Attachment and bonding with the loved one – sentiment or science ? or both ?

Love is ” an intoxicating mixture of sex and sentiment that no one can understand” writes Marilyn Yalom in her book The History of the wife. If this statement is correct it would lead one to conclude that Couple Therapy for  improving their relationship would be a farce, suggests Sue Johnson, one of the leading expert on attachment and bonding. She is suggesting, to put it another way, that if we don’t understand love relationship it would be hard to help couples with problems of love relationship.

You may not be totally convinced and  wonder why would anyone want to subject love to scientific investigation, it should be the realm of poets. Unfortunately poetry is great to express the inexpressible emotions but it doesn’t help the couple who are having problems with their relationship. The advantage of scientific perspective is that it offers set of carefully recorded  observations with rigorous research which helps to understand what love is and how it is affected by  the complex dynamics of the love relationship. This would be helpful to identify where the problem in the relationship is and what strategies can be employed to correct the relationship.The evidence for love relationships comes from a growing literature on adult attachment, which is adopted and extended from English psychiatrists John Bowlby‘s work on the emotional bond between mother and children.

Many academics and lay people have tried to make sense of love relationships by giving various practical reasons; for example you may have heard or read that the essence of love relationship is negotiated exchange of resources, a friendship , nature’s trick to get you to mate and pass on your genes, or a time limited episode of delusional addiction. According to Sue Johnson multitudes of studies on adult attachment have emerged over the last decade tells us that the essence of the love relationship are none of the above.

Love is a very special kind of emotional bond. It is our vital need for survival, health and happiness. This need has been perfected by millions of years of evolution and now it is hard wired into our brains. The hard wiring in our brain tell us that isolation  or  abandonment  by our loved ones is a danger sign and touching and emotional responsiveness of loved one is sign of safety . This sense of  safety provides for optimal flexibility and continued learning. Jaak Panksepp in his studies found that loss of connection from attachment figures triggers ” primal panic” a special set of fear responses. The need for emotional connection is not a sentimental notion. It is our basic need and this is reflected in numerous health studies. For example, it is now clear that emotional isolation is more dangerous for your health than smoking, and that it doubles the likelihood of heart attack and stroke.

We all need safe haven relationship to turn to when life is too much for us.  We also need secure relationship which provides us with a base from which to go confidently out into the world and participate in life. This is dependency ; but it is good effective dependency. This close connection ( the evidence suggests) is a source of strength  and personality integration rather than weakness. Studies show that those securely connected have a more articulated and positive sense of self. Chris Fraley in his research found, eighteen months after 9/11 that those survivors who were securely connected , who could turn to others for emotional support, were able to deal with this trauma and grow from it, whereas insecurely attached survivors were still experiencing significant mental health problems. The secure connection is that which has mutual accessibility and responsiveness to each other. The key questions for each of the partner is : “Are you there for me?” “Do I matter to you?” ” Will you turn towards me and respond to me?” Partners quite often don’t know how to ask these questions.

If we look into a relationship of couples who are caught up in a negative patterns they  are all to do with separation distress – the deprivation and emotional starvation that comes from emotional disconnection. When we cannot get an attachment figure  or loved one to respond to us, we step into evolutionary wired sequence of protest, first hopeful and then angry, desperate and coercive. We seek contact any way we can. If we cannot get a response, despair and depression come to claim us.

If we cannot find a way to turn towards our partner and find a way for safe connection, then there are really only two other secondary strategies open to us. Strategy one is to become caught in fear of abandonment and demand responsiveness  by blaming , unfortunately this often threatens the other and pushes this person further away, especially if this strategy becomes habitual and automatic.  Strategy two is to  numb out attachment needs and feelings and avoid engagement and conflict, that is to shut down and withdraw. Unfortunately, this then shuts the other person out. Both of these secondary strategies are ways of trying to hang onto an attachment relationship and deal with difficult feelings, but they often backfire.

This reminds me of my own situation when my girlfriend and I got in a pattern of behaviour which was destructive. It came on so subtly that I ( ? we ) didn’t even see it coming.  She became the blamer  and I became the withdrawer.  We got into a destructive dance of emotions which eventually drove us apart.  I realize now that neither one of us could name our feeling in a helpful way. According to Sue Johnson who does a lot of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (ETF) says ” once they can order and name their feelings, blamers speak of being alone, left , unimportant, abandoned, and feeling insignificant to their partner. Underneath their anger they are extremely vulnerable.  Withdrawers speak of feeling ashamed and afraid of hearing that they are failures. They believe that they can never please their partner and so feel helpless and paralyzed.” I know Sue Johnson echoes my feeling and I am sure my partner would identify with some, if not all the feelings mentioned above. It is painful and extremely sad if we don’t find a way to stop the destructive dance of emotion in time.


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