Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Why We Love

I've just been reading a book called “Hold Me Tight” by Sue Johnson. Johnson's claim is that love between adults has the same emotional attachment issues as the love between a mother and child. She writes, “You are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing, and protection.”

Attachment Theory, is a psychological theory proposed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, that infants form attachments to any consistent caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to the infant. This is usually the child's mother, but it doesn't have to be. It could be the father, grandmother, or older sibling. The theory posits that children attach to mothers or other caring figures instinctively. The need for safety and protection, which is paramount in infancy and childhood, is the basis of the bond. If the mother figure is unavailable or unresponsive, separation distress occurs and the anticipation of such an occurrence arouses separation anxiety.

We've all seen examples of this in babies and toddlers when they are relaxed and willing to explore strange situations in close proximity with their mother but react to the same situations with fear and anger if they are deprived of access to their mother. An implication of attachment theory is that a lasting attachment bond with a mother figure is necessary in order for children to be physically and emotionally healthy. Strong evidence in support of the theory comes from observations of babies in orphanages, who, in spite of being fed, clothed, and housed, failed to thrive in the absence of emotional bonds to caregivers.

The theory, which initially was scoffed at by the psychoanalytic mainstream is now universally accepted. But the theory that adult loving relationships are attachment bonds is less accepted. Most of us would agree that adults should be mature, independent, and self-sufficient. We have names for people who are too dependent on others. We call them “immature”, “undifferentiated”, “clingy”, “enmeshed”, and “co-dependent”.

Right now about fifty percent of those who marry eventually get divorced. Having gone through one myself I know all too well how painful and destructive a divorce can be for a family. I wouldn't wish it on anybody. Sue Johnson, a marriage counsellor, wanted to help people in struggling marriages stay together. After working with and then observing them over and over on tape she developed a therapy called Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT, based on the “key negative and positive emotional moments that defined a relationship.” When she tried to figure out why her therapy worked she came up with the idea that bonds between adult couples were based on “the innate need for safe emotional connection” just like the needs of infants for their mother.

When we feel secure with our lover we can reach out and connect to others easily, we are more curious and open to new information but when we feel insecure, we become anxious, angry, controlling or distant and we are less empathetic to others. “Just what Bowlby and Ainsworth found with children and their mothers,” says Johnson.

According to Sue Johnson, when a marriage is in trouble it is usually because the couple is disconnected emotionally. Neither partner feels emotionally safe with each other. “Most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection,” she says. “Underneath all the distress, partners are asking each other: “Can I count on you and depend on you? Are you there for me? Will you respond to me when I need, when I call? Do I matter to you?” When we express anger, criticism, and demands in a marital spat we are trying to draw our spouse in emotionally and re-establish a sense of safe connection. What we are really saying is: “Notice me. Be with me. I need you.”

When they first express these emotions it can actually work to draw couples together, but over time it only makes them more stuck. Couples quickly develop negative patterns of interaction which work to push each other farther and farther apart. When one partner becomes critical and aggressive the other becomes defensive and distant. According to Johnson, when we withdraw and detach from our partner we are really trying to soothe and protect ourselves. We are really saying: “I won't let you hurt me. I will be independent and stay in control.” Unfortunately the longer we engage in these patterns of conflict the greater the loss of mutual trust. According to psychologist and marital therapist John Gottman, “couples who get stuck in this pattern have more than 80% chance of divorcing within five years.

Johnson emphasizes that “When marriages fail, it is not increasing conflict that is the cause. It is decreasing affection and emotional responsiveness.” When a relationship is failing men often focus on sexual incompatibility. Men aren't comfortable acknowledging their need for emotional closeness so they focus on sex which is a more limited expression of this need. “Think of sexual distress as the relationship version of the “canary in the coal mine,” says Johnson. “What's really happening is that a couple is losing connection; the partners don't feel emotionally safe with each other. That in turn leads to slackening desire and less satisfying sex...”

The idea is to let secure attachment and sexuality come together by creating a “positive loop of closeness, responsiveness, caring, and desire.”

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