Givers & Takers

Givers and takers. I read a book about this years ago when I was in graduate school and it made a great impression.

I’ve spoken to couples in my office for many years about this topic, but I know that it wasn’t always taken with the seriousness with which I believe it should be taken. (This is true in all relationships, although I am addressing couples here. It pertains to relationships with your children, your extended family, your work relationships, and your friendships).

Certainly I never advised keeping score, but only emphasized each partner monitoring themselves and assessing whether or not they were giving more to the relationship than they were taking.

I’m certain you’ve heard the term “emotional or relational bankruptcy.” We all have moments and days when we take more from important relationships than we give back. That is quite normal. There will be times when you need some extra support. But in a healthy relationship you will at some point make extra investments to balance it.

It is when there are consistent patterns of taking with little or no investing back that emotional and/or relationship bankruptcy occurs.

As I have studied neuropsychology, I have begun to work at this phenomenon in a very different way. It has helped couples better understand the dynamics when I speak in terms of physiological responses. 

To state it in a simple way, when we speak negatively, there is an adrenaline response in both the sender and the receiver.

When there is an investment in the relationship, there is a secretion of oxytocin in both people. 

What Are Adrenaline and Oxytocin?

Adrenaline is a very important hormone, most known for its flight or fight response when released. It is a very important stress chemical which is secreted from our adrenal glands which are located above each kidney. It plays a key role in our neurotransmitter switch to facilitate the communication between our brain, our neurons, and other body functions.

Oxytocin is also a powerful hormone, and acts as a neurotransmitter just as adrenaline does. Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland, which is a pea-sized structure that resides on the base of the brain. It is known as the love hormone or the cuddle chemical because of how it elicits love and connection. Oxytocin is key to women in pregnancy and is responsible for the production of testosterone in a male. But that’s only a small part of the role that oxytocin serves.

What does this mean and why is it important? Let’s look at what elicits a release of oxytocin or adrenaline into our systems.

Releases of adrenaline occur when there is a sense of danger, or extreme excitement.

Releases of oxytocin occur when there is a sense of safety or connection.

You may be asking yourself what this has to do with givers and takers? It actually has everything to do with the dynamic of giving and taking in relationships.

Consider this: when you take from a relationship, in balance, there is no problem. But it becomes a problem when you do two things, both of which elicit the release of adrenaline.

1. When you take more than you give back or invest. As I mentioned earlier, it is quite understandable when you need a bit of extra support and you seek it from a relationship. But when that pattern becomes continuously unbalanced by taking more than you give, the other person becomes drained. When they are in a place of nearing emotional or relational bankruptcy, a pitiful expression or a plea for help can elicit adrenaline being pumped into the other partner’s system. There’s a country and western song that has lyrics that say it pretty directly… “My give a darn’s busted!” (not exactly the “D“ word used in the song!)

It doesn’t mean that the partner no longer cares, it means that this situation no longer elicits oxytocin and connection between the two, but elicits adrenaline instead. Perhaps the other partner should be supportive but can’t, or perhaps because they simply have nothing left to give and feel some level of guilt or shame. At this point, the relationship is in trouble.

2. When you take with intensity. Many couples do not realize that they are taking huge withdrawls from the relationship every time they speak harshly. Hostile facial expressions, or sometimes even doing “charging motions” with their bodies (moving closer with intensity in a threatening way, etc.), name-calling, blaming, and raised voices, all fall in this category as well.

Some people are shocked to discover that these behaviors that we culturally label as “normal“ have this affect. But scientific research clearly shows that it is indeed the case.

Another set of communication patterns that falls into this category are those that are guilting, shaming, or making “global” assertions.

Guilting statements often happen between parent and child. When I teach co-parenting classes to divorced parents, or blended-family parents, I always warn about guilting children. An example would be, “don’t you love mommy enough to come and do this with me?”, when the child would have preferred to go spend time with friends. Shaming often occurs between couples when one does not get what they want. An example would be, “I’m sure it’s much more important to you to go spend time with your friends than help me with this project.” And of course global statements are the famous “you never” or “you always” statements. And often all three are combined into statements such as, “you haven’t changed a bit and you never will!”

Now let’s consider “giving” or “investing in” the relationship. 

Investing in the relationship elicits the response of an oxytocin release into the systems of both the giver and the receiver. When oxytocin is released, there is a deeper and more intimate connection.

Just as compounding interest occurs when we invest in certain accounts, stocks, or bonds, oxytocin compounds when it is regularly invested in a relationship.

So, what is the point here? Let me be very direct, with lots of love…

When you foster releases of adrenaline in your partner or any other relationship, you are participating in the intentional destructive act of damaging the relationship and your partner.

Likewise, when you invest in any relationship, you are fosteriing the secretion of oxytocin, which will compound great results … deeper connection, and deeper levels of understanding. And in marriage, deeper intimacy. Therefore, you are participating in the intentional act of investing in building goodwill in both the relationship and your partner.

I teasingly say to couples in my office, “because of your ignorance, your sins of the past are forgiven! But it counts from this moment forward!“ I offer you the same absolution: you are forgiven your past wrongdoings, because I’m sure if you find yourself guilty, it was related to not having this new information!

I know you will do extraordinarily better from this moment forward!

Let me ask you a few key questions for you to consider about yourself:

  • When stressed or facing challenges how do you speak to your partner or friend or family member?
  • What is the tone of your voice when addressing challenges?
  • What is the expression on your face when expressing challenges?
  • What words do you choose to discuss things?
  • When angry, does the tone, harshness, or volume of your voice increase?
  • What does your body language say when you are angry?
  • What names or how many curse words come out of your mouth in these situations?

On the other hand, consider the flipside:

  • What tone do you use when you’re investing in the relationship?
  • What facial expressions do you have when you are investing in a relationship?
  • What words do you use when investing in a relationship?
  • What posture do you have when investing in a relationship?

It is interesting to study how generational these things are. We like to blame genetics for a lot of our physical maladies, such as cardiovascular and hypertensive diseases.  But research also clearly indicates that if we came from a family where there was a lot of yelling and name calling, we are likely to either become that, or choose partners who do those things. Research also indicates that genetics may have a lot to do with the over-secretion of adrenaline, and under-secretion of oxytocin.

For example, here is a list of some of the maladies associated with over-secretion of adrenaline:

  • Trouble falling asleep at night
  • Trouble staying asleep at night
  • Tossing and turning at night
  • Restless-leg syndrome 
  • Quick to anger
  • Agitation
  • Road rage 
  • The need to drink too much alcohol
  • Need to use drugs
  • Need to smoke excessively
  • ADHD
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Hyperactivity
  • Fibromyalgia
  • IBS
  • Chronic interstitial cystitis (bladder irritation)
  • Depression
  • Inability to lose weight
  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Panic disorder

And the list goes on.

I teach about these things, because so many couples and families believe that the manner in which they communicate is not that significant. But when we put it in terms of challenges that can be fostered, both in the giver and the receiver, it takes on a whole new significance.

Let’s look at the flipside and look at the benefits of fostering the production of oxytocin in our bodies when we invest in our relationships. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Stress reduction
  • Anxiety reduction
  • Safety
  • Security
  • Increased levels of contentment
  • Reduction in the release of stress hormones
  • Increased pain tolerance
  • Increased creativity
  • Reduction in inflammation
  • Acceleration of healing from sickness or maladies
  • Reduction of withdrawal symptoms from any addiction
  • Improved self esteem
  • Increased empathy
  • Increased interest levels generally
  • Greater connection
  • Deeper intimacy
  • Increased sense of well-being
  • Greater relationship fulfillment

Once again, those who only focus on making occasional investments into their relationships see a greater significance of doing so when they consider the above- listed results.

But it is also helpful to consider the damage done when there is a deficiency in oxytocin secreted:

  • Depression, stress, aggressive behaviors
  • Decreased libido
  • Increase in desire for carbs and sugar
  • Muscle aches and tension
  • Sexual challenges
  • Irritability
  • Sleep deprivation

Research has clearly shown improvement in all of the above-listed items with an increase of oxytocin.

One additional benefit of oxytocin being discovered in new research is indicating that increased oxytocin can be the greatest anti-aging formula ever known. It has been shown to retard the depletion of muscle mass that occurs normally in the aging process. This is true in both the reversal and prevention of muscle wasting. It has also been shown to have a powerful effect in retarding the progression of Alzheimers and other dementia-related conditions. 

Research from UC Berkeley indicates that in addition to helping maintain healthy muscle mass, it may also improve bone health and the battle with obesity. The result is an extension of a healthy, active life. Wow!

So where do we start to foster all these benefits for ourselves? On the defensive side, we start by monitoring any communication patterns we have that might elicit the production of adrenaline. That’s a great start that you don’t have to wait for Monday morning to understand!

On the offensive side, it is always a great start to consciously infuse our important relationships with continuous and intentional investments.

I would encourage you to journal about several things:

1. When someone has offended you, do you address it in a surly and critical manner, or do you investigate how you might respond differently?  I suggest that when someone has shared something difficult, respond by making an investment in the relationship.

2. Do you have a method of scoring yourself on daily investments made in important relationships? I have a weekly success card that includes checking off the days that I invest in the relationship that is so important to me. Things like an encouraging text, a greeting card dropped in the mail, a big smile, a hug…

3. Are there some changes you need to make? In the 12-step program, step four involves taking an inventory of your life, and noting where you have harmed others. Then step five is about assessing where amends are warranted, and in what situations, and how you might make those amends.

We often think that admitting our wrongs and making amends is a sign of weakness. It is actually a sign of great courage and strength. And it always elicits oxytocin when done in the right way!

Are you a giver? Or are you a taker? Yes, we need to receive some things on a regular basis, but the more we give and invest in relationships, the greater the chances that we will receive! 

You can do this! I know you want to! Get started today and invest in little ways in those relationships that are important to you. Not only are you investing in the relationship, but you were investing in the health and well-being of the person in the relationship with you. And in yourself!