What makes relationships tick? An interview with Melissa Ferrari

In this interview I talk about what makes relationships tick, how being in a relationship with mutuality - what's good for me is good for you matters and how our histories can shape what happens in a relationship. Thank you to Women With Altitude for asking me to co-host the Women On Top show regularly! It is truly an honour to be asked and I enjoy it greatly. I hope listeners learn something new about how to  make your relationships work. I like to give credit where credit is due and a lot of what I discuss both in this interview and whenever I am asked about relationships is from my training in Level 3 of The Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy.       


Andrea:    ...Women on Top today, this beautiful sunny Wednesday afternoon. When Melissa comes into the studio once a month, Melissa Ferrari, we do normally talk something relationships. We've been chatting technology today and websites and all things alike. In our last 10 minutes, let's change pace now. Melissa, tell us something, share with us something, that could better our relationships that we might now know or we might not think of.

Melissa:    When people often think about relationships it sort of comes back down to always, "Are we getting along more or aren't we?" You know, are we getting along and all of that. There's something that's really, really important to think about in regards to relationships and being with your partner. There's a really, really important key thing to understand. While we are all people and humans and, of course, in our bodies, a very, very big factor of what goes on is what happens in our brain.

When we fall in love, it's all about the brain and connection, getting all the endorphins going when we first meet and all of that exciting kind of stuff. Then we have to deal with each other. All of that fun sort of ...

Andrea:    Because the chemicals change?

Melissa:    It changes.

Andrea:    Over time ... What's the time frame normally?

Melissa: Well, it's different for different people. It's different for different personality styles. I mean, my observation, personal observation, this is not research, this is what I see, I'd say that people by about 18 months, two years, are starting to come back to being normal, being your old self with all of your old personality traits that sometimes are not nice. You know? Really, at the end of the day what we have to remember is we are animals. We are still animals.

Andrea:  Let's face it. We pass wind. We don't pass wind. I pass wind. We got up to like three and a half years.

Melissa:  The new knowledge is that the brain, in a nutshell ... Some areas of the brain are wired to reduce threat and danger and seek security. Something that will really keep couples thriving, more attuned, more in love, is to always be creating an environment that has safety and security.

I spoke a little bit about this a few weeks ago, but I want to mention it again. I'm really finding in my work with my couples, when couples really understand this stuff, that the basis of the brain is we are scanning all the time, "Is everything all good," if we can keep reflecting back to each other that we are all good, you and I are okay, it really does foster feelings inside that create a more positive experience. That's able to make you feel more in love. We don't like insecurity.

Andrea:    Yeah, right. There are people who don't understand what that safe space means or creating that safe place. Can you elaborate? How do you create safety and support?

Melissa:    Facial expressions is a really, really big one. If you're the kind of person that sort of looks unhappy and your partner has come from a history where they had a relative or a grandmother or a step-mother that often looked unhappy and was in their care, like they were being cared for by this person, they will sometimes end up with somebody that possibly has that look on their face.

Andrea:    You mean like resting bitch face?

Melissa:    Yes.

Andrea: That's the one. 

Melissa:    We talk a lot about that, in the training, around how we can't just ...

Andrea:    Because there are people who look absolutely miserable and they may not be.

Melissa:    And they may not.

Andrea:    But their resting face is awful.

Trish:    They don't realize.

Andrea:    They don't realize. It's very sad.

Melissa:    You can imagine, if the other partner is seeing that look on the other person's face a lot of the time and that has actually been a negative experience growing up because it was a consistent face that they looked at with someone who was sad, depressed, lonely, down, all of those kind of experiences, it can actually set up an instant dysregulation, what we call dysregulation of your internal arousal system, meaning your nervous system, that creates a kind of deflation or a flatness to the relationship.

 Your nervous system has a lot to do with it as well. We are nervous systems together and when people fight, someone can be the real escalator and someone can be more of what we call somebody in a hypo-aroused state which is more of a collapse. People (or couple) that are in the two different windows of tolerance, one who really escalates and one that sort of creates more of a collapsed state or a depressed state, you can really have a very, very bad argument.

Melissa:    That's right. Or withdrawal. One really wants to fight whereas the other one just wants to flee and doesn't want to ... That kind of dysregulation, if that goes on for days and days or weeks and weeks ...

Andrea:    Doesn't that happen, though, to everybody in that same way or do you find there is someone who wants to escalate and fight this matches someone who else wants to escalate and fight and that's where those really, really volatile, explosive couples come from?   


Melissa:    Very. That's right. If you're getting two people that are like that, they've got to learn to be able to bring their system down into a more of a mid-line regulation. If they're both up there it's going to get dangerous. It is very, very scary. It's threatening. It's threatening to the couple. It's threatening to children. It's threatening to little pets around them. It's threatening to everybody.

That's why bringing that consciousness ... Your fights are not often about the fights; they're about reoccurring things that you're re-experiencing from the past that's being played out. If you can really know that about your partner, you know maybe something's being projected onto me from the past.

Andrea:    This is really common. I listen to that, and I go I 100% agree with you and, yet, struggle sometimes to find ... It's not really about the fricking toothpaste or about this being left on the floor again. That's where it manifests. That's the trigger. Getting in touch with what it really is, I find, when they talk to people they don't know what that is. I find that hard to do. How do they find that do you think?

Melissa:    That comes back to a lot of self-analysis. If you're finding that something's about something very similar, like leaving the lid off the toothpaste, for a lot of people that can be feeling disregarded. It's like you don't consider me enough to put the toothpaste back on so that next time ...

Trish:    Because you know it's important to me.

Melissa:    Exactly. That kind of consciousness needs to be in a relationships of, "Oh, I better do this right for my partner, so when they get up and they come in and they use the toothpaste, they're not going to have that negative experience."

Andrea:    Then that's really about being valued.

Melissa:    Very much. I think, Andrea, the biggest message that I can bring, because I feel so passionate about this stuff, is love doesn't just continue and happen. You've actually got to decide to be in love. You've got to decide to be your partner's lover. You've got to decide that I'm going to be in this relationship and create this safety and security required for it to work. Otherwise, I go so far as to say, if you don't want to put that effort in, call it a day. Be on your own and do what you want. Don't do any of that stuff, but that's not what we want. We want to be with someone.

Andrea:    It's really important because you both have to do that. What happens sometimes is one's willing and the other's not.

Melissa:    Exactly.

Melissa:    It needs to be in a relationship of, "Oh, I better do this right for my partner, so when they get up and they come in and they use the toothpaste, they're not going to have that negative experience."

Trish:    Melissa, you talked about the toothpaste. Sometimes you can easily just trivialize, oh it's just the toothpaste. In reality, it's the bigger things like cooking dinner. If you're partner's not willing to even have a go at cooking dinner or even cleaning up the kitchen after you've cooked dinner, I think those are more and more what's actually played out in homes. As a person you can say you can disregard the fact that they didn't put the toothpaste lid on, but if they're not willing to come in and contribute to what's important for you in other big ways ...

Andrea:    See, I think it's interesting. We've got intergenerational differences and things now. I can see it with my family. My mother's still the person who does all the cleaning and the cooking. My father doesn't really do much in that area. Whereas Michael and my approach is that everything is our responsibility. We have to make this house work. He'll just do, and I'll just do, we just do whatever it takes kind of thing. Rather than that's their job, I mow the lawn. He usually takes the bins out because he remembers before I do. On the nights he's not there, I take the bins out. It's not that thing whereas I still think there's some defined roles. I think that the more that you both mutually looking at it as a partnership, the better it is.

Melissa:    What's happening is that the brain and the nervous system is experiencing positive things. If it keeps being the toothpaste left off again, this is you know, it just creates that deflation. You can't stay in that state and be well regulated together. You've got to work on that stuff and help each other feel good.

Andrea:    Fantastic advice as always. Oh, Trish, you wanted to add something?

Trish:    I just wanted to add, even with not necessarily just couples. We have a grandson who lives at home. He doesn't pay board, so I'm often saying, "You're a contributing member of this household and we expect you to contribute." He said to me last week, "Well, you know, I started doing this, this and this and you didn't even thank me." Well, I mean ... Often it's that. People expect to be thanked for doing the day to day things that you do everyday anyway. 

Andrea:    Actually, we're already, probably the news has already started. Thank you for joining us ladies. Thanks for Trish for coming on today.

Trish:    You're welcome.

Andrea:    It was fabulous. We probably ... You might be able to find some links to certain things no doubt that we'll put on this podcast when we edit it. Great advice always Melissa, creating safety. We'll see you again in four weeks time.

Melissa:    Beautiful. See you then.

Andrea:    I'm Andrea Turner-Boys.

Melissa:    I'm Melissa Ferrari.

Trish:    I'm Trish Fehon.

Andrea:    Thanks everyone. From Women on Top, see you next time.

For more tips and information about love, relationships and happiness visit my Facebook page Key To Love  for those looking to find a life partner and are looking for some coaching.  Love, Life, Relationships & Transformation is my other Facebook page for parents and those in relationships already who like some daily inspiration. Also information about couple therapy and how it can help your relationships.