Understanding the Baby Brain Part 2 – Why children of alcoholics marry other alcoholics

This movie was something of a testimony to how difficult it is to make Meg Ryan look bad, it portrays Meg as a woman who nearly destroyed her movie with alcohol and runs some close parallels to the real life struggles Meg experienced in her marriage to Dennis Quaid.  The questions is often asked why would America’s sweetheart choose a man with such obvious issues.  We discussed this in an earlier post about Rihanna.

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The chief mission of the baby brain is to keep the hugely vulnerable baby alive.  Consequently the overriding imperative is to identify what behaviours (both the child and parents) are associated with safety and what is not.  What they quickly learn (hopefully) is – Mummy good.  Now because the babies brain is so new it tends to absorb information without much structure or differentiation.  Mum is not a separate person, rather a series of body parts (breasts figure prominently), sensations, smells and tastes.  There may be good Mummy and bad Mummy, and good baby and bad baby.  However the baby brain is inherently configured to aim for what is familiar – there is a very simple rationale – if I survived or enjoyed this experience before I should do it again and I will continue to be alive – any new experience could lead to harm or death.  As I repeated ad nauseum in the last post pretty much anything could lead to death for a baby.  Consequently the baby brain tends to be more rigid and this rigidity will increase in a way that is directly proportional to the level of anxiety the baby experiences on a regular basis and/or the anxiety of their caregiver.

Picture a baby in a bath for the first time, notice how they freeze and go rigid and maybe start to cry.  Here the engaged father smiles and says softly – “heeeyyy it’s okaaaay” his face is relaxed and attentive.  As baby opens her eyes to see  why Dad isn’t crying too she registers all his non-verbal signals of safety, his deep breathing, relaxed face, low voice register, warm hands, dilated pupils.  Her symbiotic brain then starts absorbing this safety information as if it was her own and she starts to breathe deeper noticing the warmth of the water – the delicious slippery sensations – she smiles Dad smiles and a new experience enters the familiar and safe database.  Of course then the bath ends and the discomfort of the cold air brings new distress, and the comfort of soft towels restores equilibruim.

As adults this propensity to move towards familiarity is a major part of why we choose partners with very similar traits to our early childhood caregivers.  The rationale seems to work a bit like this .  If I made it to adulthood then my upbringing was ‘good enough’ i.e. I survived.  If my coping strategies worked this far then I should continue them – my survival is on the line.  Therefore if I want to continue to survive I should choose someone similar so I can continue to survive.  Remember the baby brain just wants to live – alive is better than dead. This works well when our upbringing was safe, loving and warm however it begins to hurt us when we find ourselves repeating old stuck patterns or our childhood was particularly fractured or tramatic.

There is good news though – the lowest common denominator approach of the baby brain is offset by the joy loving child brain  . . . more on this next week . . .

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