A great relationship increases our ability to love ourselves. It all comes down to the science of love, what most of us would consider an extremely intangible and subjective experience.
The parts of our brains responsible for love and attachment are regulated by each other. As a baby, I learn love through my connection to my caregivers, as reflection in their eyes. Dr. Sue Johnson, in her book Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships asks, “How does a baby know he is delightful?” The baby knows he is delightful because when he looks into his mother’s eyes, he sees delight.
While most of our love template is created when we are young due to the fact that our brain is most primed for taking in information at that stage, we continue to mold and shape the emotional centres of our brain through continued experience in relationship.
The pursuit of self-love is entangled with a loving relationship. I cannot change the template or the dial or filter with which I can love myself by myself. In isolation, my only framework for self love is what I have known, and may be restricted if I was raised by a parent with limited ability to love themselves, who were distracted or not always emotionally available
If I want to change what my self-love dial is set for, I can do that through the eyes of a lover. When I am accepted and loved and can see that in another’s eyes, then a part of my brain recognizes that and recodes my own brain. Wes Angelozzi sums this up well:
“Go and love someone exactly as they are. And then watch how quickly they transform into the greatest, truest version of themselves. When one feels seen and appreciated in their own essence, one is instantly empowered.”
I tested this a few years ago. I realized that I was withholding love from parts of my body, especially my stomach. So I asked my partner if he would rub oil on my stomach (which I hated people touching), while I did my best to be present and stay connected to him. He was amazing as he kept checking in with me to see if I was still present, and looked at me with kind loving eyes. I started to relax as I felt accepted and loved in that moment.
As I began to feel safer, I started to explore the edge of my fear. There was still part of me holding back from truly loving myself because I was afraid that my fat would jiggle and he would find it unattractive.
“Will you shake my tummy back and forth and jiggle my fat?”, I blurted, the courage leaving my lips before my brain had time to talk myself out of it. And so he did. My stomach moved back and forth and as it hit my thigh, making ripples there too. Neither of us pulled away, he just kept loving and accepting me with his gaze. I felt my fear dissipate and allowed myself to start loving the way my soft stomach moved back and forth.
That experience was one of the most vulnerable and freeing moments of my life. I went to the edge of my fear, sharing a part of myself that I did not love and I let someone else see that. My partner received what I thought was a terrible part of myself and did not recoil in horror, he accepted and loved me through it. My brain reset my self-love dial.
What happened for me in that moment is explained well in A General Theory of Love, a collaboration between Dr. Thomas Lewis, Dr. Fari Amini and Dr. Richard Lannon. “Those who succeed in revealing themselves to another find the dimness receding from their own visions of self. Like people awakening from a dream, they slough off the accumulated ill-fitted trappings of unsuitable lives”.
Love is transformative. Love changes our brains. Our relationships help us to increase our ability to love not only each other, but also ourselves.
Christina Bianchini RPC, MPCC