I believe that every significant life experience has something to teach us—about life, ourselves, our relationships with others. For what is life if not for building meaningful connections with others, for learning about the world in which we live and for truly discovering our own true nature, the boundless potential we possess and the sacred path we are meant to follow?
I have learned so much from the relationships and love I’ve experienced in my life. In my most recent relationship, I have learned to be more open than I ever have before. I have revealed parts of myself that I feared would be misunderstood or never really accepted by others; they were both appreciated and embraced. One of the most thrilling things was learning that the man I loved found my brain as sexy as my looks. I felt accepted, respected, appreciated and loved for all the things that I was and could be. Finally–someone who fully appreciated the journey I had traveled to become who I am.
Our relationships can feed and nourish our spirit. They can reinforce our feeling of belonging and acceptance. The healthiest relationships provide support and encouragement, as well as inspire us to be our best selves. Researchers from Cornell University also found that people who lived with loved ones experience greater happiness and self-esteem.
When we are in the love, the flooding of dopamine and norepinephrine together produce bliss, excitement and intense energy. Endorphins, released during physical contact, create a sense of well-being and can help us feel more peaceful, comforted and secure. Oxytocin, also released through physical intimacy, is associated with bonding and feelings of attachment between two people. According to Dr. Helen Fisher, a physical anthropologist, oxytocin can also work to inhibit the stress response and the production of the “fight or flight” hormone cortisol.
Love not only feels wonderful for our emotional center; according to several different studies, love also has protective properties for our physical heart. In a Yale study, men and women who felt most loved and supported had substantially less blockage in their coronary arteries. A study of 10,000 married men found that a man who felt his wife showed her love had significantly less chest pain, or angina, than those who felt she didn’t. Duke University researchers found that single men and women with heart disease who lacked confidants were three times as like to die after five years than those with close friends and relationship partners.
Studies also show that loneliness and social isolation can weaken our immune system. How couples communicate with one another during conflict has an additional impact on immune health. Research suggests that couples that argue in a more positive and loving way have higher immediate immune function that couples displaying negative behavior during fights. Dr. Gian Gonzaga, senior director of research & development at eHarmony Labs told Women’s Day, “the key to positive conflict resolution is productively engaging in the conversation without retreating or ‘stonewalling’ each other.”
Miscommunication is a common source of distress in relationships. It is, in fact, apparently the major reason why I found myself single again the day before Valentine’s Day. My ex and I had marveled at our ability to communicate openly and honestly about a vast array of both concrete and abstract ideas, thoughts and feelings conflict-free. Yet our inability to clearly convey and perceive intent during the very rare arguments we had over the last year was enough to drive an insurmountable wedge between us.
I always thought that once you found the person who held the key to unlock all the chambers of your heart, as you held the key to theirs, you would do anything it took to keep that sacred connection alive. I thought that when I finally believed in a shared vision of a future with a soulmate, there would be work, of course, but it would be done with love, patience and understanding. I believed that if there danger signs or red flags, they would be mentioned far before either party would say it was time to take their exit. I believed you gave the people you love a chance and even a little time for transformation once their eyes were truly opened to the splinters in them.
The biographer, novelist and author of the best-selling memoir, Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention so you can change your life.”
Sometimes after you have addressed your weaknesses, attacked your demons head on, the person who once held the mirror to your barriers is lost beyond the shadows of the past. You must hold steady long enough to feel the arms of support from loved ones as you move into to an uncertain future. You must learn to recognize and accept the help and love of the others in your life who will walk beside you until you once again come into your own strength.
Annette Vaillancourt, Ph.D. writes, ‘For the resilience to return to the human spirit, the path it takes is grief.” When handled most healthfully, the journey from grief leads to personal growth, expanding of the spirit and a greater awareness of self and your relationship to others. As I wrote from the start, that’s what living is all about.