By Kathryn Matthews
O, The Oprah Magazine | September 01, 2009
Can a woman learn to kick the bad-man habit? Can a playboy ever be trusted to settle down? Yes! And new brain research shows how.
The adult mind is like a computer—hardwired and fixed. That's the old thinking. Thanks to new science, we now know that your brain can grow and evolve even into old age—a concept called plasticity. “The brain is constantly rewiring itself,” says researcher and psychiatrist Norman Doidge, MD, author of The Brain That Changes Itself. “The emotional centers of our brains are also plastic.” What might this mean for one's love life? O has three questions for Doidge:
Can a woman who seems fatally attracted to toxic men break the pattern? “Without exposure to any healthy relationships in early childhood, the parts of the brain that regulate our emotions and attractions may not develop fully, increasing our chances of being drawn to the wrong types as we get older. Fortunately, when we fall in love as adults, a substance called oxytocin is released. This brain chemical, research suggests, enables existing neuronal connections to melt away so that learning and unlearning can take place. The catch-22 here is that in order to unlearn a bad attraction, you have to fall in love with someone who is good for you. So breaking a toxic pattern usually requires climbing what I call the ladder of love rung by rung; in other words, having a series of relationships where each new one is slightly healthier than the last. Bear in mind that a lot of plastic change happens incrementally.”
Can you expect a longtime bachelor (à la Warren Beatty) to suddenly become a devoted father and faithful husband? “Evidence suggests that oxytocin may also help us commit to our partners and children. Still, the best predictor of future relationships is past relationships. And conscience is the key factor. If he is the type of man who has been truthful about dating different women at the same time and if he's remained a bachelor because, in his mind, he hasn't yet met the right person, then I think it's possible.”
Relationship experts caution against telling yourself, "This person is perfect...if only he changed X." What does neuroscience have to say? “Plasticity doesn't change the wisdom of that! Neural rewiring requires self-motivation. It's hard enough to change your own brain—let alone someone else's. The bottom line: If you can't see yourself with someone ten or 20 years down the road as they are now, don't marry them with the hopes they'll go into therapy.”