The Puzzle of Love

“Love is a mystery.”  Love is a many splendored thing.”  Apart from these sayings, poets, philosophers, psychologists, clergy and people in general, have through the centuries struggled to define and understand it.

Couples often say, “I don’t know what is wrong with my relationship and I don’t know how to fix it.”  In the past therapists have tried to help couples by teaching communication skills, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills.  These techniques worked briefly for the couples.  Unfortunately, couples fell back into their old patterned ways of interacting and decided the therapy didn’t work for them and that their relationship was doomed.

Before you resign yourself to living separate lives or divorcing know that you do not have to settle for the status quo or for failure.  Research has taught us how to help couples understand and strengthen their love.  This research has shown us that behavioral patterns learned in childhood form a template for our adult relationships.  There are evolutionary and biological imperatives for love and affections.  Connections have measurable effects on our body, psyche and health.  Studies have shown us how to assist and guide couples toward healthy and happier relationships. 

Knowing how to help love relationship is important as a 2012 Pew survey showed 84% of people view marriage as an important life goal.  An earlier Pew survey revealed most people see love as the basis of marriage.  People agree with the finding of Robert Waldinger, a Harvard happiness researcher and leader of the 80-year-old Harvard Study of Adult Development, who has found the single ingredient in a good life with health and joy is a loving relationship.

In the 1950’s the emerging science of attachment helped us understand the importance of the infant caregiver bond.  As this science has matured, it has given a definitive map of love and how to optimize it – a guide to stronger and more supportive relationships.

In the 1980’s Canadian psychologist Sue Johnson became aware of the powerful fears, needs and dilemmas couples faced and she sought ways to understand these struggles.  Grounded in the new understandings of adult attachment, Sue and her colleagues worked to develop a method to help couples that was grounded in science.  The result was the development of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)which now has over 30 years of scientific research supporting its effectiveness.

EFT recognizes the major tenant of attachment research that show “the love we feel from another person has an enormous effect on us, both physically and emotionally” (Sue Johnson).  Studies over the years have confirmed this fact.

We Are Better Together

In 2006, James A. Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, conducted an experiment on 16 married women whom he placed into a magnetic resonance imaging machine and subjected them to the threat of electrical shock during 3 different situations:  holding their husband’s hand, holding the hand of a male stranger and lying alone in the machine.  The women were told that when they saw a large X on the screen they might receive a shock.  Coan’s study revealed that holding the husband’s hand significantly reduced the activation of neural systems in the brain associated with emotional and behavioral threat responses.  The hand holding also reduced the amount of pain the subjects reported from the shock.  More interestingly, people who reported more supportive marriages based on a questionnaire, appeared to experience the most relief.

Coan’s study is among several which have found that the presence of a loved one can moderate neurophysiological responses including heart rate and the release of stress hormones.  One study even showed that by just imagining an attachment figure can have significant effect.  We gain tremendous emotional strength from just thinking about our loved ones

Physical health and strong relationships are connected.  Attachment research suggests healthy relationships support healthy lives.  Coan’s study shows we are at ease with certain people.  Therefore, cultivating those special relationships may help us better manage life’s uncertainties.

Our relationships are part of our survival code. Secure attachment relationships provide a sense of safety, a sense that we are not alone and a way to maintain balance in the face of danger.

These connections with trusted loved one who are our resources shift our perception of danger, disaster and pain.

Creating Connected Couples

Emotional distance is the most common problem, faced by couples.  For example, one partner tends to withdraw from the other resulting in creating emotional distance from the partner.  In response, the action of withdrawing signals the threat of separation in the other, thus triggering protest and clinging behavior in the one who experienced a sense of abandonment.  This reaction may trigger anger and desperation in the withdrawing partner driving the couple further and further apart.  Each is only trying to cope with perceived threats.

While couples’ disagreements often look simple to solve with logic on the surface, attachment theory tells us the fights are about disconnection.  The threat of emotional isolation – abandonment – sparks reactive anger to get attention or a shutdown response to the feeling of never getting it right and a desire to block the pain.  These meltdowns are about the pain of emotional disconnection, and couples’ well intended though misguided and misunderstood attempts to reconnect have little to do with the conflict.  Attachment science has shown that love is within our control when we understand how it operates.

In EFT, the first step is to help the couple see they are both caught in a repetitive cycle/dance about emotional distance and that their actions are triggering each other.  It is these cycles that are to blame and that leave them feeling alone and lonely.

Next, EFT shows couples how to move in positive ways when they need their partner’s support.  Moving in positive ways builds positive experiences of secure connection.  Couples learn to have bonding conversations where partners identify their attachment fears/needs and share them in soft ways that draw their partner closer.  Partners often share fears of rejection; however, when these fears are openly shared in a positive manner, the partner receive the reassurance they’ve longed to have.

EFT research has shown that partners who take time to dive deeply into their emotional experience, disclose how they make sense of their partner’s words and actions, and who soften their tendency to blame, show increased relationship satisfaction.  Intimacy, vulnerability and having a forgiving viewpoint are the necessary ingredients.

In this stage, couples build the crucial relationship skills of accessibility, responsiveness and engagement.  Accessibility is being open and willing to turn to and attend, care for our partner.  Responsiveness is being able to tune into and respond to your partner’s emotional signals.  Engagement is when you can stay close and attuned to your partner’s emotions and remain close.  These skills are captured in the unasked and yet present question in distressed couples, “Are you there for me?”  This the question about which distressed couples are seeking reassurance

With its strong evidence base and lasting positive effects, EFT has become the gold standard of couple’s therapy and the only one to integrate attachment science.

In 2008, Sue Johnson developed Hold Me Tight® a two-day education program for couples.  Research is beginning to come in on the effectiveness of the Hold Me Tight programs in increasing couples’ relationship satisfaction with additional positive impact on the couple’s family.