THE BLOG

How Botox Can Harm Your Relationship

07/18/2014 12:37 EDT | Updated 09/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Okay, a confession (which has nothing to do with facial injections but has everything to do with why I'm writing this article.)

I love being a relationship therapist. When I'm not seeing clients, I'm reading books, attending courses, or talking to my colleagues about something relationship-related. Even though it can be hard emotional work I'm kind of besotted with it, this whole world of relationship psychology.

It's this fascination that led me to the question of Botox.

The leading researchers on relationships and attachment all agree: connectedness is essential for our health and happiness. Even more exciting? It's backed up by science. We are physiologically and neurologically built to seek out this connectedness. It's not just theory. It's hard-wired into us.

And this is where biology and Botox come into it.

We can only connect with our partners when we feel safe. In other words, when we are receptive rather than reactive, or when our nervous system is not being triggered into an arousal state. Yep, we're like animals in that way. When we feel emotionally threatened or unsafe our brains and bodies respond by going into fight or flight mode, or by withdrawing and shutting down.

So how do we create safety in a relationship? By understanding what activates each other's nervous systems. Part of that is getting to really know and understand one another -- our pasts, our fears and needs, and what makes us feel safe, or not.

The other part is being attuned to your partner in the present moment. We connect on a level that is not rational or conscious, but is implicit and physiological.

Relationship researcher Stan Tatkin is all about focusing on the nervous system and not just the stories we tell ourselves: 'To use another metaphor: Our interest is primarily in the music, not the lyrics. A psychobiological approach shifts the attention of partners away from content and toward implicit processes, encouraging moment-to-moment awareness of each other's faces, voices, bodies and so on.'

What does this mean? Well, the more we understand what is happening in our bodies, and our partner's, the more connected we will be. If we recognize that when we're holding our breath it means we are feeling anxious, we can ask our partner for comfort. If we understand that when our partner's voice gets louder that he or she is tense, we can respond in a way that is reassuring.

Some of this reaction is automatic, however. We often respond to each other's facial and physical cues without conscious awareness. When your partner speaks in soft tones or smiles with his or her eyes, you likely and automatically respond in a similar way. On the other hand, if your partner has no expression on his or her face, or uses a flat tone of voice, you likely feel worried or threatened, possibly without even knowing why.

So. Botox. Where does that fit in?

Digging deeper into this understanding that we are biologically wired to connect, I found myself at a recent workshop with Dr. Stephen Porges on The Physiology of Love and Social Behaviour.

Again, all about connectedness. In fact, Porges calls it our 'biological imperative' to connect. And we do so by attending to each other's visual and bodily cues, through face-to-face interaction, vocalization, posture and gesture.

In particular the expression in our faces -- the upper part of the face around the eyes -- indicates our emotional state. It is literally our 'crow's feet' that express exuberance and happiness. Seriously. Those very lines we may dread to see around our eyes. The ones that have some of us running to a dermatologist in a panic.

We rely on the expression around the eyes with our partners to connect. It tells us if they are feeling safe or happy or worried or threatened. Without this cue we don't know how to respond. We see this in children with autism who have flat muscle tone around the eyes; not only are we unable to understand their social engagement cues, but they are not able to understand ours either.

And -- who knew -- the same goes for Botox! According to Porges, research shows that not only can it be more difficult for us to read the expression of those with Botox, but it affects their ability to read the cues and emotions in others as well. It actually impedes the ability to connect in both directions.

Fascinating, huh?

It raises the great irony that it is often insecurity that drives us to consider Botox. We may worry that our partner will no longer find us attractive as we age. But at the heart of this worry lies the real fear... that we may lose our connection.

It's something to think about before making those crow's feet disappear. Not only do they allow us to express joy and exuberance, but they actually help us stay closer to and connected with the ones that we love.

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