Love Sense (2013) is an exploration of the science of love. These summaries suggest that humans instinctively desire to connect with each other, and that relationship problems arise when lovers no longer feel secure. They also offer practical strategies for how to develop your love sense – that is, your ability to create fulfilling and long-lasting bonds with your loved ones.
Introduction: What’s in it for me? Develop your “love sense” to create relationships that last.
Love, though hard to define, is an essential part of human experience.
In an age of social isolation, our love relationships are the primary ones in our lives.
Science tells us that humans are designed to mate for life.
Being dependent on our lovers improves our well-being and gives us the confidence to explore the unknown.
Relationships become strained when partners no longer see each other as their emotional “safe haven.”
Clearly communicating fear or anger can help couples rebuild their bond.
Healing a relationship is about working together to build a stronger emotional union.
Relationships go through different stages, and each one requires that we renew our emotional bonds.
About the author
Table of Contents
Video and Podcast
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Sex and Relationships, Self Help, Relationships, Clinical Chemistry, Psychology and Counseling Books on Sexuality, Sex and Sexuality
Introduction: What’s in it for me? Develop your “love sense” to create relationships that last.
Love can begin in a million ways – with a glance across a room, a smile, or a chance encounter in an unusual location. Falling in love is easy; it’s making love last that is the tough part.
Thanks in part to fairy tales and romantic movies, many of us regard love as a sort of spell – a force so powerful that it overrules our rationality and makes us abandon our sense of self. It’s this view of love that has made many of us skeptical about whether we can build, and sustain, loving relationships.
The thing is, humans have an instinctive desire to create long-lasting bonds with others. What’s more, science has shown that lasting relationships have many benefits. Beyond enriching our lives, love helps us foster personal growth and improves our well-being, both physical and mental. There’s even evidence suggesting that love is essential to our survival.
These summaries aim to show disillusioned lovers that it is entirely possible to create and maintain long-lived relationships. You’ll learn what love means in the modern world, where relationship problems stem from, and what strategies you can use to repair the emotional bond with your partner.
You’ll also learn
- that love relationships are an extension of the mother-child bond;
- why being able to depend on others makes us strong; and
- how anger masks fear of emotional disconnection.
Love, though hard to define, is an essential part of human experience.
Have you ever been in love?
If you have, then you know how it is: Love is a powerful force that captures us, overwhelms us. It can make us feel weak and giddy, light and elated, or even trapped and desperate.
As humans, we all yearn for this thing called love – but we don’t really understand it. Love is a beautiful riddle that no one has ever been able to figure out.
Here’s the key message: Love, though hard to define, is an essential part of human experience.
Throughout the ages, people have struggled to define love. The Greeks, for instance, identified four kinds of love. One of these was eros – the name given to passionate, or sensual, love. However, the Greeks could never quite decide whether this involved sexual desire or not.
Countless poets have made love their theme. Shakespeare, for instance, dramatized star-crossed love in Romeo and Juliet – a play about two lovers who are thwarted by their warring families.
Then there’s the view of evolutionary biologists who argue that love is simply nature’s way of encouraging reproduction.
Love may always elude precise definition – and this can be frustrating for those of us trying to find love, or to keep it. One thing we do know for certain is that, for the first time in history, love is now the primary reason people get together in the first place.
Let’s explain. In Shakespeare’s day, romantic love wasn’t necessarily considered an essential part of life. If anything, it was regarded as a luxury. Back in the sixteenth century, most people were focused on the struggle to survive; they tied themselves to their families and their communities to ensure they had food, shelter, and protection.
Even marriage was all about survival. For most people, it was a means of building a family that could help with tending the land and running the farm. More affluent individuals married to increase their power and wealth, and to produce heirs that could inherit titles and estates.
In the West, these ideas have changed dramatically over the last few centuries. In the 1990s, as vast numbers of women entered the workforce and became financially independent, marriage ceased to be regarded as necessary for survival. Today, marrying for love is the norm.
As sociologist Anthony Giddens puts it, Westerners began regarding love not as an economic enterprise, but as an “emotional enterprise.”
Today, the relationships we have with our lovers are arguably the most important relationships in our lives. That’s why it’s crucial for us to understand how love works. We’ll take a look at this in the following summaries.
In an age of social isolation, our love relationships are the primary ones in our lives.
Charles Darwin, the nineteenth-century naturalist, played an invaluable role in the development of the theory of evolution. But his sense of romance was pretty unevolved. When considering whether he should propose to his cousin or not, he didn’t factor love into the equation. Instead, he made his decision by writing a list of pros and cons.
The pros included children, and lots of them; companionship in old age; and, of course, sex. He imagined that a nice “soft wife” sitting next to him on the sofa in front of a roaring fire was one of the prime pleasures a man could hope to have in life.
The cons on Darwin’s list included less time, less money for books, and less freedom to travel around the world. In short, having a wife meant saying goodbye to his hard-earned cash and abandoning his dreams of journeying to America.
Here’s the key message: In an age of social isolation, our love relationships are the primary ones in our lives.
Darwin’s list reveals a lot about how relationships were viewed in his day: they were less about love and more about finding a lifelong mate who could look after you in old age.
Today, it’s entirely different. A feeling of emotional connection is the primary reason people get together, and that romantic relationship is the primary one in their life. In fact, for an increasing number of adults, it’s their only relationship. A study by the American Sociological Review shows that the number of Americans who claim their partner is the only person they can confide in has risen by 50 percent since the mid-1980s.
This is because people are more socially isolated than ever before. Most of us live far away from our friends, families, and the communities we grew up in, and many of us live alone. According to the 2010 US census, over 30 million Americans live by themselves, compared to just 4 million in 1950.
Technology is partially to blame for our growing disconnection with the outside world. People are working longer hours in remote locations and are communicating mostly through email and text. We spend more time in front of a computer screen than we do interacting with actual human beings.
As a result, our partners are forced to fill multiple roles. They’re no longer merely our lover and companion. They’re our best friend, and, more often than not, they constitute our entire family and community, too.
Science tells us that humans are designed to mate for life.
Human monogamy is a contentious subject.
Some relationship experts suggest that being with one person for life is unrealistic, as most people eventually get bored with familiarity. And many naturalists argue that having one partner for life goes against the natural order. Only 7 percent of mammals are monogamous. Why should humans be an exception to the rule? After all, we’re wired to perpetuate the species, just like other mammals.
Small wonder, then, that whenever the author gives public talks about love and relationships, there’s one point that always ruffles the audience’s feathers – her claim that humans are “naturally monogamous.”
Here’s the key message: Science tells us that humans are designed to mate for life.
There’s strong evidence suggesting that humans are, in fact, designed to be with one partner for the long haul.
Just consider the hormone oxytocin, which can be found in all mammals. Our bodies produce this hormone – sometimes called the “cuddle hormone” – during moments of heightened emotional connection, such as breastfeeding or orgasm. It’s designed to promote bonding between parent and child, as well as between partners.
Scientists believe that oxytocin could be a major reason why people maintain exclusive partnerships – and they have the evidence to prove it, too.
The clearest proof of oxytocin’s power comes from a study involving two species of vole: prairie and montane. These tiny rodents differ in one major way. The prairie vole has oxytocin receptors in its brain; the montane vole does not.
Male and female montane voles mate, give birth to young, and then abandon their pups. After that, they part ways and live out their days as single rodents. Prairie voles stay together for life. In fact, when scientists boost oxytocin in these rodents, they snuggle each other half to death.
In the animal kingdom, some mammals are biologically wired for monogamy – and humans are among those mammals. We might not all choose to enter a monogamous relationship, but it is possible for humans to create long-lasting relationships with a significant other. In fact, nature has biologically prepared us to do so.
Being dependent on our lovers improves our well-being and gives us the confidence to explore the unknown.
If someone were to describe you as emotionally “dependent,” how would you react?
In the Western world, dependency has become a “dirty word.” Society insists that being emotionally independent is what being an adult is all about; if you’re unable to exist on your own little island, then you must be weak, or immature.
Here’s the key message: Being dependent on our lovers improves our well-being and gives us the confidence to explore the unknown.
When we move out of our childhood home, our ability to separate ourselves from our families is seen as something to be celebrated. If anything, it’s a sign that we’ve developed the emotional strength to go out into the wide world alone.
And this equation – independent equals strong – forms the way we view romantic relationships, too. For example, we might be suspicious of romantic partners that are “too involved” or too dependent on one another.
But the thing is, being alone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, it can actually be detrimental to our mental and physical well-being.
The author explains that the surest way to destroy a human being is to deprive them of loving contact. For example, prisoners kept in solitary confinement are known to develop symptoms of paranoia, depression, severe anxiety, hallucinations, and memory loss. Many even refer to the experience as a “living death.”
On the other hand, strong emotional bonds have been proven to benefit us on a biological level. Studies have shown that emotional support lowers blood pressure and strengthens the immune system.
In some cases, it can even make us more resilient against trauma. For example, survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attack who had loving relationships were found to recover more quickly than those who didn’t. Eighteen months after the tragedy, those cared for by their significant other showed fewer signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
The problem is, many of us think of love as limiting. Like Darwin, we’re quick to list the cons of love. We worry that we’ll get tied down too quickly, or have to sacrifice our dreams of traveling and meeting new people.
But actually, having a secure bond is the perfect “launching pad” for going out and exploring the unknown. When we are able to rely on our partners for comfort and support, our energy doesn’t have to be bound up worrying about our safety; instead, it can be focused on what we want to achieve.
Relationships become strained when partners no longer see each other as their emotional “safe haven.”
Have you ever been stuck in a cycle of arguments with your lover? You know, the ones where a small thing happens – like your partner leaving their dirty socks on the clean bed linen or forgetting to vacuum the carpet – and then you just erupt?
Well, it could be that you’re annoyed at your lover’s lack of cleanliness. But if the cycle continues, it’s probably a sign that something deeper is going on beneath the surface.
Here’s the key message: Relationships become strained when partners no longer see each other as their emotional “safe haven.”
As children, all of us depend on our parents for love and emotional support. That’s just a fact. However, many of us think that this dependence ends as soon as we reach adolescence.
John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist born in 1907, thought differently. In fact, he dedicated his life’s work to proving that the childlike need we have to attach ourselves to our parents persists into adulthood, and that it’s the force that shapes our adult love relationships.
In short, we simply transfer our need for an emotional bond from our primary caregiver – that is, our mother or father – to our lover.
Bowlby called this the attachment theory.
So, what does all of this have to do with arguments over dirty socks? Well, according to Bowlby, relationship distress comes from the fear that our emotional connection with our significant other is fading.
This is because we rely on our partners to be our “safe haven” – a secure base that supports and protects us. When this is taken away, we battle to restore that emotional connection and, as a result, conflict arises.
The author has witnessed firsthand how discontented lovers can find happiness once they take steps to restore their emotional safe haven.
This isn’t as easy as bringing home flowers to your partner or spicing up your sex life with new moves from the Kama Sutra, though. It’s about creating a more emotionally open and empathetic way of interacting with each other. We’ll take a look at this in the next chapter.
Clearly communicating fear or anger can help couples rebuild their bond.
Meet Emma and Tim, a couple celebrating their ninth anniversary this weekend. Emma has arranged for them to go out on a date together, but Tim, who’s forgotten about their anniversary, has already agreed to attend a party with his boss. Instead of apologizing for his mistake, Tim shrugs nonchalantly and says that he and Emma will have to rearrange their date.
The result? Emma explodes in anger. She yells and calls Tim a selfish jerk. It’s apparent that she’s furious; what’s less apparent is what underlies this fury.
Here’s the key message: Clearly communicating fear or anger can help couples rebuild their bond.
Fear is the knee-jerk reaction to what the author calls separation distress – something that all mammals experience.
For example, in one study, Jaak Panksepp, a researcher at Washington State University, observed that when a rat is separated from its mate, a neural pathway switches on in its brain that causes it to feel panic.
Humans have the same response: when we sense a lack of connection with our loved one, our brains register this as a threat to our safety and well-being. As a result, our blood rushes, our muscles tense, and our stress hormones go through the roof.
And this brings us back to Emma and Tim.
During her outraged outburst, what Emma really felt was fear; she was scared that she was becoming less important to Tim. Instead of communicating this, though, Emma blamed Tim for his selfishness. This, in turn, triggered her husband’s fear of failure and rejection – and, as a consequence, he withdrew. His response only reinforced Emma’s fear of separation, which fueled her feelings of anger. You can imagine how the cycle perpetuates itself.
So how can couples stuck in these patterns of fear and rage find a way out? Well, it’s simple: you have to learn to vent your feelings in a healthy way. When you start to see red, take a moment to calm down, and then try to communicate how you feel.
This is how Tim and Emma learned to solve their particular problem. Once Emma calmed down and explained to Tim that her anger came from feeling rejected, Tim opened up and became tender. He made Emma feel safe again by reassuring her that he respects and values her, and, as a result, their “safe haven” was restored.
Healing a relationship is about working together to build a stronger emotional union.
Have you ever suffered from a broken heart? This was the case for Patrick, a 45-year-old business owner who had been with his wife, Anna, for ten years.
When Patrick approached the author for couples therapy, his relationship was on the verge of falling apart. Two years before that, he and Anna had moved to the city she wanted to live in, and he’d even sold his company to spend less time at work. But she still wasn’t happy.
Patrick was hurt and confused. He told the author that his wife was either “spitting rage” or totally ignoring him. He just couldn’t handle it anymore.
Here’s the key message: Healing a relationship is about working together to build a stronger emotional union.
The problem was, Patrick was looking for a quick fix. He thought that if the author told him what to say to his wife, he could solve his domestic troubles and be done with therapy in two sessions. But that’s not how healing a relationship works.
According to the author, lovers that start to lose emotional connection tend to fall into negative patterns, such as demand-withdraw. This is where one partner seeks to resolve an issue, and the other buries their head in the sand to avoid the problem. As their emotional disconnect deepens, partners will react with rage. Then, feeling unsafe and unable to communicate with their loved ones, they’ll suppress their feelings. The author likes to refer to this pattern as the Protest Polka.
So what should you do if you find yourself caught in this destructive dance?
Well, each partner should start by identifying which behaviors could be negatively impacting their relationship.
For example, Patrick realized that he was simply brushing off Anna’s difficulties with the children, as well as her struggle with insomnia, without acknowledging her emotional distress. Because of this, Anna would become more distraught, and she’d berate Patrick for being “unfeeling.”
On the other hand, Anna observed that she’d implode with anger before even speaking to Patrick about what was upsetting her. She realized that this behavior not only exhausted her, but also deeply hurt Patrick’s feelings.
In Anna and Patrick’s case, they were able to see how criticizing and stonewalling each other wreaked havoc on their relationship – and they were able to adjust these behaviors. Their marriage after therapy wasn’t perfect, but it worked because they worked together to sustain it.
Relationships go through different stages, and each one requires that we renew our emotional bonds.
When Cindy and Dan became parents, everything changed. Cindy often felt that Dan was neglecting his share of the childcare. Forced to do what Dan left undone, Cindy was constantly exhausted – and, as a result, had no desire to make love to him.
Dan was also struggling. His relationship with Cindy had changed. He often felt rejected by Cindy, and this filled him with sorrow. He knew that his sadness was preventing him from being a great father, but what could he do?
This isn’t a unique experience. Many other couples have found themselves locked in similar patterns. Breaking free can feel impossible – but it’s easier if you understand that relationships have different phases.
Here’s the key message: Relationships go through different stages, and each one requires that we renew our emotional bonds.
Long-term relationships are composed of distinct phases: an initiation phase and three subsequent stages. Each one represents a critical transition that affects even the most secure couples.
The initiation stage is referred to by the author as the spellbound phase, where couples are infatuated with each other. Then, as their dependency grows, couples enter the first stage of commitment, known as formal bonding.
For those who have children, parenthood comes next. Then lovers enter the phase of mature love. This is when the last child leaves the nest, and the couple is left to live out their lives together.
These transitions can put significant strain on relationships.
According to the author, one of the hardest phases for couples to adapt to is the parenthood phase. New parents may begin to feel isolated from each other as more time and effort is put into bringing up a child. As a result, sex and intimacy often become less of a priority.
This is exactly what happened to Cindy and Dan, but they managed to solve the issue by compromising. Dan started to come home early a few days a week and take care of the baby so that Cindy could nap. Then, when the baby was asleep, the two of them were free to enjoy dinner and conversation – and anything else they might desire.
Just like the ebb and flow of the tide, relationships constantly move from harmony to disharmony. The couples that can listen to each other, and take steps to renew their bonds at each stage of their relationship, will be the ones that make their love last.
The key message in these summaries:
Love relationships are the lifeblood of our existence. They can build us up, break us down, and even shape who we are as people. Science shows us that positive relationships make for happy and stable individuals: they make us more resilient, advance our personal growth, and even improve our physical health. However, for relationships to survive the test of time, couples have to commit to renewing their emotional bonds on a regular basis. The key thing to remember? It takes two to tango.
Actionable advice: Remember the moments that made your heart flutter.
All relationships go through hard times. For couples that have felt disconnected for a while, it can be difficult to even remember what it feels like to be loved. When you have these days, try to remember the small moments where you felt completely wanted. Perhaps it was when she used to call your name every time she came home from work, or maybe it was when he kissed you goodnight.
About the author
Dr. Sue Johnson, a recipient of the Order of Canada, is an internationally recognized leader in the field of couple interventions. A clinical psychologist and Distinguished Research Professor at Alliant International University in San Diego and a professor at the University of Ottawa, Dr. Johnson is the primary developer of emotionally focused therapy (EFT). Dr. Johnson is the author of numeous books and articles, and she has trained thousands of therapists in North America and around the world. She lives in Ottawa, Canada.
Table of Contents
The Relationship Revolution
Chapter 1: Love: A Paradigm Shift
Chapter 2: Attachment: The Key to Love
The New Science of Love
Chapter 3: The Emotions
Chapter 4: The Brain
Chapter 5: The Body
Love in Action
Chapter 6: Love across Time
Chapter 7: Unraveling Bonds
Chapter 8: Renewing Bonds
The New Science Applied
Chapter 9: A Love Story
Chapter 10: Love in the 21st Century
The bestselling author of Hold Me Tight presents a revolutionary new understanding of why and how we love, based on cutting-edge research.
Every day, we hear of relationships failing and questions of whether humans are meant to be monogamous. Love Sense presents new scientific evidence that tells us that humans are meant to mate for life. Dr. Johnson explains that romantic love is an attachment bond, just like that between mother and child, and shows us how to develop our “love sense” — our ability to develop long-lasting relationships.
Love is not the least bit illogical or random, but actually an ordered and wise recipe for survival. Love Sense covers the three stages of a relationship and how to best weather them; the intelligence of emotions and the logic of love; the physical and psychological benefits of secure love; and much more. Based on groundbreaking research, Love Sense will change the way we think about love.
Video and Podcast
“This book is an absolute must for anyone who wants to understand how Love Makes Sense. Sue Johnson covers all the new science, and she has led the scientific field in helping us all understand love and how to repair an ailing relationship. The book is a real page-turner, an easy read that will enlighten all of us who want to build a lasting and secure bond filled with romance and passion. We need no longer wander around in the darkness, stumbling from one disastrous relationship to another. Read this book and learn how to create a life that is a safe haven for love.” – John M. Gottman, PhD, author of What Makes Love Last?
“A life-changing book! Dr. Johnson elucidates the science of love, convincingly demonstrating the underlying emotional logic of relationships. In an entertaining way, she gives us practical, down-to-earth examples and exercises to help us develop our ‘love sense.’ It will enrich the lives of all who read it.” – Richard Lannon, MD, coauthor of A General Theory of Love
“You won’t find a better book combining wonderful insight, practical wisdom, and the latest science of relationships. Plus the passion of a psychologist intent on making the world safe for the kind of intimacy we all long for.” – William J. Doherty, PhD, author of Take Back Your Marriage
“Sue Johnson, the developer of Emotion Focused Couple Therapy, has written a powerful book on the science of securely bonded marriages. Dr. Johnson’s very human and inspiring approach to relationships will keep the reader mesmerized.” – Barry McCarthy, PhD, author of Rekindling Desire
“Sue Johnson sees no contradiction in viewing love as biology and poetry, physiology and romance. For her, love is the hard won endowment of our evolutionary history and a source of hope a world of uncertainty and danger. With this book, Sue reveals that love is scientifically understandable. She emerges not only as a world authority on love’s repair, but also on its underlying, neural, physiological and psychological structure.” – James Coan, PhD, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Virginia.
“In Love Sense, Dr. Sue Johnson creates fascinating and enlightening connections between cutting-edge research, professional applications of research in marital therapy, and scores of apt case examples and engaging exercises for people who struggle with relationship difficulties. Besides being an excellent researcher, theorist, and clinician, Johnson has a unique gift for inspiring and motivating other therapists and nonprofessional readers. With genuine enthusiasm and admirable clarity, she shows how emotion-focused therapy, guided by attachment theory and research, can heal troubled relationships while benefiting society more generally. This is a wonderful, uplifting, energizing book.” – Phillip R. Shaver, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, University of California, Davis; Past President, International Association for Relationship Research
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I dedicate this book on the science of close relationships to the people who have taught me the most about this topic.
The first is my father, Arthur Driver, an English sailor and small-town publican, whose face came alive with delight every time his mouthy little working-class daughter challenged or disagreed with him. My mother, Winnifred, was the one who taught me that the only thing that mattered was courage, including the courage to reach out for and to others. My diminutive grandmother, Ethel, showed me that when you have a treasured loved one by your side, even the hard times in life can be full of joy. And my lifelong friend Father Anthony Storey, even though he believed in a different God than I did, taught me that holiness, which comes from the Old English word for “whole,” is always about compassion and care for others.
I have learned about all the topics in this book—connection, disconnection, emotion, and bonding—from my family: my three children, Sarah, Tim, and Emma, and my amazing life partner, John Palmer Douglas. It is a life’s work to study love and connection and then to actually try to live what you have learned, and my family has been most patient with my attempts to do just this.
Over the years, I have also learned from my inspiring clients—this book would not have been possible without them—and from my wonderful students at the University of Ottawa and at Alliant International University in San Diego. In addition, I have learned from my incredible group of colleagues, who travel all over the world with me and teach what we have learned about creating secure bonds to mental health professionals and couples. Special colleagues in the couple therapy field, such as John and Julie Gottman, have encouraged and supported me. As the study of bonding has grown, others from fields outside clinical psychology, such as ne; uroscientist Jim Coan and social psychologists Mario Mikulincer and Phil Shaver, have challenged and nurtured me. My dear colleagues at the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT) and all its thirty or so affiliated centers have created a community of committed clinicians who offer me a professional family where uncertainties can be explored and discoveries expanded.
I must thank Tracy Behar, my editor at Little, Brown, for her patience and for her commitment to helping me write a second book on the topic of love relationships; additional thanks go to my always upbeat and dedicated agent, Miriam Altshuler. This book would not be possible without the astute analytical mind and rigorous editing skills of Anastasia Toufexis, who insisted that this somewhat academic treatise be relevant and even readable.
Finally, I dedicate this book to all those who struggle to understand what romantic love is and who, even when lost in moments of deep confusion and despair, again and again turn back to their loved ones and try to put their feet on the path that leads to secure connection. There are so many of us.
Love: A Paradigm Shift
I believe in the compelling power of love. I do not understand it. I believe itto be the most fragrant blossom of all this thorny existence. – Theodore Dreiser
My memories are full of the sounds and sights of love:
The ache in my elderly grandmother’s voice when she spoke of her husband, gonenearly fifty years. A railway signalman, he had courted her, a ladies’ maid, forseven years on the one Sunday she had off each month. He died of pneumonia onChristmas Day after eighteen years of marriage, when he was forty-five and shejust forty.
My small enraged mother flying across the kitchen floor at my father, a formernaval engineer in World War II, who stood large and strong in the doorway,drinking her in with his eyes, and she, seeing me, stopping suddenly and fleeingfrom the room. She left him after three decades of slammed doors and raisedfists when I was ten. “Why do they fight all the time?” I asked my granny.”Because they love each other, sweetie,” she said. “And watching them, it’sclear that none of us knows what the hell that means.” I remember saying tomyself, “Well, I won’t do this love thing, then.” But I did.
Telling my first great love, “I refuse to play this ridiculous game. It’s likefalling off a cliff.” Weeping just months into a marriage, asking myself, “Whydo I no longer love this man? I can’t even pinpoint what is missing.” Anotherman smiling quietly at me, and I, just as quietly, leaning back and lettingmyself plunge into the abyss. There was nothing missing.
Sitting, years later, watching the last of the ice finally melting on our lakeone morning in early April and hearing my husband and children walking throughthe woods behind me. They were laughing and talking, and I touched for a momentthe deepest joy, the kind of joy that was, and still is, entirely enough to fillup my heart for this lifetime.
Anguish and drama, elation and satisfaction. About what? For what?
Love can begin in a thousand ways—with a glance, a stare, a whisper or smile, acompliment, or an insult. It continues with caresses and kisses, or maybe frownsand fights. It ends with silence and sadness, frustration and rage, tears, andeven, sometimes, joy and laughter. It can last just hours or days, or endurethrough years and beyond death. It is something we look for, or it finds us. Itcan be our salvation or our ruin. Its presence exalts us, and its loss orabsence desolates us.
We hunger for love, yearn for it, are impelled to it, but we haven’t trulyunderstood it. We have given it a name, acknowledged its force, cataloged itssplendors and sorrows. But still we are confronted with so many puzzles: Whatdoes it mean to love, to have a loving relationship? Why do we pursue love? Whatmakes love stop? What makes it persist? Does love make any sense at all?
Down through the ages, love has been a mystery that has eluded everyone—philosophers, moralists, writers, scientists, and lovers alike. The Greeks, forinstance, identified four kinds of love, but their definitions, confusingly,overlap. Eros was the name given to passionate love, which might ormight not involve sexual attraction and desire. In our day, we are equallybewildered. Google reported that the top “What is” search in Canada in 2012 was”What is love?” Said Aaron Brindle, a spokesman for Google, “This tells us aboutnot only the popular topic for that year … but also the human condition.” Anotherwebsite, CanYouDefineLove.com, solicits definitions and experiences from folksaround the globe. Scroll through the responses and you’ll agree with the site’sfounders that “there are just as many unique definitions as there are people inthe world.”
Scientists try to be more specific. For example, psychologist Robert Sternbergof Oklahoma State University describes love as a mixture of three components:intimacy, passion, and commitment. Yes, but that doesn’t solve the riddle.Evolutionary biologists, meanwhile, explain love as nature’s reproductivestrategy. In the grand abstract scheme of existence, this makes sense. But forilluminating the nature of love in our everyday lives, it’s useless. The mostpopular definition is perhaps that love is … a mystery! For those of us—andthat is almost all of us—who are trying to find it or mend it or keep it, thisdefinition is a disaster. It robs us of hope.
Does it even matter whether we understand love?
If you had asked that question as recently as thirty or forty years ago, most ofthe world would have said, “Not really.” Love, despite its power, wasn’tconsidered essential to daily life. It was seen as something apart, a diversion,even a luxury, and oftentimes a dangerous one at that (remember Romeo and Julietand Abelard and Heloise?). What mattered was what was necessary to survive. Youtied your life to your family and your community; they provided food, shelter,and protection. Since the earliest conception of marriage, it was understoodthat when you joined your life to another’s, it was for eminently practicalreasons, not emotional ones: to better your lot, to acquire power and wealth, toproduce heirs to inherit titles and property, to create children to help withthe farm and to care for you in your old age.
Even as life eased for growing numbers of people, marriage remained very much arational bargain. In 1838, well into the Industrial Revolution, naturalistCharles Darwin made lists of the pros and cons of marriage before finallyproposing to his cousin Emma Wedgwood. In favor, he noted, “Children …Constant companion, (& friend in old age) … object to be beloved & playedwith … better than a dog anyhow … a nice soft wife on a sofa with goodfire, & books & music … These things good for one’s health.” Against it, hewrote, “perhaps quarreling—Loss of time.—cannot read in the Evenings … Anxiety& responsibility—less money for books &c … I never should know French,—or seethe Continent—or go to America, or go up in a Balloon, or take solitary trip inWales—poor slave.”
We don’t have Emma’s list, but for most women the top reason to marry wasfinancial security. Lacking access to schooling or jobs, women faced lives ofpunishing poverty if they remained unwed, a truth that continued well into the20th century. Even as women gained education and the ability to supportthemselves, love didn’t figure too highly in choosing a mate. When asked in 1939to rank eighteen characteristics of a future spouse or relationship, women putlove fifth. Even in the 1950s, love hadn’t made it to first place. I am remindedof my aunt, who, when she found out that I had a “man in my life,” advised me,”Just make sure he has a suit, dear”—code for “Make certain he has a steadyjob.”
In the 1970s, however, love began heading the list in surveys of what Americanwomen and men look for in a mate. And by the 1990s, with vast numbers of womenin the workforce, marriage in the Western world had completely shifted from aneconomic enterprise to, as sociologist Anthony Giddens calls it, an “emotionalenterprise.” In a 2001 U.S. poll, 80 percent of women in their twenties saidthat having a man who could talk about his feelings was more important thanhaving one who could make a good living. Today, both men and women routinelygive love as the main reason to wed. And indeed, this is increasingly the casearound the world; whenever people are free of financial and other shackles, theyselect a spouse for love. For the first time in human history, feelings ofaffection and emotional connection have become the sole basis on which we chooseand commit to a partner. These feelings are now the primary basis for the mostcrucial building block of any society, the family unit.
A love relationship is now not only the most intimate of adult relationships, itis also often the principal one. And for many it is the only one. TheAmerican Sociological Review reports that since the mid-1980s, thenumber of Americans saying that they have only their partner to confidein has risen by 50 percent. We live in an era of growing emotional isolation andimpersonal relationships. More and more, we dwell far from caring parents,siblings, friends, and the supportive communities we grew up in. And more andmore we live alone. According to the latest U.S. census, more than thirtymillion Americans live solo, compared with just four million in 1950. We toilfor longer hours and at more remote locations requiring lengthy commutes. Wecommunicate by e-mailing and texting. We deal with automated voices on thetelephone, watch concerts performed by holograms of deceased artists (such asrapper Tupac Shakur), and soon we will be seeking assistance from holographicpersonnel. At New York City–area airports, travelers were recently introduced toa six-foot-tall, information-spouting AVA, short for airport virtual assistant,or avatar.
Loneliness researcher John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University ofChicago, contends that in Western societies, “social connection has been demotedfrom a necessity to an incidental.” As a result, our partners have been forcedto fill the void. They serve as lover, family, friend, village, and community.And emotional connection is the only glue in this vital, unique relationship.
So yes, understanding the nature of love absolutely does matter. Indeed, it isimperative. Continued ignorance is no longer an option. Defining love as amystery beyond our grasp and control is as toxic to the human species as ispoison in our water. We must learn to shape our love relationships. And now, forthe first time, we can, thanks to an unheralded revolution in the social andnatural sciences that has been under way for the past twenty years.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines revolution as “afundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something: achange of paradigm.” And that is exactly what has happened to adult love in thefield of social sciences. Two decades ago, love didn’t get much respect as atopic of study. No emotion did. René Descartes, the French philosopher,associated feelings with our lower animal nature and thus considered themsomething to be overcome. What marked us as superior animals was our ability toreason. Cogito ergo sum—”I think, therefore I am,” he famouslyproclaimed.
Emotions were not rational and therefore suspect. And love was the mostirrational and suspect of all, thus not a fit subject for scientists, thesupreme rationalists. Scan the subject index of professor Ernest Hilgard’sexhaustive historical review Psychology in America, published in 1993;you won’t find the word love. Young researchers were routinely warnedoff the topic. I remember being told in graduate school that science does notdeal with nebulous, soft indefinables, such as emotion, empathy, and love.
The word revolution also means “an uprising.” Social scientists began torecognize that much of their work was not addressing public concerns about thequality of everyday life. So a quiet movement, without riots or bullets, beganin campus laboratories and academic journals, challenging the orthodox adherenceto studies of simple behaviors and how to change them. New voices began to beheard, and suddenly, in the 1990s, emotions emerged as legitimate topics ofinquiry. Happiness, sorrow, anger, fear—and love—started appearing on the agendaof academic conferences in a multitude of disciplines, from anthropology topsychology to sociology. Feelings, it was becoming apparent, weren’t random andsenseless, but logical and “intelligent.”
At the same time, therapists and mental health professionals began adjustingtheir frame of reference in dealing with relationship issues, especiallyromantic ones. For years they had focused their attention on the individual,believing that any turmoil could be traced back to a person’s own troubledpsyche. Fix that and the relationship would improve. But that wasn’t what washappening. Even when individuals grasped why they acted a certain way and triedto change, their love relationships often continued to sour.
Therapists realized that concentrating on one person didn’t give a completepicture. People in love relationships, just as in all relationships, are notdistinct entities, acting independently; they are part of a dynamic dyad, withinwhich each person’s actions spark and fuel reactions in the other. It was thecouple and how the individuals “danced” together that needed to beunderstood and changed, not simply the individual alone. Researchers beganvideotaping couples recounting everyday hurts and frustrations, arguing overmoney and sex, and hassling over child-rearing issues. They then pored overthese recordings, hunting for the critical moments of interaction when arelationship turned into a battlefield or wasteland. They kept an eye open, too,for moments when couples seemed to reach harmonious accord. And they looked forpatterns of behavior.
Interest in emotions in general, and love in particular, also surged among”hard” scientists as advances in technology refined old tools and introduced newones. A major hurdle to investigations had always been: How do you pin downsomething as vague and evanescent as a feeling? Or, as Albert Einstein lamented:”How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics soimportant a biological phenomenon as first love?”
The scientific method depends not only on observation and analysis but also onmeasurable, reproducible data. With the arrival of more sensitive tests andassays, neurobiologists launched inquiries into the chemistry of emotions. Butthe big push came with the advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging(fMRI). Neurophysiologists devised experiments that peer into the brain andactually see structures and areas lighting up when we are afraid, or happy, orsad—or when we love. Remember the old public service announcement showing an eggfrying in a pan while a voice intones, “This is your brain on drugs”? Now wehave films that actually do capture “This is your brain on love.”
The result of all this ferment has been an outpouring of fresh knowledge that iscoalescing into a radical and exciting new vision of love. This new love senseis overthrowing long-held beliefs about the purpose and process of romantic loveas well as our sense of the very nature of human beings. The new perspective isnot only theoretical but also practical and optimistic. It illuminates why welove and reveals how we can make, repair, and keep love.
Among the provocative findings:
- The first and foremost instinct of humans is neither sex nor aggression.It is to seek contact and comforting connection.
The man who first offered us this vision of what we now call attachment orbonding was an uptight, aristocratic English psychiatrist, not at all the kindof man you would expect to crack the code of romantic relationships! But JohnBowlby, conservative and British, was nevertheless a rebel who changed thelandscape of love and loving forever. His insights are the foundation on whichthe new science of love rests.
Bowlby proposed that we are designed to love a few precious others who will holdand protect us through the squalls and storms of life. It is nature’s plan forthe survival of the species. Sex may impel us to mate, but it is love thatassures our existence. “In uniting the beloved life to ours we can watch overits happiness, bring comfort where hardship was, and over memories of privationand suffering open the sweetest fountains of joy,” wrote George Eliot.
This drive to bond is innate, not learned. It likely arose as nature’s answer toa critical fact of human physiology: the female birth canal is too narrow topermit passage of big-brained, big-bodied babies that can survive on their ownwithin a short time after birth. Instead, babies enter the world small andhelpless and require years of nurturing and guarding before they are self-sustaining. It would be easier to abandon such troublesome newborns than raisethem. So what makes an adult stick around and assume the onerous and exhaustingtask of parenting?
Love never dies of a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source, it dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds, it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings, but never of natural death.
My client Sam, a small and vociferous man who runs the local deli and insists on bringing slices of extremely smelly salami into my office for all the staff, is carrying on again about how hard love is. “I am so sick of this,” he mutters. “It’s always the same. My last relationship wasn’t any different. You go through all the falling in love bit and you get married. And everything is hunky-dory. For about a week. And then what? It all starts to go wrong. My buddy Al says that that is just the way women are. Never satisfied. What man really understands women? One minute you are Mr. Wonderful, and the next, she is talking about divorce and who will get the house. And who knows what happened? You are the same guy. But suddenly it’s all ‘glass empty.’ I give up. Women are just too hard. And maybe we are just not meant to stay together forever anyway. My buddy says that it’s just nature. We are supposed to move on. Or she is just with the wrong man. Mr. Right has gone missing here.”
His wife, Marcy, reacts with a smile of such freezing contempt that I can feel the room icing up.
Sam is not done. He turns to me and slams the back of one hand down on the palm of the other. “Face it, psychologist lady, this love stuff just don’t work, and no one knows why it goes from all huggy-wuggy to dust in your mouth in a moment. Isn’t that a fact?”
I sit up in my chair. “Well, no, in fact, we now know so much about…” I begin, but then I realize he is way too hurt to hear me. I have seen this desperate bewilderment before.
* * *
Sam, or, rather, his buddy Al, has hit on all the old saws—and one new one—about why relationships fail. Sam should stop listening to his buddy. Al’s all wet.
Let’s examine Sam’s and Al’s assumptions one by one.
1. The Alien Argument. Men and women are just too different to ever get along, or, as John Gray so entertainingly put it, “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.”
Here’s what we really know about sex differences. Men and women, in actuality, are remarkably alike. Really significant differences appear in only four areas. Three are cognitive: verbal facility, mathematical skill, and visual-spatial ability. Women win the first hands down—they use more words and express themselves better than do men. Men do better when it comes to working with numbers and calculations and being able to mentally manipulate two- and three-dimensional figures, but these abilities appear largely linked to expectations. If you tell women that tests of these skills are “gender neutral,” they tend to perform as well as men.
Only one area of significant difference is psychological, and that is aggression. Men are quicker to anger and turn threatening or violent. In every other psychological aspect, the stereotypes fail. Adolescent girls are commonly held to be plagued with doubts about themselves, their attractiveness, and their talents, but boys have just as many self-esteem and self-confidence issues. Adult women are lauded as caring nurturers, but men are equally likely to be warmly supportive of offspring, family, and friends.
But surely women must be more empathetic, right? On a physiological level, there is no evidence for better mirror-neuron functioning in females. Psychologist William Ickes at the University of Texas conducts simple, real tests of empathy in which pairs of people sit and interact, then separately watch a tape of their exchange and report to the researcher what they felt or thought at particular moments. This tape is shown to the other person and stopped at these moments. The other person is invited to infer what his or her partner was feeling or thinking, and their guesses are checked for accuracy. Ickes concludes that men and women have the same basic ability. Differences only emerge when people are explicitly told that they are expected to act in a certain way because of their sex; then they try harder. Men who are told that women find nontraditional, empathetic males more desirable immediately improve their performance in this kind of task.
Of the four areas with sex differences, only two count in relationships: verbal facility and aggression. Women are more likely and better able to verbalize their feelings and needs than are men. They have more training: mothers talk to little girls in more elaborate ways about their emotions. And men, when they are anxious about their bond with a partner, are more likely to become physically antagonistic or to withdraw and evade. In day-to-day conflicts in love relationships, women tend to be more vocal demanders, while men tend to use silence to distance and defend. But even this difference tends to disappear when it is the man who wants a change in the relationship.
2. The Soul Mate Claim. This belief is perhaps the one most voiced by partners in distress. It has elements of the Alien Argument, but adds a personalized fillip. It goes something like this: “You’re wildly emotional/incredibly controlling; I should have seen it but I didn’t; you can’t be fixed; I need a different type of person. You are not the One.”
Online dating sites try to convince us that they will match us with our perfect partner, but we all know that our assumptions about what Mr. or Ms. Right looks like are irrelevant when it comes to who will capture our attention at a Saturday night party—let alone who will make us happy for life. Recent research finds that in face-to-face interactions, people are not particularly attracted to or romantically interested in folks who match their stated ideal-partner characteristics. Ideals and profiles are just lists of labels; in real encounters, factors like rapport and shared humor are more telling. In fact, I remember a stunningly handsome young man telling me on our first date, “I am not going to meet all your expectations”; I married him, of course.
Dating sites imply that the Perfect One is out there. One day someone is going to sue them for fraud. Personally, I like the propinquity theory about the way people choose their lover. Propinquity means nearness. The one who looks perfect is the one you are standing next to when your attachment system kicks in. She happens to smile at the precise moment when you clue in to how alone you feel.
Of course, there is some truth to the idea that most of us gravitate toward mates who are similar to us and share the same values and interests, reflecting our implicit understanding that it’s easier to get along with someone just like us. But despite the beliefs of our starry-eyed, romance-saturated society, there is no such thing as a perfect soul mate. Any partner we choose will hurt us at one time or another. No relationship, even the most ideal, has unwaveringly smooth sailing; there will always be squalls and storms that roil the waters. There will always be differences between lovers. How lovers allow their differences to affect the bond between them is the issue.
3. Nature’s Song Says Move Along. Advanced by evolutionary biologists and taken up by the popular press, this is the newest explanation for why relationships fail. Love is a childish fairy tale. Evolution has programmed us to have short liaisons that last only until we’re assured that our offspring have a strong chance to survive on their own. Then men, in particular, are meant to move on and spread their genes around so as to better ensure survival of the human race.
The trouble with this one is that it looks at a personal process—what happens to Dick and Jane—through the lens of ultimate causation, that is, in terms of an overarching universal principle about why a process exists in the first place. When a man flirts at a party, I don’t believe that he, even on an unconscious level, is thinking about passing on his genes to the next generation. He may, though, be thinking about taking off his jeans for the lovely lady he’s laughing with.
All three of these positions are defeatist and demoralizing. There’s no room here for accommodation, for improvement, for success. They’re all doomsday scenarios.
Psychologists have also come up with theories about why relationships go off track. When I began training to work with couples, the most popular idea was that we all simply repeat with our lover the struggles we experienced in childhood with our most powerful parent. We project that parent’s image onto our lover, went the theory, and act out old conflicts, actually manipulating our lover into acting out our scenarios and affirming our worst expectations. In a sense, our lover’s actual responses are deemed irrelevant; our own personal neurotic need to repeat past patterns is seen as the key factor. This theory ignores the power of present interactions. Gradually, though, it gave way to clearer, simpler explanations of relationship derailment. Feminist scholars, for instance, have said that inequality is the downfall of relationships and that power struggles over tasks like sharing the housework are key.
As the systematic observation of couple interactions became more common, therapists became obsessed with two ideas: that conflict destroys love relationships and that distressed couples lack the skills to resolve such disputes. But as psychologist John Gottman, who has viewed many pairs in his famous Love Lab at the University of Washington, has pointed out, all couples fight, and happy couples really don’t use the skills that are highlighted in traditional couple therapy. Among these are calling time-outs when fights get hot and taking turns speaking and repeating what the other just said (known as active listening). So how important can these skills be?
Before we gained love sense, it was hard to offer an incisive explanation for how love fails. Theories that concentrate on bad behavior in conflicts and lack of communication skills are focusing on the symptoms of couple distress rather than the root cause: the overwhelming fear of being emotionally abandoned, set adrift in the sea of life without safe harbor. It is that fear of emotional disengagement that precipitates the demands, criticism, arguments, and silences that mark troubled pairs. What we’ve missed for so long is that discord is almost always an unconscious protest against floating loose and an attempt to call, and even force, a partner back into emotional connection.
It’s useful to look at the dissolution of love relationships in two ways: as a gradual erosion or unraveling of a bond over the course of many fights and silences or as an abrupt shattering of a link as the result of a traumatic injury or betrayal. Whether it is a slow wearing down of hope and affection or a sudden cataclysm that demolishes trust and commitment, it prompts a primal panic and the playing out of a survival script.
The Slow Erosion
John Bowlby’s original understanding of relationship distress was framed around one word: deprivation. Looking at unhappy partners through the new lens of attachment, we see not only what is obviously corrosive in a relationship—that is, the turning against each other in conflict—but also what is missing. When love begins to erode, what is missing is attunement and the emotional responsiveness that goes with it. As responsiveness declines, partners become more vulnerable, and their need for emotional connection becomes more urgent.
The potential for conflict increases as partners are filled with unruly emotions that they do not understand, and find themselves out of sync with each other. Angry protests at the loss of connection escalate. The repair of specific hurts becomes more and more challenging. A slow unwinding of the tie begins. Lack of comfort and closeness feeds distrust and disagreement, and each failed attempt at reconnection and repair breeds more distance. As any sense of safe haven is lost, the old cliché that we build walls when we need bridges comes true.
When emotional starvation becomes the norm, and negative patterns of outraged criticism and obstinate defensiveness take over, our perspective changes. Our lover slowly begins to feel like an enemy; our most familiar friend turns into a stranger. Trust dies, and grief begins in earnest.
Annette, a lawyer in her early thirties, tells her husband, Bill, “I guess, when I look at it, all this didn’t really start with the fights, did it? They were just the fallout. I just never grasped what was happening. I was so into building my career and kind of growing up, becoming successful and being a mom to our son. I guess now, as I try to hear you through all my frustration, I know that I did push us to the side. I was so caught up in things to do. Running faster and faster. I just didn’t want to hear that you felt left behind or unimportant. I didn’t listen, and when you got mad, I dismissed it as part of some midlife crisis of yours. I didn’t want to fight. I thought the best thing was to kind of calm you down and trust that next morning it would be all right. I thought the fights were the problem…if they just stopped, then…But then there was this wall, and you were gone somehow. Now you’ve stopped turning to me. I guess maybe this is what they call falling out of love. Is it?”
Bill turns to her and says quietly, “I just gave up, Annette. You weren’t there. I gave up. I couldn’t stand the empty spaces between us anymore. I couldn’t stand there, feeling naked, and ask—and have you tell me one more time to wait till you were less busy.” Her face crumples.
Research confirms that erosion of a bond begins with the absence of emotional support. Psychologists Lauri Pasch and Thomas Bradbury of the University of California asked partners to solicit advice from one another about something they would like to change about themselves. They found that unsupportive behavior—minimizing the scope of the problem, discouraging the expression of feelings, offering offhand or unhelpful advice, insisting that their partner follow recommendations—was especially predictive of relationship distress. This result stood out, even when the effect of a partner’s anger and contempt during fights was taken into account. Pasch and Bradbury conclude that the quality of positive support—reassurance that a partner is loved and esteemed and is capable of taking control of his or her life—is the most crucial factor in the health of any relationship.
This kind of result parallels the work of Ted Huston and his team, who questioned 168 couples at four different points in their marriages: at eight weeks, two years, three years, and fourteen years. Researchers went to each pair’s home, asked them to fill out questionnaires, and interviewed the partners separately; nine follow-up telephone interviews were conducted over the next three weeks. Questions focused on positive and negative behaviors, such as how often a partner expressed affection or criticism. They analyzed this deluge of data, looking to see whether any particular behavior early in marriage is associated with its later stability. They found that the chief predictive factor in partners who split was not how often they fought as newlyweds but how much affection and emotional responsiveness they had shown each other. Couples who broke apart had been less demonstrative and responsive as just-marrieds than those who stayed together.
Huston concluded that it is not negativity per se that undermines partners’ love for each other. Fights can be tolerated, provided there is support and affection in a relationship. Decreases in positive connection create “disillusionment” and precipitate distress. The absence of positive, intimate, supportive exchanges has been compared to a virus that takes down the body relational. Conflict is the inflammation that results from this virus; it is an attempt to solve the problem of lack of emotional responsiveness from a partner. In a troubled love relationship, problem solving and practical assistance alone will not be curative.
If erosion begins with loss of connection, the second stage is the escalation of conflict, especially negative patterns, such as demand-withdraw, that actively destroy any sense of emotional safety partners have with each other. I call this demand-withdraw two-step the Protest Polka; it is an objection to the separation and disconnection between partners. As both partners lose their emotional balance and attachment panic takes over, reactive rage and defensive numbing become more extreme and more compelling.
In their first appointment with me, George yells at Barbara, “I am a damned psychologist. I am supposed to understand this stuff, and I can’t believe how angry I am. In my head, I rage at you as I am driving to work. I hear the sarcasm in my voice, and sometimes I wonder who I am turning into. I watch every minute for you to turn away from me. The more I push you to be with me, the more untouchable you become. But I can’t stop doing it. I am married to the Ice Queen herself. You don’t care about anyone but yourself. I want a wife, not a business partner.”
Barbara crosses her long legs slowly, tilts her head, and calmly replies, “Then it would be good to try being polite and treat me like a wife. I do not see the point in all this shouting. And so you are right; I often prefer to leave and be elsewhere.”
Lost in a dance they do not understand, their dance takes on a life of its own. George does not see how his anger makes Barbara fear that she is being rejected, and she does not hear the frantic call for connection underlying his irascibility. If they cannot find a way to step out of their polka and risk reaching for each other in another way, their bond cannot be repaired, and the end stage—disillusionment, despair, and detachment—will set in.
It helps if we understand the forces that are at work in these conflicts, in these struggles for love. Then we have a chance of grasping the impact we have on each other. It helps if we understand the power of the two toxins in a love relationship—criticism and stonewalling—and how they destroy emotional balance and inflame insecurity.
“There is no such thing as constructive criticism,” says John Gottman. “All criticism is painful.” He is correct. We never like to hear that there is something “wrong” with us, or that something needs changing, especially if this message is coming from the loved one we most depend on. Psychologist Jill Hooley’s work at Harvard measures the impact of critical, hostile comments made by loved ones and shows just how venomous disparagement by those we rely on can be. This censure may even trigger relapse of mental illness, such as depression.
Hooley’s team looked at two groups of women—those who had previously been depressed but had recovered and had been stable for at least five months and those who had never been depressed. These women were put in an fMRI machine and exposed to two recorded scornful speeches made by their own mother about issues that had been raised in their relationship in the past. To me, this sounds like Chinese water torture. I was shocked it got past the ethics committee. The criticism sounded something like this: “Your clothes are old and poorly fitting…Your newer things are extreme in style in a way that isn’t flattering to you. You need some advice on style.” But the researchers also made sure that the women heard two speeches from their mom that contained praise, such as “Stephanie, you have always had such a wonderful smile…This is one of the things I have always loved about you, and I think others do, too.” So maybe it wasn’t quite so bad.
A panel of judges rated the quality of the moms’ praise and criticism and agreed that there was no difference in the savagery of the criticism or the intensity of the praise that the two groups of daughters heard. But after listening to the critical speech, the women who had previously been depressed rated themselves more generally upset and described themselves in very negative terms, using such words as “irritable” and “ashamed.” They also showed a smaller increase in positive mood after hearing praise as well.
But the question remained: Exactly how does criticism from an attachment figure affect neural responses in a way that prompts feelings and behaviors associated with depression? A powerful little sorting department in the brain called the DLPFC (for dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) is known to regulate the impact of external cues on the limbic system, the emotional brain. Depressed people consistently show decreased activity in the DLPFC; successful antidepressants boost activity. When the previously depressed women heard their mother’s criticism, their DLPFC simply failed to activate, a finding that Hooley calls “striking.” These women’s brains were unable to switch into soothing and calming in the face of disparaging comments.
In earlier research, Hooley has found that patients hospitalized for depression have a two to three times greater risk of relapsing when they live with highly judgmental relatives instead of more approving ones. Hooley calls criticism from a loved one “low-grade punches to the brain.” She also has found that censure by family members can be stressful enough to trigger relapse in people struggling not only from depression but also from schizophrenia and eating disorders. Criticism from loved ones rings the survival alarm bell in our brain; it sets off the deep-seated fear that we will be rejected and abandoned. It makes sense that such scorn makes it infinitely harder to hold on to our mental equilibrium and emotional balance.
No doubt, Mom is a powerful emotional figure in most people’s lives. So are our romantic partners. In my couple therapy sessions over the years, I’ve noticed that partners usually have no clue as to the real impact of their negative judgments. When I first broach the idea that attacks overwhelm the partner on the receiving end with so much hurt and panic that he or she cannot deal with the disapproval and so withdraws and retreats, my clients often look at me incredulously.
“But mature adults should be able to deal with criticism. It’s really just feedback,” Carrie tells me.
“But this is you giving feedback that he is disappointing you, and you are your partner’s main source of safe connection,” I tell her. She still doesn’t get it. I try again: “Even when things are going well with my own husband, if I hear disapproval and criticism in his voice, it’s like a fire alarm. Anyone else’s comments are more like a bicycle bell ringing. My brain tells me that keeping the approval of the one I rely on for a basic sense of belonging and safety is an urgent matter.”
“You mean just because it’s me and I have this special secure-making place in his life, my upset and blaming just freaks him out? It’s alarming to him?” asks Carrie. I see her husband, Walt, nodding emphatically.
Criticism virtually guarantees that our partner will be caught up in fear and unable to hear our message and will become defensive and try to withdraw. Walt chimes in, “I just try to bat away your comments, but then you feel dismissed and you shout louder.” Then he turns to me. “But if we work on strengthening our bond, then we will get to the place where we both feel so secure with each other that we can say anything and it won’t ever sound like a fire alarm and we won’t get all defensive, right?”
Wrong. When we love, we are always sensitive and vulnerable. But it is true that the more secure we are, the less we will get caught in negative patterns, such as demand-withdraw, that feed insecurity. Securely connected partners are also quicker to regain their emotional balance and bounce back from hurt and conflict than avoidant and anxious partners are. They are better at recognizing the impact they have on their lover and acknowledging that they have caused hurt. And they are better at repairing rifts, as you will see in the next chapter.
We all use withdrawal at times when we are hurt or offended, or simply unsure and worried about saying the wrong thing. It is like a pause in the duet we do with our partner; it can allow us to gather our thoughts, find our balance. But withdrawal is toxic when it becomes the customary response to a partner’s perceived blaming. And just as they do with criticism, my clients fail to recognize the impact this reactive distancing has.
“I don’t understand why she is so angry with me,” says Walt. “It can’t be just because I go quiet. I space out because I can’t deal with the hurt. I should man up and just shrug it off, but I can’t. I get overwhelmed. Why can’t she just wait till I recover a bit?” He then admits that, in fact, he never wants to resume the discussions because the emotions he feels are just too difficult for him to handle. I try to explain that a relationship is a dance. If there is a stumble, you pause to get your balance and then resume moving. But if you wait too long, your partner gets the feeling you don’t want to continue the dance. She gets alarmed and angry and starts to protest. Conflict ensues.
But there is another level of withdrawal that is absolutely deadly in love relationships. This is when a partner turns to stone—still, silent, and completely inaccessible. This is a total negation of the bond. There is no engagement. It is one of the rules of attachment that any response is better than none. I must have heard the cry “I fight to get a reaction, any reaction” a thousand times. When we stonewall, the most extreme version of dismissal and nonresponsiveness, we mostly do so in order to cut off our emotions; we freeze and retreat into numbness. But when one dancer completely leaves the floor, the dance is no more. This catapults the remaining dancer into the terror of insignificance and abandonment.
The old adage “If you can’t say something nice, it’s best to say nothing at all,” which was taught in manners class in my English school, is about the worst possible advice for a love relationship. The operative word here is nothing, and that is precisely what we leave a partner with when we routinely turn away, shut him or her out, and stop responding.
Stonewalling by a partner triggers an emotional meltdown that usually shows up as white-hot rage or intense grief. If we are not looking through an attachment lens, this extreme emotion looks bizarre; after all, the cue is almost a non-event. The other partner simply gave no response. Can simply doing nothing have such an impact? Looking at the prototypical attachment relationship can help us understand.
Psychologist Ed Tronick of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, demonstrated the effect of stonewalling many years ago in a series of landmark experiments with mothers and infants. The mother sits facing her baby, talking and playing with him. Then, on a signal from a researcher, she becomes silent and unmoving, and her face becomes flat and vacant. The infant typically picks up on her emotional absence very fast and starts trying to reengage her, opening his eyes wide and pointing and reaching. When the mother does not reconnect, the baby goes into high gear, shrieking for attention. When this makes no difference, he turns away from his mother, withdrawing from her. After a couple of minutes, he dissolves into frantic, panicked wailing. This wailing is difficult to watch; the infant’s desperation is tangible. The researcher then signals the end of the experiment, and the mother then smiles and comforts her infant, who soon regains his equilibrium and returns to engaging with her happily. (You can find clips of the Still Face experiment on the Internet.)
I see the exact same sequence of events occur when an adult couple sits in my office. At some point, one partner shuts down and literally becomes still. Just like the infant in the experiment, the other partner will try to engage the still one, become insistent and aggressive, make attempts to turn away, but then, faced with no response and no relief from feeling abandoned, will finally dissolve into despair. In this most primordial of threat situations, our reactions and our responses are the same whether we are seven months old or fifty-seven years old. John Gottman and other researchers point out that male partners are more likely to stonewall than females. This may be because men are more easily flooded, less able to deal with strong attachment emotions, and slower to recover from stress. Some note, too, that men are more likely to be avoidant in style, and stonewalling is perhaps the ultimate avoidance strategy, short of leaving the relationship.
A partner’s distress is magnified by the paradox of having his or her lover physically present but emotionally absent. The incongruity undermines any hope that effective action can be taken to reconnect. “I was never as lonely when I lived alone as I am living with Davida,” Barry tells me. “I can’t bear it. She is in the house, and it looks like I have a wife. We are a couple. But there is no connection. It is crazy-making. Disorienting. There is nothing I can do to get her to let me in. I am beyond frantic here.” Chronic stonewalling, the refusal to engage, renders the other person helpless. The ultimate irony is that in trying to protect themselves, stonewallers imprison themselves. Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One’s Own, put it perfectly: “I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in.” There is no solution here to either partner’s sense of isolation. There is no bond to count on.
As the cycle of hostile criticism and stonewalling occurs more frequently, it becomes ingrained and defines the relationship. These episodes are so aversive and destructive that any positive moments and behaviors that occur are discounted and marginalized. And as a couple’s behavior narrows, so do the partners’ views of each other. They shrink in each other’s eyes; the full panoply of their personalities shrivels down to a few noxious traits. She’s a carping bitch; he’s a withholding boor. In such a darkening environment, partners question every action or comment the other person makes. Psychologists refer to this as a process of escalating negative appraisal, where every response is seen in the worst possible light. Both partners become hypervigilant for any hint of slurs and slights, abandonment and rejection. They cannot give each other the benefit of the doubt, even for a moment.
This is what happens in my office when Zack looks up at a new picture on my wall while Helen is talking; she reads it as a sign of his “indifference and terminal arrogance” rather than simple curiosity about his surroundings. Helen snaps at Zack; he interprets this as a deliberate attempt to demolish him and prove his “incompetence” instead of considering that she might have had a bad day and is simply tired and discouraged. The way we perceive our partner and the meaning we attribute to his or her actions depends on our sense of emotional connection.
The Sudden Snap
For many couples, disengagement is a gradual process, sparked by a series of minor incidents and hurts that slowly swirls into a downward spiral. Another analogy is that of a pebble that lodges in a house’s foundation, causing a tiny chink that over time widens until the edifice crumbles. For others, though, disconnection occurs abruptly, triggered by a single event—what we call a relationship injury or trauma. Then it’s as if a bomb drops on the house, blasting out walls and shattering the foundation.
These events are cataclysmic, smashing a partner’s sense of safety and leaving only pain and despair. Everything the injured partner assumed about the other—their relationship, their world—is overturned. Psychologist Judith Herman of Harvard Medical School calls injuries inflicted by attachment figures “violations of human connection.” As with other traumas, a feeling of helplessness results. What is worse here is that the injury is caused by the very person who is the safe haven. This paradox leaves people confused and lost. They stumble around, unable to grasp what has happened or respond effectively.
Infidelity is the most obvious wound. “I cannot ‘just get over’ this,” insists Ethan, addressing Lois, his wife of thirty years. “You ask me to put your affair aside, but every time you are late home, I wonder if you have found a new ‘friend.’ I can’t seem to turn off the feeling that it could all happen again. I was blindsided last time; I never saw it coming. And I don’t know how to get the love back. Even when it seems safe between us and you are trying to be loving, some part of me warns, ‘Don’t risk it. Don’t ever let yourself be hurt like that again.’”
“I don’t know how to heal this, either,” says Lois dejectedly. “You’re never going to forgive me no matter what I say or do.” She turns away.
Ethan and Lois try to talk about her betrayal, but each time they do they focus on the wrong things and go down emotional dead ends. Ethan grills Lois for every detail of the affair, imagining that this will somehow give him back a sense of control. Questions such as “Where did you meet the last time you made love?” and “What did you do in bed?” can go on forever, and the hurt only grows. The partner who inflicted the injury often tries to dismiss its significance; this is always a mistake. Lois tells her husband, “Well, you had talked about how maybe we had grown in different directions, so I wasn’t clear our relationship even mattered that much to you anymore.” Ethan explodes. “Well, after all our years together, you could have damn well asked me, couldn’t you!”
Couples like Lois and Ethan often are completely confused about how the affair happened, how destructive it has been, and how to deal with it. In fact, most people are not sure it is even possible to heal from affairs. It makes a real difference, however, if a couple has some understanding of love and the nature of the attachment bond they have violated.
First, unless a straying partner is extremely avoidant in terms of attachment (remember that avoidants are more open to one-night stands in general), most affairs are not primarily about sex; they are about the hunger for connection and not knowing how to satisfy this hunger with one’s partner. Most times, an affair is an indication of a more profound problem. If you are dancing close and in tune with your partner, there is no place for a third dancer to enter. Often, the bond has begun to erode or failed to firm into a secure connection; frequently there have been preceding cycles of criticizing and distancing. But the partners have been unsure what that meant, let alone what to do about it. So they have been accepting the relationship as it is and accommodating to the lack of connection. Then suddenly the “My partner has turned to someone else and is having an affair” bomb detonates, and the relationship becomes obviously and overwhelmingly distressed.
Second, in terms of dealing with infidelity, it is the level and extent of the deception involved that seems to matter, rather than the nature of the sex acts themselves. It is the implications for attachment and trust that count. Christine tells her partner, “I can’t do this. I hear you’re sorry, and I even understand how it all happened. We have drifted apart over the years, and I did sideline you when you would get upset and try to talk about our relationship. I just didn’t see it going anywhere. But the fact that you took this person to the cottage where you courted me and where we spent our honeymoon somehow makes it impossible for me to open up to you again. That you went there, among all the memories of us—the ghosts of us—and made love with someone else in our special place, and then lied to me about it for months and months, even when I asked you directly and showed how my doubts were driving me crazy. I can’t get over that. I can forgive, perhaps, in time, but I cannot be with you, depend on you, without trust between us. And I don’t think I can get that back.”
Everyone knows that an affair can cripple a relationship. But other events may be just as momentous and damaging because they contravene our wired-in expectations that loved ones will be our shelter at moments of threat or distress. If we do not understand the incredible power of attachment and its impact on us, we can inadvertently hurt our partner deeply simply by not understanding what kind of response is required. All such disastrous events are marked by moments of intense need and vulnerability, when a loved one is called upon to provide responsive care and does not come through. In these incidents, the answer to the key attachment questions—“Are you there for me when I need you?” and “Will you put me first?”—is a resounding no.
In my clinical practice and research studies, I hear many tales of traumatic abandonment. The young wife, miscarrying and hysterical, whose husband froze up, unable to bring himself to touch or comfort her, and who called her brother to come and help. The immigrant who, missing her family, pleaded with her husband to pay for her sick mother to visit, and he told her to grow up and stop pining for what is past. The man who, after eye surgery, began to panic because his eye was hurting and entreated his wife to drive him to the hospital in the middle of the night, and she instead urged him to calm down. These failures of empathy and responsiveness create wounds that cannot be put aside or papered over. As with a break in a bone, they must be mended, or permanent disfigurement follows.
In my office Ken loses his temper and yells at his wife, Molly: “One hour after I lost my job, you were on the phone to your dad, persuading him to give me some position in his office. You never asked me how I felt or if I wanted that. You never talked to me or gave me any kind of comfort or reassurance. You just fixed the ‘problem’; you assumed that I would take anything he offered me. You assumed I couldn’t cope with this.”
We said we’d walk together baby come what may
That come the twilight should we lose our way
If as we’re walkin’ a hand should slip free
I’ll wait for you
And should I fall behind
Wait for me
We know the moments when we find connection again: the universe lights up. These instances leap from the pages of novels, burn in our brains when we watch them in movies—or even in dusty research tapes—and, of course, entrance us when they happen in our own precious relationships. Everything comes together: suddenly all the blocks roll away, and there is an open, easy connection. But how did we get there? If we don’t know the path, how can we get there again?
Patrick, 45, a results-oriented businessman who unearthed my now fossilized PhD thesis before our first session, tells me, “Look, I am here because my relationship is on fire. Anna and I have been together ten years. Two years ago we moved back here from California, just like she wanted, and I sold my company. But now everything is burning up. My wife is either spitting rage or ignoring me. I can’t handle it anymore.” He impatiently brushes a tear from his eye. “So just tell me what to say in this new kind of conversation that your research says can change a relationship, and I will say it. Then we can get done here in two sessions.”
I see that he wants the pain to stop. I explain that first he and his wife need to be able to help each other out of the stuck conversations that fuel constant hurt and fear. They must create a secure base to stand on and get their balance before taking the risky steps involved in new, connected kinds of conversations. He is not convinced. He asks, “But aren’t there some people who just do this new kind of talk naturally?” I agree, but add, “Some of us have been lucky enough to have had great relationships in which someone walked through this kind of conversation with us before, and we learned what it felt like.” As John Bowlby said way back, “We do as we have been done by.” I try to explain to Patrick that when we think of others as basically safe and caring, we tend to have seen and practiced constructive ways to handle our emotions and respond to a partner in the past. So we have more options stored in our memory.
Still, no one can be open and responsive all the time. You always need help from your partner. I tell him, “Renewing your connection is something you do together. You both help each other keep your emotional balance and turn toward each other and tune in. It’s a dance. It’s not something you can ‘fix’ all by yourself from the outside by just saying the right words.” The final straw for him is when I add, “Many of us aren’t comfortable even talking about our softer, deeper feelings and can’t imagine sharing them with our partner.”
He shakes his head, blows through his nose, and stares at the door. Then his face falls, and he whispers, “I don’t know about feelings. I just know that I don’t want to lose my wife and my family. My sons are four and six. I love them so much.” I ask, “But this all seems like foreign territory to you?” He nods. Anna, a former high school teacher, stares at me with beautiful green eyes and says quietly and slowly, “We have never really talked about deeper feelings. We have never been to that place.” We begin.
Ten weeks later Patrick and Anna have learned to recognize and curtail their version of the Protest Polka. In their dance, which they have named “the Maze,” Patrick reacts to Anna’s upsets with the children or her problem with insomnia with cool rationality. Both then twist around and around, but the more they try to find a way out of their mutual frustration, the more lost and confused they become. Patrick tries desperately to offer solution after solution while totally bypassing Anna’s emotional distress. In response, she becomes even more distraught and berates him for being “unfeeling”; he counters by calling her “hysterical.” “Now I get that Anna sees me as distant and unapproachable,” says Patrick. “I stay away from feeling stuff and go into fix-it mode, and then she feels alone and hurt. I get that.” Anna observes, “I don’t think I understood my anger, either. I’d call out for him and get this office-manager response and a list of solutions like ‘Stop being so sensitive.’ So I’d just start up the accusations. But I’ve started to see how this hurts him. He does care. Maybe he just doesn’t know what to do when I call.”
Now that they understand their disconnection dance, they are breaking out of it quickly. Says Anna, “The other night, Patrick said, ‘Hey, this is the “round and round but always lost” thing again taking over. I’m in fix-it mode. It’s so easy to go there when I hear that you are upset and disappointed with us. So you must be getting that left-alone feeling right now, like I am immune to your hurt and don’t care.’ I was blown away when he said that. I just went and hugged him, and he made a little joke. [She scrunches up her nose.] It wasn’t funny, but that was okay.” She laughs.
But healing a relationship isn’t just about recognizing and stopping destructive behavior. That is just the first step. The second, and even harder, step is actively working together to build a stronger and more durable emotional union. That requires dumping old notions—for example, that love operates in a fixed, steady state—and becoming more proactive, such as by being alert to the small rents in the fabric of emotional connection and knowing how to repair them. The process of renewing bonds, we have learned, is continuous and inspiring, taking emotional connection to a whole new level. It makes us more emotionally accessible, responsive, and engaged, and thus it leads to deeper bonding and greater relationship stability and satisfaction. It also transforms us as people. As we take risks and confront our vulnerabilities, our trust grows—not just in our partners but also in ourselves.
The Rhythm of Disconnection and Reconnection
A love relationship is never static; it ebbs and flows. If we want love to last, we have to grasp this fact and get used to paying attention to and readjusting our level of emotional engagement.
“I just assumed that once you are married, you both know you are partners and you can kind of relax and take the relationship for granted,” Jeremy tells Harriet. “You can focus on the big picture. You know I love you. We aren’t mean to each other. I haven’t been unfaithful to you or anything like that. Can’t you just roll with the less romantic, less touchy-feely times?” Harriet sits up straight in her chair and declares, “No, Jeremy. I can’t. Not anymore.”
“Well, that is just very immature, then,” Jeremy replies.
He is right in a way. In a good relationship, where we feel basically secure, we can fill in the blanks left by our partner’s occasional emotional absence. We can substitute positive feelings from past encounters and accept that there may be legitimate reasons for the inattention. But only some of the time, and only if we know we can reconnect if we really need to.
Loving is a process that constantly moves from harmony to disharmony, from mutual attunement and responsiveness to misattunement and disconnection—and back again. But to really understand what happens, we have to zoom down into these interactions and atomize them. Remember Seurat’s paintings: when we move in really close, we realize that the vast scenes are composed of thousands and thousands of little dots. Researchers are doing the same with love relationships. By freeze-framing videos of romantic partners talking or arguing, and of babies playing with a parent, they are discovering how love, without our being aware, is shaped, for better or worse, in micromoments and micromoves of connection and disconnection.
Up close, this is what love looks like: I look at you with my eyes wide open, trying to capture your glance, and you catch my expression, widen your eyes, and take my arm. Alternatively, you ignore my bid for your attention, continue talking about your thoughts, and I turn away. In the next step, we resynchronize and reconnect. I turn back to you and lean forward and touch your arm; this time, you get my cue and turn toward me, smile, and ask me how I am. This tiny, fleeting moment of repair brings a rush of positive emotion. Moments of meeting are mutually delightful. (I always think that if we stopped and verbalized our innermost thoughts at this point, we would say something like “Oh, there you are” or even “Ah, here we are together.”)
It’s important to emphasize that misattunement is not a sign of lack of love or commitment. It is inevitable and normal; in fact, it is startlingly common. Ed Tronick of Harvard Medical School, who has spent years absorbed in monitoring the interactions between mother and child, finds that even happily bonded mothers and infants miss each other’s signals fully 70 percent of the time. Adults miss their partner’s cues most of the time, too! We all send unclear signals and misread cues. We become distracted, we suddenly shift our level of emotional intensity and leave our partner behind, or we simply overload each other with too many signals and messages. Only in the movies does one poignant gaze predictably follow another and one small touch always elicit an exquisitely timed gesture in return. We are sorely mistaken if we believe that love is about always being in tune.
What matters is if we can repair tiny moments of misattunement and come back into harmony. Bonding is an eternal process of renewal. Relationship stability depends not on healing huge rifts but on mending the constant small tears. Indeed, says John Gottman of the University of Washington, what distinguishes master couples, the term he gives successful pairs, is not the ability to avoid fights but the ability to repair routine disconnections.
We learn about mini-misattunement and repair in our earliest interactions. Tronick and his team have detailed what happens by analyzing videos of infants and their mothers playing a game of peekaboo that grows gradually more intense. At first the infant is happy, but as the game builds, he becomes overstimulated and turns away and sucks his thumb. Mom, intent on playing, misses this cue, and loudly cries “Boo” again. The baby looks down with no expression. He shuts down to avoid her signals, which are suddenly too fast and too strong for him.
There are two basic scenarios for what happens next, one positive, the other negative. In the first, Mom picks up the cue that her child is overwhelmed, and she goes quiet. She tunes in to his emotional expression. She waits until he looks up and smiles at him very slowly, and then more invitingly, lifting her eyebrows and opening her eyes. Then she starts the game again. Misattunement and momentary disconnection shift to renewed attunement and easy synchrony. All it takes is a smile or tender touch.
In the second scenario, Mom ignores or doesn’t get her baby’s signal. She moves in faster and closer, insisting her child stay engaged with her. He continues to turn away, and the mother reaches out and pushes his face back toward her. The infant closes his eyes and erupts in agitated wails. The mother, annoyed, now turns away. This is misattunement with no repair, what Tronick calls “interactive failure.” Both mother and infant feel disconnected and emotionally upset.
Over time, thousands of these micromoves accumulate until they coalesce into a pattern typical of secure or insecure bonding. Tronick notes that at just seven months of age, infants with the most positive, attuned mothers express the most joy and positive emotion, while those with the most disengaged moms show the greatest amount of crying and other protest behaviors. Those with the most intrusive moms look away the most. We learn in these earliest exchanges with our loved ones whether people are likely to respond to our cues and just how correctable moments of misattunement are.
Those of us who wind up securely attached have learned that momentary disconnection is tolerable rather than catastrophic and that another person will be there to help us regain our emotional balance and reconnect. Those who become anxiously attached have been taught a different lesson: that we cannot rely on another person to respond and reconnect, and so momentary disconnection is always potentially calamitous. Those who become avoidant have absorbed a still harsher lesson: that no one will come when needed no matter what we do, so it’s better not to bother trying to connect at all.
We carry these lessons forward into adulthood, where they color our romantic relationships. “The past is never dead,” wrote novelist William Faulkner. “It’s not even past.” Psychologist Jessica Salvatore, along with her colleagues at the University of Minnesota, studied the romantic relationships of 73 young adult men and women. They had all been enrolled since birth in a longitudinal study of attachment, and their relationship with their mother had been assessed when they were between twelve and eighteen months old. They were invited to the lab with their romantic partner, where they were interviewed separately. Then they were instructed to discuss a key conflict between them for ten minutes and then talk about areas where they were in agreement for another four “cool down” minutes.
Researchers videotaped these talks and observed how well the 73 adults could let go of their conflict and shift out of a negative emotional tone. Some made the switch quickly and easily; others persisted in talking about the conflict and brought up new issues; still others refused to talk at all. Those who were good at cool down were generally happier in their relationship, and so was their partner. And, as we might expect, those who had been rated securely attached as babies generally moved out of the conflict discussion most successfully.
But is a person’s own attachment history the key predictor of stability in a romantic relationship? Or is a partner’s ability to resolve conflict also a major factor? Salvatore assessed the 73 subjects two years later and found that even among those who had histories marked by insecurity, their romantic relationship was more likely to have endured if their partner was able to recover well from an argument and help them transition into a positive conversation.
I call this the buffer, balance, bounce effect. A more secure partner buffers your fears and helps you regain your emotional balance so you can reconnect. Then together, you both bounce back from separation distress, distance, and conflict. We are never so secure that we do not need our partner’s help in readjusting the emotional music in our attachment dance. Relationship distress and repair are always a two-person affair; a dance is never defined by just one person.
Some of us, however, need more structured help in finding our way back to emotional harmony. Drawing from my discoveries in thirty years of practice and research and the findings of the new science of love outlined in these pages, I and my colleagues have created a powerful model for repairing relationship bonds, Emotionally Focused Therapy. The only intervention based on attachment, EFT is redefining the field of couple therapy and education. Sixteen studies now validate its success. Couples who have had EFT show overall increased satisfaction with their relationships and in the elements of secure attachment, including intimacy, trust, and forgiveness. Moreover, the more secure emotional bond remains stable years after therapy.
One of our newest and most exciting studies, discussed in Chapter 3, demonstrates through fMRI brain scans that after couples go through EFT and become more secure, holding the hand of their partner actually dampens fear and the pain of an electric shock. Just as predicted by attachment science, contact with a loving, responsive partner is a powerful buffer against danger and threat. When we change our love relationships, we change our brains and change our world.
The science of love allows us to hone our interventions—to be on target and aim high. The goal is to create lasting lifelong bonds that offer safe-haven security to both partners. Recently we have also created a group educational program based on my earlier book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love that helps couples take all we have learned in decades of research and use it in their own relationship.
Repairing Bonds Moment to Moment
As we discussed in Chapter 2, happy, lasting bonds are all about emotional responsiveness. The core attachment question—“Are you there for me?”—requires a “yes” in response. A secure bond has three basic elements:
• accessibility—you give me your attention and are emotionally open to what I am saying;
• responsiveness—you accept my needs and fears and offer comfort and caring; and
• engagement—you are emotionally present, absorbed, and involved with me.
When these elements are missing and alienation and disconnection take over, renewing a bond that is truly coming undone is essentially a two-step process. First, partners have to help each other slow down and contain the circular dance that keeps them emotionally off balance and hypervigilant for signs of threat or loss. Relationships begin to improve when partners can stop these runaway cycles that create emotional starvation and attachment panic.
To curb these demand-withdraw cycles, we first need to recognize that they are cycles. We get caught up in focusing on our partner’s actions and forget that we are players, too. We have to realize that we are in a feedback loop that we both contribute to. When we see that this is a dance we do together, we can stop our automatic, blaming, “You always step on my foot” response. This allows us to see the power and momentum of the dance and how we are both controlled and freaked out by it.
Prue accuses Larry of being hypercritical. “He’s always complaining about whatever I do—how I cook, how I make love. I feel picked on all the time. It’s devastating.” Larry argues that Prue always refuses to talk seriously about any problems they’re having. “She just goes distant. I can’t find her,” he says. In our sessions, they’ve now realized that they are prisoners of a pattern they call “the Pit.” I encourage clients to give a name to their pattern to help them see it and begin to recognize that the pattern, not the partner, is the enemy. They have both unwittingly created this enemy that is taking over their relationship, and they must work together to wrest their relationship from its clutches.
Now we can explore the triggers and emotions that shape the pattern. Prue and Larry recount a specific incident when they fell into the Pit, and we bring it into high focus and play it in slow motion, scrutinizing each detail, until its impact on each partner and their bond is clear. They were on holiday in Europe after a period when Prue had been away taking care of her dying aunt and Larry had resented her absence. They were in a station heading to catch a train when Larry suddenly realized that it had begun moving. Afraid they would miss it, he jumped on the step and yelled to Prue, who was carrying a coffee cup, “Run.” Larry shouted to the conductor to slow down and held his hand out to Prue, but she froze. Finally, she grasped his hand and struggled onto the train, out of breath. Larry turned to her and said, “You are so damn slow.” Shocked and hurt, she refused to speak to him the rest of the journey. Inside, she vacillated between rage at Larry’s reprimands and dread that she really is too “slow” and too flawed for him to love. She shut him out and, preoccupied with her own fears of inadequacy, began a downward spiral into depression.
I turn to Larry and we go over and over this incident moment by moment and tune in to the emotions he was feeling then and how they reflect his overall feeling about Prue and their relationship. He says he feels “agitated” when she does not keep up with him on hikes. He notes she doesn’t take her arthritis medication consistently. “I get anxious when she does not stay with me. I can’t count on her.” He recalls the image of “distance” that flooded him when the train started to move off and Prue froze. “She wasn’t running, working to be with me,” he says. He felt panicked. Larry then begins to talk about his sense of isolation when Prue stayed with her aunt for three months and his habit of dismissing, or “pushing down,” this frequent feeling. Sometimes he can’t, though, and it rises up and engulfs him, and he winds up being angry and sarcastic. He begins weeping as he realizes just how much he needs her and is afraid that she will remain “unavailable.” The slide into the Pit begins with attachment terror.
For Prue, too, the terror that freezes her and turns her away from Larry is a hopeless certainty that she is flawed and worthless, so rejection is certain. As they recognize and find their balance in these emotional moments, they can see the drama of distress as it occurs in their everyday life and then help each other halt its momentum. They can limit the extent of the rift between them and find a secure base. The next night, Larry lashes out, and Prue responds, “Is this a panic moment for you? I am not going to freeze up here, and I want you to slow down.” Each partner begins to see the other in a new light: Prue sees Larry as afraid rather than judgmental and aggressive, and he sees her as protecting herself from rejection rather than simply abandoning him and “sulking.”
Recent research by psychologist Shiri Cohen and her colleagues at Harvard Medical School confirms that partners do not suddenly have to become masters of empathy or emotional gymnasts in this kind of process. Partners, especially women, really respond to signs that their loved one is trying to tune in and actually cares about their feelings. This, in and of itself, creates a new safety zone where partners can begin to expand their dance steps and take risks with each other. New ways of dealing with emotion shape new steps in the dance, which in turn shape new chances for reattunement and repair. But this ability to keep miscues and missteps in check is not enough.
The second step in renewing bonds is much harder but more significant. This is when we move into powerful positive interactions and actually reach for each other. Specifically, withdrawn partners have to open up and engage on an emotional level, and blaming partners have to risk asking for what they need from a place of vulnerability. Partners have to tune in to the bonding channel and stay there. They find this process risky, but if they follow it through, their relationship becomes flooded with positive emotion and ascends to a whole new level. This process is not only a corrective move that kick-starts trust but also, for many, a transforming and liberating emotional experience.
These experiences are deeply emotional; partners each reach for the other in a simple and coherent way that pulls forth a tender, compassionate response. This begins a new positive bonding cycle, a reach-and-respond sequence that builds a mental model of relationships as a safe haven. It addresses each person’s most basic needs for safety, connection, and comfort. These kinds of primal emotional moments are so significant that, as with all such “hot” moments, our brain seems to faithfully store them, filing them in our neural networks as the protocol for how to be close to others. Our follow-up studies of EFT couples show that their ability to stay with and shape these emotional moments is the best predictor of stable relationship repair and satisfaction years later.
So what actually happens in these exchanges—I call them Hold Me Tight conversations—when real connection begins to form and a couple moves from antagonism into harmony? Until recently we have not known what specific responses in intimate exchanges make for tender loving bonds between adults. We have had, to quote psychologists Linda Roberts and Danielle Greenberg of the University of Wisconsin, “a typology of conflict…but no road maps for positive intimate behavior.” Years of watching couples reconnect in a therapy that deliberately builds bonds can offer us just this.
In Hold Me Tight conversations, couples have to handle a series of mini-tasks. Partners, whether pursuing and blaming or defending and withdrawing, attempt to:
• Tune in to and stay with their own softer emotions and hold on to the hope of potential connection with the loved one.
John: “I did snap at you. But when I look inside, it’s that I find it worrying, upsetting that you go out to those clubs with your girlfriends. It somehow messes me up. It’s hard to tell you this. I am not used to talking about this kind of stuff.”
• Regulate their emotions so they can look out at the other person with some openness and curiosity and show willingness to listen to incoming cues. They are not flooded or trying to shut down and stay numb.
John: “I feel a little silly, kind of wide open saying this. But there it is. It doesn’t work to deny it and say nothing. Then we get farther apart. Can you hear me? What do you think?” His wife, Kim, comes and hugs him.
• Turn their emotions into clear, specific signals. Messages are not conflicted or garbled. Clear communication flows from a clear inner sense of feared danger and longed-for safety.
John: “I know I sometimes go off about you being tired after coming home late or the money you spend. But that is not it. Those are side issues. It reminds me of past relationships. I guess I am really sensitive here. I really find it difficult. It scares me. I wanted to run after you and say, ‘Don’t go.’ It’s like you are choosing them and the club scene over me, over us. That is how it feels.” His eyes widen, showing how anxious he is.
• Tolerate fears of the other’s response enough to stay engaged and give the other a chance to respond.
John: “You aren’t saying anything. Are you mad now? I want us to talk about this kind of stuff when I get unsure of us and not push things under the rug. I want to hear how you feel right now.” Kim tells him she is confused because she feels loyal to her friends but that his feelings are important.
• Explicitly state needs. To do this they have to recognize and accept their attachment needs.
John: “I want to know you are committed to us, to me. I want to feel like you are my partner and that nothing is more important than that. I need that reassurance that my needs matter. Then I can keep taking risks here. I am out on a limb otherwise.”
• Hear and accept the needs of the other. Respond to these needs with empathy and honesty.
John: “I know I have been kind of controlling in the past. It’s a bit hard to hear you talk about it, but I know you need to make choices, and you have fun with your friends. I am not giving orders here. I want to know if we can work this out together.”
• React to the other’s response, even if it is not what is hoped for, in a way that is relatively balanced and, especially if it is what is hoped for, with increased trust and positive emotion.
John: “Well, you have tickets for the concert, so I guess you will go. I can handle that. I hadn’t really shared with you openly about this. It helps if I feel included somehow, if you tell me about it afterward. And I appreciate that you are listening and telling me that you can consider how I feel about this.” Kim tells him she still feels scared to put herself in his hands completely. Her nights out are her statement that she is still holding on to her boundaries and showing she can stand up to him. But she hears his fears. She tells him that she does not flirt or drink too much on her outings, and she reminds him that she is going out less often now.
• Explore and take into account the partner’s reality and make sense of, rather than dismiss, his or her response.
John: “I don’t want to tell you what to do. I know this upsets you. You have good reasons for this. I get that you are not trying to hurt me. I don’t want you to feel dictated to. I just get anxious about this stuff.” He reaches out for her, and she turns to him and holds him.
When this conversation goes off track, John—and hopefully Kim—can bring it back and stay with the main emotional message, the need to connect. For example, if John gets caught up ranting about the “seedy” clubs she visits, she is able to stay calm and soothe him by telling him that she is concerned that he worries about this, and this brings him back to talking about his fears. Both partners help each other keep their emotional balance and stay in the deeper emotion and bonding channel. John is attempting to repair his sense of disconnection, and he does it by exploring his own emotions and engaging with Kim. In the past he had tried criticizing his lover’s taste in friends or making deals about how many times each could go out without the other every month. Now he goes to the core dialogue in an attachment relationship, the one that matters most, where the question “Are you there for me?” is palpable. He shares and asks for her emotional support, for her help in dealing with his attachment fears.
This is very different from the way attempts at connection show up in distressed relationships and even in routine interactions in relatively happy relationships. We often bypass the attachment emotions and messages. We do not say what we need. Our signals to our loved one remain hidden, general, and ambiguous. Hal tells Lulu, “I don’t think I have ever asked you for affection. It’s not what I do. When you just give it, everything is fine. But when you get depressed…So then I say, ‘Want to watch a movie?’ or ‘You should go for a walk and cheer up.’ But you turn away, and in two seconds flat I am enraged. In my head, I am still thinking it’s about the movie or you not taking care of yourself. Not that you have gone missing on me.” When Hal can express his sense of loss at Lulu’s withdrawal, they can deal with it and her bout of depression differently—that is, in a way that leaves them more connected rather than less.
The most intense and attachment-focused Hold Me Tight conversations build tangible safety and connection, even in secure, happy relationships. They can occur at times when partners do not feel disconnected but simply want more intense intimacy. Lulu opens up one night and tells Hal of a moment after their lovemaking when she felt herself “sinking into a certain soft place where we just belong and belong and there is no more fear of risking.” He responds and shares his similar feelings. Each time these lovers share their “soft places” and their need for each other and respond with empathy and care, they offer their loved one reassurance that he or she is the chosen, irreplaceable one, and the bond between them deepens.
Let’s see how this applies to Patrick and Anna, the couple we met at the beginning of this chapter, who came to couple therapy to renew their bond. They have been able to contain their negative cycle. When Anna complains, “I gave up my career for this relationship. Things are a little better now, but I still don’t get the comfort I need,” Patrick’s initial reaction is still to withdraw. But then he looks into Anna’s face and reaches for her, putting his hand over hers. “Yeah, well, giving comfort hasn’t been my strong suit, has it?” he murmurs. They talk about how they know they need to learn to trust again and come close, but neither of them is quite sure how to do this.
So now they move into the second part of therapy—restructuring the bond by digging deeper into their feelings in Hold Me Tight conversations. “What happens to you right now when Anna gets upset and points out how much she has given to the relationship?” I ask Patrick.
“I don’t want to shut her out,” Patrick replies softly. “I know that doesn’t work. But it’s still very hard to stay here and listen. I hear the old song about how dissatisfied she is with me. I go into this, ‘How can I ever be enough and make it up to her’ thing. It’s like we have found out in these sessions: I feel that I’m failing her, and I feel threatened. So my brain gets scrambled. Basically, I guess I get scared.”
I want him to dig deeper into his feelings. “And when you begin to close down, like a little while ago—what’s going on inside?”
“Oh…hmm…I guess that is like a kind of despair—helplessness, maybe. I search for a solution in my head [he taps his head with his finger], come up empty, and then I cut off. Nothing to do here. Yes, it’s like despair. If I am such a raw deal for her [he pauses for a long time], then this relationship is all washed up. [He looks up at me and Anna, and smiles an ironic smile.] No wonder I turn off, huh?”
“I’ll say,” I respond. “Anna gets upset, and you go into fear with no apparent solution. You hear that you can never make it and be seen as valued and precious to your wife. Despair and helplessness and a sense that the relationship is doomed; this is the kind of black wave that has you turning off and has Anna feeling so deserted. What is happening to you right now as we talk about this? Can you help her really tune in to this?”
What I am really urging Patrick to do is show Anna that he can fully engage with her. And he doesn’t disappoint.
Patrick turns to his wife and looks her in the eyes. “Well…Basically I get crazy in these situations. I feel helpless. I hear that I cannot make you happy no matter how hard I try. And I have tried. I have. This helpless feeling is always sitting here [he touches his stomach] these days, just waiting to hear how disappointed you are in us, in me. I can run a huge company, but I can’t hold on to you.” He looks down, then looks up and leans forward. “I don’t want to walk away from you,” he declares. “You have probably needed my comfort many times. And I like that—that you need my comfort. I just get waylaid by my fears. All I hear you saying is that you got a raw deal in me!” Anna is looking at him, her face open and soft.
Patrick continues, “You are the center of my life, you and the kids. I don’t want to keep getting caught in this dead end. I want so much for you to feel happy with me. But I need you to cut me a little slack here. Give me a chance to learn how to do this. Not assume that I just don’t care if I don’t always pick up on what you need. And I want you to see that I am trying. That there are lots of things I do for you. I guess I need some recognition. Need to know that you are not going anywhere, that we are going to stay together and work this out. To know that I am not such a bad husband after all…It is hard to feel this and tell you this. Maybe you don’t care.”
Patrick has become ultra-accessible here, actively helping his wife tune in to him. He is reaching out and asking for reassurance from Anna that his disclosures mean something to her. He is stating his needs clearly, letting Anna see inside him, and giving her a chance to respond.
But can she be there for him? I find myself thinking that to know how to reach for a precious one is the most basic skill in the dance of human connection. But we also have to know how to respond to another’s need, to reach back in return, so that there is mutual engagement.
“I do care,” Anna says slowly. “This is just so different. It’s a relief to know that you are not just irritated or indifferent. Not that I want you to be scared like this. I didn’t know I was that important to you! I just see you offering rational compromises that don’t take my feelings into account. But you are scared!”
“Yes, I am,” he responds.
I ask her how she feels, and she says, “I feel more connected to him. I hear that he wants to come closer. This feels better.”
They have made great progress, but they still have some distance to go. He is out on the floor, but Anna is hesitant to let go of her mistrust and begin a new dance. If their bond is to grow, she also has to risk and reach, sharing her fears and needs in a different way. My job is to be a guide in this new dance.
“So, Anna,” I say in our next session. “Are you feeling a bit more hopeful about your relationship?”
“Yes, I am,” she replies. “But now I find myself still hanging on to those old glasses, if you know what I mean. He came and found me after a little tiff we had at home a few days ago and I knew he was taking a risk and reaching out for me, but I found myself holding back somehow and repeating my old mantra of how cold and uncaring he is. I guess it’s still easier to just be mad than to open up to him.”
“You got to the place in this relationship where you hunkered down and opened up the gun ports at the first sign of danger. So I guess that is hard to give up?” I ask. She nods. “How were you feeling after the tiff?”
Anna grimaces. “The usual. Totally alone. Like that ‘here we are again’ feeling. Ready to reach for my gun or turn into an ice cube!” She looks at Patrick and gives a “What can you do” shrug. “But I am tired of being mad.”
“When Patrick reached for you, even though you were feeling tired and alone, it was hard to respond?”
“Yes. It’s hard to trust. To really believe that he is reaching and won’t just disappear on me.”
“Can you tell him?”
Anna turns to Patrick and says, “It’s hard to believe that it’s safe. I have felt so exposed with you. I get jitters in my stomach when I start to believe that you are here for me. I want that, but…it feels unsure. How do I know…” She is very still and silent for a few minutes, then resumes speaking. “How do I know that I won’t get hurt again, left again? It’s almost like I am scared to trust you now.”
Patrick nods and leans forward. “Yes. I can understand that. We missed each other so many times, and both of us hurt. And sometimes I can be preoccupied or not very clued in, but I am trying to be here for you. I would like you to try to believe that. It’s easier when you are not angry all the time.”
Anna laughs. “Well, now I am angry just some of the time…when that voice in my head tells me to be careful. I think I am scared to hope, to really let that longing for you come out. If I do that and you are not there…”
“That would be unbearable, yes?” I ask. “Like falling into space? Devastating?”
“Yeah,” Anna says, and turns to Patrick. “So I am afraid here. No—I am truly terrified. But I do long for you and I do need you to comfort and reassure me, give me some time to trust and to feel safe. I admire you for what you have done in these sessions. I want us to be close. Maybe I just need a little help.”
“You got it,” Patrick replies, beaming. “I will do my best. I am here.” Anna smiles and reaches for his hand. “Well, right now, you are pretty much perfect! I guess I have to learn to trust a little.”
He stands up and opens his arms and she moves into them. Anna has shared her fears rather than wrapping them in a bundle of rage, and she has found the courage to ask for what she needs.
After this session, I sit in my office and savor what has just happened. The words reattunement, repair, and reattachment go through my head. I feel happy. Connection cues joy, even when we are watching it happen in someone else. Our mammalian brain recognizes this as good, just the way we recognize the touch of the sun on our face. As a scientist and a researcher, I look at what just happened in my office and predict that by the end of our sessions Anna and Patrick will have a felt sense of connection, a safe-haven place, that offers the ultimate solution to emotional isolation and all the sorrows it brings.
At this point Anna and Patrick can do what securely attached dyads at age 3, 13, 36, and 66 can do. They can jointly create emotional synchrony. They are attuned to their own and each other’s emotions and can empathetically respond to the softer emotions and attachment calls of the other. They are creating a loving bond right before my eyes.
This kind of event is powerful enough to undo years of mistrust and painful isolation, perhaps because of the flood of positive emotions it unleashes or perhaps because of the primal survival significance of the interaction. Whatever the reason, once these events begin to happen, couples can not only take a new and more positive path, they can reshape their inevitable disconnects into deeper trust that allows them to fall in love over and over again.
These kinds of events seem to render future miscues and disconnections unpleasant rather than catastrophic; separation distress, when it occurs, is manageable and resolvable. Partners can then help each other constantly broaden their response repertoire rather than scare each other into rigid, defensive postures. Can these kinds of positive experiences reprogram the brain and create trust and empathy, even when they have never before existed in a couple’s life together or in either individual’s past? I think so.
* * *
Once couples know how to open up, send clear messages, and respond to each other on an attachment level, then they have a secure base that helps them do this in other areas of a love relationship where attachment fears and needs get triggered, such as sex and traumatic injuries.
At one point in therapy Anna and Patrick begin to address their sexual relationship. In this arena, roles have reversed from what they were at the beginning of their marriage; Patrick has become the pursuer who asks for more sex, and Anna is the one who retreats. Anna is now able to tell him, “I know I am kind of guarded with sex. And we have made some great changes, like more time for foreplay and more time after sex to hug, but I do still hold back. It’s kind of strange, but I think for me it’s a little like the feelings you have in our general relationship. You’ve said that you feel inadequate, and I guess I feel that way in sex. When you tell me your fantasies or say raunchy things when we make love, I feel sort of dismayed. I freeze up. I don’t know how to be this sexy, over the top, hot woman that you seem to want. I don’t want to yell my head off during orgasms—I am more of a quiet simmerer, I think. So lots of times I get distracted by a sense that I am just not hot enough for you.” She sighs, looks down, and her voice goes very soft. “And maybe I never will be—it’s just not me—so [she opens her hands in a gesture of helplessness] I want to avoid that feeling, I guess. So this has me holding back in lovemaking. But then you feel rejected.”
This disclosure is a very long way from the negative comments she used to make to Patrick about their sex life. Those mostly focused on the suggestion that he was simply an adolescent stuck in constant horniness. Needless to say, the comments did not invite Patrick to engage in an open, exploratory conversation with her. But now, after her vulnerable remarks, she goes on to ask Patrick for reassurance that he sees her as a satisfying sexual partner, and he finds this reassurance easy to give. He also tells her that he was making raunchy comments because he thought this was part of being “hot” and making sure your lover felt desired. He admits that, on his side, any hint of a lack of desire on her part pushes him into a quagmire of doubt about whether he is loved.
As these partners become more securely emotionally connected and extend their newfound sense of safety into conversations about sex, their lovemaking becomes less a test of desirability and more a happy and satisfying affirmation of their relationship. This kind of Hold Me Tight conversation provides a platform of emotional safety for explorations of their unique sexual dance.
Healing Traumatic Injuries
Hold Me Tight conversations also can be of enormous help in healing traumatic attachment injuries that result from single, shattering events (such as those discussed in the previous chapter). Hold Me Tight conversations, when focused on such injuries, promote forgiveness and the renewal of trust. A study I conducted with colleagues at my Ottawa Couple and Family Institute and at the University of Ottawa found that all distressed couples who came to us with a single attachment injury, such as an affair, could be helped in only twelve or thirteen EFT sessions with our experienced therapists. EFT increased their level of trust to the point of true reconciliation. These successful couples engaged in Hold Me Tight conversations that were centered around the injury itself and then, more generally, around their relationship needs. Partners became more open, responsive, and able to reach for each other. What’s more, three years later they and their relationships were doing just fine.
The forgiveness version of this transforming conversation begins after partners understand how these injuries have affected their bond and how they can contain their negative patterns, such as demand-withdraw. They are then safe and engaged enough to go back into the hurtful incident. Here are the steps in such a conversation:
• The hurt partner opens up and courageously communicates to his or her loved one the essence of their pain and loss. Each talks about themselves and their softer feelings rather than the flaws in the other’s character. Core emotions and signals are clear.
Alice tells Ben, “I have hammered you pretty hard, and I see now that this has played a part in keeping all this hurt going in our relationship. That night when our daughter got so sick, I felt so alone, so frantic, and so deserted. I just could not believe that you were not by my side. I never felt able or clear enough to really tell you this, and when I tried but couldn’t get through, I just got exasperated. So I promised myself, ‘Never again. Don’t count on him to support you when you feel vulnerable. Don’t.’”
• The injuring partner works to listen and begin to tune in to the other’s hurt, avoiding getting stuck in defense and denial and acknowledging that it is the wounded partner’s hurt that matters more than the details of the event itself. The couple openly explores and shares what led to the injuring partner’s inability to respond to the other’s call for connection.
Ben tells Alice, “You are right. I know I need to tell you that. I should have been there. I was so caught up in winning that contract. I was busy proving that I was the great leader I always wanted to be, that I was a success at last. I didn’t understand how much you needed me. I minimized the whole thing. I just couldn’t turn away from the ‘success’ thing, so I ended up letting you down. I didn’t tune in. I was on the wrong channel.” This kind of acknowledgment of the impact we have had on our partner really opens the door for deeper sharing and real healing.
• Feeling heard and validated, the hurt partner can focus and articulate really clear messages about the injury, prompting the other partner to apologize with sincerity.
Alice murmurs, “You say that you ‘knew’ our baby would be okay, but you weren’t there looking at her. She looked so bad, so very bad. I believed she was going to die. It was like being hit by a truck. I couldn’t breathe when that specialist told me what they were going to do. I had to give permission for them to operate, and you weren’t there. It was like I didn’t have a husband. It was just me, all alone, watching her die. And when I told you what it was like, you argued with me and told me it wasn’t that bad. Then I was even more alone.”
Now Ben’s face mirrors his wife’s pain. He is able to connect with his spouse’s fear and hurt at his abandonment when she most needed him. He is engaged and shows her with the sadness on his face and in his voice that her pain hurts him. He expresses regret and remorse, and when he does it from this place of deep emotional engagement, it works. Ben whispers, “I let you down. I let us down. I am so sorry, sweetheart. I don’t want you to ever have those feelings. To be so overwhelmed. I did not understand how afraid you were and how serious it all looked. No wonder you have been so very angry with me. I want to help you heal this. I will do anything to gain your trust again.”
• Once partners have shared their vulnerabilities, the stage is set for the penultimate step in an injury-focused Hold Me Tight conversation: the sharing of needs.
Alice asks for what she needs to heal. “I still get scared,” she says. “I watch our baby to make sure she is breathing right. I still dream about that night. In the dream, I call for you, and you don’t come. I need to cry about this, and I need you to hold me. I need to know you will come this time.” This time Ben responds. He holds his wife and tells her, “I will never let you down like this again. I want to reassure and comfort you. I will do whatever it takes for you to feel safe with me again. I will put us first.” This comforting, open kind of connection acts as an antidote to the pain and fear of the injury and lays a new foundation for building trust.
• In the final step, partners together create a new story of the injury. This story includes exactly how they discovered the way to heal their rift and, how to hold on to their new confidence in their relationship.
In Ben and Alice’s last therapy session, Ben tells me, “We have learned so much from this hard lesson. I never knew that closeness was something you made. I thought it just happened—or not. It feels good to know how much she needs me and that I can give her a haven that no one else can give. Now, that is what I call success!” They beam at each other.
In our lab, when we look at couples who successfully complete this process, what always stands out is, first, their willingness to explore deeper, softer emotions that lead to their discounted or unfulfilled attachment needs and, second, their willingness to risk turning back toward each other. As Ben told me, “It helps to know that there is a clear path through this kind of chasm; when you really understand the pain of it, it’s easier to respond and help your partner heal.”
The basic science of attachment gave us the secret to understanding these injuries and told us in a general sense what needed to happen to heal them. We could then build a model of the steps that can lead a couple from wounded despair to secure bonding. We now teach these steps to forgiveness, and the general Hold Me Tight conversation, as part of our relationship education program, Hold Me Tight: Conversations for Connection. The main insight here is that these wounds are abandonments that spark life-and-death survival scripts and attachment panic.
* * *
Our research into the key events that change distressed relationships into more secure bonds tells us that if we can understand the drama of attachment and how we deal with disconnection—and if we can learn to accept and call out our deepest attachment fears and needs, and if we can respond to these calls with attuned care—we can, with purpose and deliberation, grow our deepest bonds across a lifetime.
For many of us this is a startling revelation. We do not have to travel through this life alone, relying only on ourselves or the whims of mysterious love. These megawatt emotional conversations rebuild trust and lead us to new levels of intimate connection. To know, at last, how to grasp, shape, repair, and renew our most important adult relationship, the relationship that, if we understand it, can sustain and nurture us throughout our life—what can be more important than this?
Sit quietly and imagine yourself in a conversation with a loved one whom you do not or did not always feel safe with. See if you can remember a time or specific incident when you felt disconnected and hurt in this relationship. Ask yourself what threat was present.
Was it the threat of imminent rejection—that is, learning that this person did not value you or the connection with you? Was it the threat of being abandoned or deserted—learning that this person could turn and walk away, leaving you bereft? Was it the threat of learning that this person judged you as unimportant or unacceptable? What, to you, was the most catastrophic thing this person said or did? See if you can pinpoint the exact moment that hurt the most.
Ask yourself what you needed at that point that would have turned the hurt and fear around. What did you long to hear or have that person do? Now, for a moment, imagine that person magically tuning in to you and doing just that. Give a name to what you would feel—for example, intense relief, deep comfort, dissipation of fear.
But suppose this magic didn’t quite happen and you had to help the other person figure out how to respond. Imagine what it would be like to tell this person about the threat you felt in that situation. and the message or action you needed to receive in that moment. See this person’s face, and see yourself sitting opposite him, and beginning to speak. If you can imagine yourself doing this and being able to send a clear message while keeping your emotional balance, that is great. You have just primed your attachment system and rehearsed your part of a Hold Me Tight conversation.
If you had a hard time with this last piece, see if you can determine what most got in the way of your giving a clear message about your needs and fears in the conversation. Here are some of the blocks that people identify:
• I cannot keep my focus. It is hard to stay with the feelings, so I change the subject or get abstract and tangential.
• My feelings reach flood level when I imagine sharing like this with this person, and the risk suddenly seems too great, so I shut down.
• I find myself flipping into anger and blaming—proving this person wrong instead of sharing soft feelings.
• I knew when I imagined this person’s face that this is all pointless, and I wanted to give up and run or hide. This is too hard.
• I find myself telling this person that I will never trust him again. I will never let him hurt me again. I want to protect myself. I refuse to tell him my needs and fears until he proves worthy of my confidences.
If you have never seen or experienced a Hold Me Tight conversation, then this thought experiment is a beginning, a way to explore it as a possibility. If you do have a prototype for this conversation, then it is a chance for you to hone your sense of this exquisitely powerful interaction.
Choose a small hurt inflicted by someone you depend on. Ask this person if you could just talk about the event. Say you want to see if this telling would be helpful to you. Say that it is fine if she cannot or does not wish to respond and that you are not trying to blame her or make her feel bad. If she agrees to listen, try to pinpoint your specific moment of hurt in very simple language while staying soft and open. Stay with your task and see if you can do it, whether she responds or not. Write down what this was like for you.