ve got to understand what it does. The brain is telling us, when it comes to confusion, when it comes to uncertainty, I do not like it. So if we want to powerfully engage in our lives, with our emotions, with our partners, we got to have reverence and say, “When I’m confused, let me really take a beat, and try to not make any interpretations. Because if I do not slow my roll, my interpretation will be, I need to file for divorce by 7pm this evening.”
[0:15:47] PF: Then, what happens too is your reaction then sets off everything that’s going on with them. I mean, so say your husband has come in, he’s already had a bad day, didn’t act the way you wanted. Now, you’re like a house on fire and attacking him. That’s not what he was expected. He probably just wanted some alone time, and like, “Let me get this day out of my head” and now it’s escalated. How do you create a practice both individually, and as a couple that went to identify when you’re in that state of confusion, your brain is confused, and to take that pause, and step back, instead of letting all of this escalate?
[0:16:25] JD: I think the most important piece, and again, I think this is what I mean when I say, like really have reverence for the machine. Far, far too many of us want to do the work when we’re activated. They’re saying to me, because I do a lot of work, I do a lot of couples coaching, couples therapy. They’ll say, like, “When we start to get in a fight, how do we solve it?” Well, you know how when a toddler is in the middle of a meltdown, really, the only thing you can do is wait for the storm to pass. And in fact, for those of us –I have little kids, they’re not toddlers anymore, but they’re still little. It’s like, if you try to engage when they’re activated, and you can try to be the most soothing, be like, “What can I get you honey? Do you want to cookie and a warm blanket?”
It’s like, when people are activated, what has to happen is we’ve got to restore emotion regulation. In the moment, a lot of times, the best we can do is go for a walk, take a deep breath, blah, blah, blah, we’ve heard it a million times. The powerful transformative healing work comes in the questions we ask ourselves, and the actions we take when we are not activated. I have a responsibility to own my childhood injuries as I bring them to my marriage. There’s a classic pattern that plays out in most relationships. There’s sort of three attachment styles. The first is, securely attached. This is the idea that our parents had a great intelligence of how to attend to our emotions. They really nailed it, and I can simplify this considerably. They really nailed this complex dance between connection and autonomy. In other words, they really knew when to soothe me, and they really knew when to trust me. They really knew when to be around me and they really knew when to give me my freedom.
The second is something called anxious. So anxious attachment is when my parents sometimes shown the great, glorious golden light upon me. But then, sometimes, they went cold. I as a little child could not figure out the pattern. A lot of times, this happened in household with addiction, where there’s a lot of emotional volatility, there’s a lot of moodiness. Sometimes my parents were telling me how great I was, and then sometimes, I really needed mom, or I really needed dad, and even though I tried my little four-year-old heart out, I couldn’t get them.
The third category is what we call avoidant, and I’m oversimplifying for the purpose of it. But avoidant is basically, my parents chronically, totally miss my emotional needs. I learned as a very small child that I am an island unto myself. I learned that relying on other people for my needs is totally dangerous. Now, all of us have some aspects of these in all of us. In other words, these are not clean categories. They’re continuums of behavior. But it’s a very classic dynamic to have an anxious person, a person who’s more anxious, pair with a person who has a more avoided pattern.
So you get in this classic approach, avoidance dance, where the anxious person is saying, “Please come closer to me. Are you mad at me? Can we talk about this? Let’s be more intimate. Let’s talk about this. I love you. Do you love me?” They’re more asking for this like chronic kind of anxious anxiety. The energy of anxiety is propelling this like, affirm your attachment to me.
The avoidant is more like, I am so overwhelmed by emotion. I am so overwhelmed by, I know, because I’m now an adult in an adult relationship that your needs are on some level my responsibility. We’re in a partnership here. No one ever taught me how to even get my own needs met. Now, it’s kind of a double whammy. I don’t know how to meet my own needs. I sure as hell don’t know how to meet yours. I run from the room screaming on fire. Well, as I run from the room, screaming on fire, the anxious goes, “No, don’t leave me,” and then chases after them. You get in this classic, anxious avoidant standoff.
[0:20:36] PF: That’s so interesting, because, first of all, I could see that being a great little cartoon visual. But that is, it’s really common. What then do people do? Do you just have to recognize this as my pattern to start healing this, or how do you start breaking it down so that you can make it work? Because obviously, people got together for a reason. They’ve been together this long, for a reason? What is it that made that happen, and how do you get past these patterns to get back to what is real and genuine, which is the love and affection that you have for each other?
[0:21:08] JD: Such a great question. I’ll sort of answer like this. First of all, I think these are the biggest questions of our life. They’re enormous. I like to simplify them from people, which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easily. Not necessarily, they’re not easy. But I think we can do a lot of simplification. When couples come to me, they are very clear on the pain being caused by the other. They’ll sit on my couch, either virtually, or in real life. They will say, “He doesn’t respect me.” “No, she doesn’t respect me. She doesn’t listen to me. No, she doesn’t listen to me. She doesn’t love me. No, she doesn’t love me.”
So I say, “This is very valid. When we feel like our partners aren’t seeing us, loving us respecting us, I got it. Totally going to get to this. Let’s just put a pin in it for one second, and I have a different question. Give me all the evidence. In other words, tell me all the ways that you profoundly respect yourself, that you profoundly love yourself, that you profoundly see yourself.” I got to be honest with you, Paula, I almost never get an answer to that question.
[0:22:15] PF: Really?
[0:22:16] JD: In other words, people kind of look at me like, “Well, I’m not sure how that works.” Now, pay attention here, because I think this is a really important piece. We’re saying, because in our marriages, in our long-term relationships, we die a death oftentimes by a million paper cuts. Even when there’s catastrophic betrayal trauma, people aren’t having a great marriage on Tuesday, and then cheating on Wednesday. You see what I’m saying? There’s this growing disconnect. Both of us need to assume radical responsibility for our relationship. If I look at my partner, and I say, “You don’t wash the dishes.” The conclusion I draw about you now washing the dishes is catastrophic. In other words, if you don’t love me, you don’t respect me. You don’t listen to me.
How could I then not have an equally discrete – because washing the dishes on Wednesday is a very discrete thing. How could I not then be able to identify an equally discrete thing for myself, and put that same amount of emotional loading on it? In other words, when I do leave the house and get a massage, I feel the same degree of anger, I feel the same degree of self-love. When I tell myself, I’m going to walk away from this conversation, I am profoundly listening to myself, and now I’m in a state of joy. I’m in a state of exuberance, like how much I respected myself. People will say, “Well, that’s silly to tell me to go get a massage or hold my boundary. You don’t understand how miserable it is that they’re not washing the dishes?”
Well, you’re taking a discrete behavior, and you’re putting a ton of emotional loading on, it’s fine. We all do it. This is how we make meaning out of life. There’s no problem there. What I’m saying the problem is twofold. Do I have any examples in my own camp? And if I don’t, and if I believe that this pattern has been with me since childhood, years, and years, and years before I even met my partner, what is my own responsibility? Not responsibility like [inaudible 0:24:07]. What is my own profound ability to my own injuries? When I really see people taking radical, self-loving responsibility for the ways I have heard for decades, and decades, and decades, and decades, far beyond the marriage, for example, this is when you start to see radical healing in the couple.
[0:24:29] PF: I love this because you’re giving responsibility to both parties, and you’re breaking it down. Each one has their own way that they’re going to have to set out to resolve this. It’s not like if he starts doing the dishes, then, “Hey, everything’s good.” It goes so much deeper. How do people start doing that? How do couples start doing that, and start deciding where they need to focus on individually to come together as a couple?
[0:24:57] JD: Great question. I’ll say like, all of Energy Rising has a ton of these examples, case studies, exercises. I’ll give you one brief one here, but I just want people to know, there’s a lot of material. I would go to myself and say, “What is my primary emotional pattern around my pain in this relationship?” I gave a lot of examples, “I’m not seen, I’m not heard, I’m not loved, I’m not listened to, I can’t get what I want.” I would listen to myself and be like, “Okay.” Say, mine is, “I can’t trust you.” I would say, that’s valid. I’m not saying that our partners don’t have work to do. Of course, they do. I’m saying, but just for a moment, let me ask the question to myself. What are the ways I don’t trust myself, and I would write down 10 examples.
I didn’t trust myself to stop working today at five o’clock. I felt like I had to overwork, but I really wanted to stop and go play with my kids. I told myself that I was going to get out of bed this morning and go to the gym, and I didn’t. When I make those kinds of commitments to myself, and I go back on my own word, I give myself a lot of good reason not to trust myself. You see. I start to say, I want a lot of evidence, 10 examples of how I don’t trust myself, and I start to clean it up there. I start to become – because what we’re really saying to our partners is, I can’t rely on you. Well, can I rely on myself? I think what we start to see in a lot of cases is, no.
Now, we partner precisely for reinforcement. I get that. In other words, if we’re all perfectly islands unto ourselves, then why would anyone need – but a lot of us are coming, and when I say a lot of us. I mean, a lot of us. I’m a child of a psychologist, so I come from a lineage. I’ve been watching this conversation for 40 years. There’s been profound evolution. I feel incredibly hopeful. But we know more than our parents knew, and our parents knew more than their parents knew. A lot of us are now taking, I think, radical responsibility for our injuries. We’re doing this, yes, for our partners. Yes, for our children, but also for ourselves.
[0:26:58] PF: Absolutely.
[0:26:59] JD: We feel better in our own bodies, when we’re not so on edge, when we’re not so triggered. Here’s the truth. If I feel like shit, my partner could be an angel. My partner is not an angel. Love him to death, but not an – let’s imagine that we were married to a saint. I still got to go face the rest of the world. The people in traffic are still pissing me off. The people on social media are still making me angry. The people in my job – you see what I’m saying?
[0:27:24] PF: Yes. You still have all these external factors that are going to trigger you, and then, you get to go home and take it out on your spouse.
[0:27:31] JD: Yes. Yes. The holy hallucination, called the holy hallucination is that our partners are going to rescue us from our own nervous systems. There’s no human being on the planet that can come into your nervous system, and ding, ding, ching, ching, ching, ching, chong, ching. It doesn’t go like that. This is really a radical conversation. When I talk about power, Energy Rising is a lot about emotional pain and emotional power. I’m not talking about power, like lording over people, like my way or the highway. I’m talking about this beautiful life-giving wholeness, this profound courage, this profound resilience, this profound relationship with myself. Do you see when we give that to ourselves, we become the most magnetic thing on the planet? We change our frequency as a partner, as a spouse, as a lover, as a parent, and we feel great about it. A lot of us are out there being totally codependent, working ourselves to an absolute pope, “serving” other people and feeling like absolute shit about it. It doesn’t have to be that way.
[0:28:37] PF: I think there’s so much that you can teach us. Obviously, it’s not just our romantic relationships, this changes every relationship that we have. I think the work that you’re doing is really incredible. As I said, we just have so much to learn from you. As I let you go, what is the one thing, the one thing that you want couples in particular, no matter where they’re at in their relationship, what do you want them to keep in mind as we enter Valentine’s season and go through this time?
[0:29:05] JD: Like so many things going through my head. I think I’m going to say this. It’s a big thing to metabolize, and it’s really the reason. I’ve been asked to do kind of other public-facing projects, and I’ve always said no. I’m a Midwest academic, who likes to go to two parties a year and then spend the rest of the time alone in my office. The reason I agreed to write Energy Rising is, I feel like the work of my life, I was put on this planet to give this message. That all of those horrible feelings, it’s so easy to feel. Anxiety, fear, frustration, rejection, humiliation, and all of them. They are not here to torment you. They are here to lead you home. Those feelings are telling you is they’re calling you into your next level of power.
The reality of our life is there is no way to have more connection with other until we come into a new relationship with the energy of rejection. If I can’t hold the possibility of rejection in my nervous system, I will never have real intimacy. All of us want more self-confidence. The only way I negotiate more self-confidence is by coming into a more expansive relationship with doubt. Do you see, there are opposite sides of the same coin? The more I face my own doubt, the more confident I become. The more I say, “Am I really being rejected here?” As I contemplate it, it doesn’t feel great. But then, I start to see very quickly, I get relief and say, “Oh, no. It’s okay that he’s not available for me tonight.” I don’t have to come up with this horrific thesis nightmare about how like, I’m alone in the world, and I’m going to destroy my family. It doesn’t have to be that way, but we need a more intelligent relationship with the feelings we don’t want to feel.
[0:30:49] PF: Excellent. Fortunately, your book is a great primer for how we start feeling those feelings and get in touch with ourselves. Dr. Julia, the work you’re doing, like I said, is just amazing. I so appreciate you taking this time out of your busy schedule, and sitting down, and talking with me about it.
[0:31:05] JD: I so thank you for having me, Paula. Thank you again.
[END OF EPISODE]
[0:31:12] PF: That was Dr. Julia DiGangi, talking about how to make the most of our relationships. To learn more about Dr. Julia, find her book, follow her on social media, or watch her fabulous TED Talk. Visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab. Speaking of love, we would love to hear how we’re doing. Please leave your comments and ratings wherever you download your podcast and let us know what you think.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.