Us | Bruce Springsteen

Summary of: Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship (Goop Press)
By: Bruce Springsteen


Couples often experience conflict where small disagreements escalate, turning into heated arguments, leaving both partners feeling emotionally drained. ‘Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship’ delves into the field of interpersonal neurobiology, examining complex emotional habits and their development in the context of early relationships. The book explains the concept of coregulation, how the amygdala triggers fight-or-flight responses in stress, and introduces the adaptive child within each of us. Learn how neuroplasticity allows for change and growth within a relationship as author Bruce Springsteen shares Dan and Julia’s story, where they learn to reframe their relationship as ‘us’ rather than ‘you and me’.

Breaking Free from Toxic Behaviors

How our earliest relationships shape our stress responses, how neuroplasticity allows us to rewire our brains, and why it’s important to approach conflicts with our partners as “us” instead of “I”.

If you’re in a romantic relationship, you might recognize the following scenario. It all starts with something trivial, such as a dish left unwashed in the sink. You politely inquire about why your partner hasn’t cleaned it, only for them to snap back that they haven’t gotten to it yet. This mundane interaction quickly spirals out of control, and soon you’re both feeling tense, defensive, and yelling hurtful things at each other. As if possessed, you forget that the person in front of you is the same one who laughs at your jokes and holds you when you’re down. Your rational brain has checked out,
and all your worst emotional habits have taken over.

Why does this happen? According to the field of interpersonal neurobiology, which studies how our brains work in the context of our social connections, people in close relationships tend to influence each other’s stress levels. When your partner’s stress hormone cortisol spikes, yours are likely to follow suit. This also works in reverse, where when your partner is relaxed, you’re likely to feel relaxed too.

However, this is only a fraction of the picture. Our stress reactions, whether they involve yelling, lying, or retreating into silence, are shaped by our earliest relationships. For most of us, this means we learned our stress responses by modeling our parents. When things are going smoothly, most of us behave like wise adults. We think with our prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for measured and complex cognition. We remain rational, flexible, warm and forgiving. We understand that a dirty dish in the sink isn’t the end of the world. But when we come under stress, another part of our brain, the amygdala, takes over and stimulates a fight-or-flight response. In these situations, we focus solely on self-preservation. We don’t think things through. Instead, we act instinctively. This is when our adaptive child takes over. Our adaptive child is a creature of emotional habit, using all the stress responses that we have learned since we were young. Regardless of whether this means being cruelly bossy, a people-pleasing doormat, or something in between, our adaptive children’s thought patterns and behaviors are always rigid.

Sometimes, when we argue with our partners, our wise adult selves exit the room, leaving two adaptive children to battle it out. All of our worst habits and most destructive emotional impulses are suddenly triggered. However, the good news is that just because our adaptive child automatically takes over, it doesn’t always have to be like that. Previously, many scientists thought the neural pathways in our brains were set in stone. It was thought that these pathways calcified our habits, behaviors, and traits, and hence became part of our basic characteristics. However, now that scientists understand neuroplasticity, they know that these neural pathways can be rewired and reformed. In other words, we’re capable of phenomenal change.

So what do dirty dishes have to do with it all? When your argument got out of control, you and your partner were no longer thinking like wise adults. Wise adults know that it’s more important to preserve the relationship (“us”) than score individual points (“I”). You were both focused on winning; hence, you were both losers. It’s possible to break free from toxic behaviors, approach conflicts as wise adults, and reframe your relationship in terms of “us” rather than “I”.

Parenting Your Adaptive Child

The book explores how our childhood adaptive strategies can affect our relationships as adults. It tells the story of Dan, who learned to lie as a way of avoiding his mother’s anger, and how his lying habit threatened his marriage with Julia. To save their relationship, Dan learned how to parent his adaptive child by identifying its root cause, practicing relational mindfulness, and rewiring his neural pathways. The book emphasizes the importance of understanding and parenting our adaptive child to create healthy relationships.

Poisoning the ecology of romance

A healthy and balanced romantic relationship is one that operates on an ‘us-consciousness’ rather than a ‘you-and-me consciousness.’ Toxic behavior that stems from a core negative image of your partner can poison the ecology of your relationship and make conflict resolution impossible. To improve the ecology of your romance, it’s recommended that you resist hanging onto your partner’s core negative image, redistribute negative behavior by acknowledging shared flaws, and establish shared objectives that lead to constructive conversation. By abandoning power struggles and embracing a cooperative approach, you can empower your relationships.

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