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Peggy La Cerra

Why Relationships Are So Difficult

Difficult RelationshipsOn any given day, 1.6 million of us are blogging, 27 million are tweeting, and 1.5 billion are posting on Facebook. We’re emailing during meetings, texting during lectures, and talking on our cell phones as we tackle rush-hour traffic. We spend much of our day making deals and dates –– and the reason we do all of this is both simple and profound: we have to socialize in order to get the jobs of life done. As I detailed in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Human Nature Review and in my book, The Origins of Minds , the “first law of human psychology is the second law of thermodynamics.” In other words, being alive is an ongoing search for energy — and our intelligence system evolved to make sure we get what we need. For humans, this means creating and building relationships. And if we are going to create what we might honestly call “conscious relationships” — let alone create a world without endless wars and where 16,000 children no longer starve each day — we need to step behind the curtain and understand the fundamental motivations that drive these relationships.

We need to acknowledge what we are up against so that we can become truly caring people. Our problem is not the “satanic entities” of our religious mythologies. And the solution is not in New Age philosophies that propagate the belief that if we simply focus on the positive, the negative will go away. The problem is rooted in our self-delusional nature — at the very core of our minds. The fundamental issue is this: whether we’re head over heels in love, embroiled in a battle with our boss, creating a religious community, or waging war, it’s because we’ve been primed over evolutionary time to be players in the “human biological marketplace” — buyers and sellers of ourselves as cooperative partners and competitors in the game of life.

Here is a brief guide to how that basic marketplace develops.

Natural-Born Competitors

In the womb, you were engaged in your first struggle for survival, and you didn’t necessarily play fair. In this seemingly sacrosanct place, you negotiated hard for more nutritional goods than your mother was prepared to offer you, and you struck bio-energetic bargains that she couldn’t refuse. Why? Because energy is life and without it, we die. So whenever two or more of us siphon off of the same limited energy supply, a competition begins.

The initial bio-energetic deal we have with our mother is purely physiological: a transfer of her own energetic resources to us through the placenta. Although this may appear to be a selfless gift, the arrangement evolved because it serves our mother’s genetic agenda. She is provisioning her own genes — packaged in fetal form — with the goods they’ll need to make it through the gestational period. But there are limits to a mother’s largesse: she needs to reserve enough of her energetic resources to sustain her own existence and provide for future offspring. The fetus, however, has other plans. Evolution has equipped it with the capacity to siphon off more of its mother’s energetic goods than her system is genetically programmed to give. And so a maternal-fetal conflict ensues — an energetic tug-of-war that results from a 50 percent difference between the genetic interests of the parties. Seen through the clear lens of energetic principles, our relationship to our first and most generous cooperator in life is as a stealth competitor.

Here’s how it starts: Cells derived from the fetus’ hormonal system, called trophoblasts, invade the wall of the mother’s uterus, lining her blood vessels with fat cells so that they can’t constrict when signaled by the mother’s system to do so. Once these “supply lines” have been fashioned, the fetus can directly tap the mother’s blood supply and increase the mother’s blood pressure, boosting the flow of bio-energetic goods to the fetus. Next the fetus begins injecting its own hormones into the mother’s blood supply to inhibit the effects of insulin and raise the mother’s blood-sugar level, providing the fetus with a greater concentration of the sweet nutrient. But of course, if the mother’s blood-sugar level gets too high, she’ll develop gestational diabetes. And so, even in this most cooperative of relationships — one in which the survival of each of the participants depends on that of the other — the deal can go badly for both if the fetus gets too greedy.

The Hormonal Ties That Bind