Q: Dr. Ronald J. Frederick, please tell our readers why you wrote Loving Like You Mean It.
Dr. Frederick: Every day in my work as a psychologist, I meet with people struggling to make love work. I hear about relationships that seem to start off well but then they begin to go south. These are couples riddled with fighting, animosity, conflicts or insecurity, and those that have become numbingly lifeless or distant over time. People describe feeling misunderstood and unappreciated. They struggle to understand how they could go from once feeling happy with their partners to disconnection and hopelessness. Some can’t identify anything particularly awful about their relationships but they are troubled by a lingering sense that something’s missing.
And, I get it. I had the same kind of struggles in my early relationships. No matter how hard I tried, I hadn’t been able to achieve any lasting success. I didn’t understand what was keeping me from having the relationships I really wanted until I finally figured it out.
Based on the people I encounter in my life, both professionally and personally, and all the advances professionals have made in understanding how the human brain works, I’ve come to realize that, while our specific problems may differ, the underlying issue for most of us is the same.
At the core of our struggles, festering beneath many layers of complaints is a fear of being emotionally present and authentic in our relationships. Whether it’s the ability to give or receive love, manage and express anger or acknowledge the need for closeness and security, our capacity to be emotionally present with our partners is hijacked by fear—and it is fear that is keeping us from having the kind of relationships we truly desire.
But, we don’t have to remain prisoners to our past. We can change the way our brain is wired. We can update our neural programming to support our relationship success. The key to doing so is by developing what I call “emotional mindfulness.” By focusing our attention in positive and constructive ways, we can free ourselves from old habits and fears, befriend our emotional experience, and develop new ways of relating.
The challenge we face is in breaking free from the old wiring in our brain that is keeping us from happy relationships. I wrote Loving Like You Mean It to help others do just that.
Q: In Loving Like You Mean It, you note the environment people grow up in can impact feelings and actions. Do you think those emotional experiences are more significant than the ones we experience as we age? When is the cutoff between early experiences and adult ones?
Dr. Frederick: I don’t know that I’d say that childhood experiences are more significant than those that occur later in life. Indeed, we can have traumatic experiences in adulthood that leave a lasting imprint on us. But, the thing about the emotional experiences that occur in the first few years of life is encoded and stored in implicit memory, the only form of consciousness that we have at that time. Containing a set of beliefs and expectations about our own and other’s people’s behavior, our self-worth, whether or not we’re lovable, and whether we can depend on others to be there for us. This develops unconscious programming on how we react in relationships. They persist into and throughout our adult life, coloring, and shaping our perceptions of ourselves and our partners and guiding our responses without us even knowing it and are especially dominant when strong emotions get aroused.
And here’s the crucial piece: when implicit memories are activated, they don’t come with a time stamp. We don’t realize that the surge in our nervous system is based on lessons from our distant past and might not be entirely relevant to the situation in front of us. Instead, we interpret what we’re feeling as a result of whatever is happening in the here and now and respond in the way we’re programmed to respond. We keep reacting as though we’re in danger, whereas, in reality, most of the times we’re not.
Q: What are some simple steps we can take to become more emotionally present and mindful?
Dr. Frederick: You can practice emotional mindfulness anytime and anywhere. With intention and skill, we can repeatedly take a few minutes throughout our day to develop and strengthen our emotional mindfulness circuitry. All we need to do is regularly bring our attention to our felt experience. Take a moment to scan your body from head to toe, and see what you notice. What do you feel? What sensations do you notice and where? Get into the habit of checking in with yourself especially when you’re interacting with your partner. Doing so will build your awareness of, and connection to, your inner experience and your ability to be present.
Q: What are some of the problems or obstacles your client’s face when attempting to become more emotionally aware?
Dr. Frederick: The main obstacle that people face is fear. It’s scary to do something counter to what your nervous system is telling you to do (which is to avoid). And, we’re not aware of how fear shows up. So, I have to help my clients become aware of when they’re getting activated and responding defensively and then experiment with what might happen for them emotionally if they let go of their defenses. The key to being able to move forward is in finding a way to soften our fear so that we can begin to do something different. From there it gets easier.
Q: What do you hope your readers’ takeaway from Loving Like You Mean It?
Dr. Frederick: The capacity for healthy, loving connections is inside all of us, just waiting to come out. With the right tools and regular practice, real change can happen. Your relationship can be fuller and more abundant than you ever imagined.
Learn more about Dr. Frederick and Loving Like You Mean It here.