Nothing in our lives affects us more profoundly, both physically and emotionally, than our relationships with others. The neural pathways that enable us-that actually compel us-to relate to other human beings are laid down in our brains in early childhood. The experiences we have at this critical stage will influence the circuitry that develops and stays with us for life. If, for example, our needs as infants are met by a loving caretaker who responds to our cries by feeding or changing or stroking or rocking us when we are hungry or cold or wet or scared, then we will feel good about ourselves, and trusting of the outside world. Our needs have been validated, our emotional cravings met, with our relationship with another human being serving as confirmation of our worthiness. And certainly the biochemistry of motherhood supports this outcome. The hormones associated with birth and nursing in a happy, healthy, well-supported mother predispose her to fall in love with her baby and to fill the child with a sense of being loved and accepted unconditionally.
Sometimes, however, our parents did not themselves experience this kind of unconditional love and may therefore be unable to give it to us. Then our cries may go unheeded or, worse, meet with active disapproval or resentment, and we will feel that the universe is not a safe place. Our relationships with others will seem undependable, even threatening.
The feelings we develop about ourselves and others as children become etched into the circuitry of our brains and bodies, where they will continue, albeit subconsciously, to affect our relationship choices and responses throughout life. They are part of our basic emotional portfolio, easily accessible and freely expressible, sometimes excessively so. On the other hand, those feelings that were not reinforced by early experience tend to wither away, to become unavailable to us until we make a conscious effort to access our innate power to change our circuitry.
Your ability to live successfully, however you might define success, depends to a great degree on how you relate to other people. If that part of your life is unsatisfactory, the only way you can revise the old relational circuits that determine your current relationships is to expose them and update them. Once you have a better understanding of the environment in which you were born and raised, it becomes possible-though never easy-to change some of the choices you usually make automatically, as a consequence of that old wiring.
But change can occur only when you understand how important it is to change. You must ask yourself why you feel the emotions you feel, choose the mates you choose, act the way you act. The answer is in those early life experiences that served as the architects of your neural circuits and live on today in your very cells. Thankfully, science has now proved beyond any doubt that each of us has the ability to change our thoughts and our brains throughout life-a quality known as neuroplasticity.
During and after adolescence we almost invariably find ourselves attracted to mates who enable us to revisit and perhaps heal the unfinished emotional business of childhood. In our culture, romantic love is where we express our deepest longings. Thus each romantic relationship we enter into can serve as a microscope into our emotional circuitry. More than any other aspect of our lives, our intimate relationships bring to light the old wounds still begging for closure. And most women have been taught to put their needs last in relationships because we feel unworthy. Therefore we don't even know what we want until we give ourselves permission to remember!
In retrospect, I can see that this was true of my feelings toward the man who became my husband. I was acting out with him a family drama that was still ongoing for me. And although I can't speak on his behalf, in all likelihood I served a similar purpose for him. It took the hormonal and developmental changes of the climacteric to help me see that the role I played in my marriage was based on old beliefs about myself and my worth, beliefs that no longer served me well and were no longer valid.
Menopause to the Rescue
It may not feel like a rescue at the time, but the clarity of vision and increasing intolerance for injustice, inequity, and lack of fulfillment that accompany the perimenopausal changes are a gift. Our hormones are giving us an opportunity to see, once and for all, what we need to change in order to live honestly, fully, joyfully, and health fully in the second half of our lives. This is the time when many women stop doing what I call "stuffing"-stifling their own needs in order to tend to everybody else's. Our culture expects women to put others first, and all during the childbearing years most of us do, no matter the cost to ourselves. But at midlife we get the chance to make changes, to create lives that fit who we are-or, more accurately, who we have become.
If, however, a woman cannot face the changes she needs to make in her life, her body may find a way to point them out to her, lit up in neon and impossible to ignore. It is at this stage that many women reach a crisis in the form of some kind of physical problem, a life-altering or even sometimes life-threatening illness. Scientist and author Gregg Braden, who has traveled extensively and studied indigenous people all over the world, added an additional piece to my understanding when I interviewed him on my radio show recently. He said he routinely finds healthy women the world over as old as 120 who are agile and able to take care of their daily needs. He told me that the cultures he has studied believe that the human body can tolerate unresolved hurts without physical harm until about age fifty. After that, if not resolved, this unfinished business forms the basis for physical illness.
One very common physical problem in the years leading up to menopause, for example, is fibroid tumors in the uterus. Forty percent of all perimenopausal women in our culture are diagnosed with one or more fibroid tumors, and many of them will undergo midlife hysterectomies to deal with the problem. In conventional medicine, we doctors are content to explain that fibroids occur so frequently in women in their forties because of changing hormone levels, with too much estrogen being produced compared to progesterone.
Though this is true as far as it goes, it is not the whole truth. I know this both personally and professionally, through the experience I had with a fibroid tumor that was first diagnosed when I was forty-one. Bodily symptoms are not just physical in nature; often they contain a message for us about our lives-if we can learn to decipher it. Sometimes, as happened with me, the message becomes clear in stages, with its full meaning available only in retrospect. But what I learned firsthand over the course of the eight years during which I was processing the experience of my fibroid is that we attract precisely the illness or problem that best facilitates our access to our inner wisdom-a phenomenon that is both awe-inspiring and sometimes terrifying. Though this is true throughout our lives, it hits us harder and more directly during perimenopause and menopause, as though nature is trying to awaken us one last time before we leave our reproductive years, the era when our inner wisdom, mediated in part by our hormones, is loudest and most intense.
I had a fibroid as my wake-up call. Another woman might have had a flare-up of migraine headaches, or PMS, or breast symptoms, or high blood pressure, or any of the several other conditions so common at perimenopause. Your body's message to you will be in the language that best breaks through your particular barriers and speaks most specifically to the issues you need to change in your life. The wisdom of this system is very precise.