Romantic relationships tend to run a quite predictable course. Initially your partner can do nothing wrong. You are wearing rose-colored glasses. But over time, differences become annoyances and the novelty of your relationship wears off.
Most couples hit an impasse at the 2 or 3 year mark, when many couples end up breaking up or divorcing. Even those partners who stay together, may end up living emotionally disengaged lives and struggling to maintain their love connection.
This raises the question: Can couples really sustain love over time?
The Science of Love:
Couples researcher, Sue Johnson, brings us an optimistic message. She believes that we now understand why love and affection is so difficult to maintain over time, and that we now have the answers that can help us restore love when love begins to wane.
Love she says, is not some mystical feeling that we either feel or don’t feel, and we are not simply at the mercy of serendipity. Instead there is a science behind love and a predictable way to cultivate it.
This science is not new but goes all the way back to the 1950s when a man named John Bowlby began to study the interactions between mother and child.
Its name: attachment theory.
The Lesson from Attachment Theory:
The science of adult attachment originated in Bowlby’s observations of what happens to children when their primary caregiver leaves them.
Based on these experiments, Bowlby made several observations that have relevance to understanding human motivation and adult relationship distress.
The first conclusion is that it is extremely distressing for a child to lose connection with a caregiver. The child needs the connection to feel safe, and when they lose it, they work hard to get the connection back. Bowlby, in other words, stumbled across a human need to feel connected that is so powerful that any threat to it is a real threat to our survival.
The second conclusion is that babies go through a series of predictable stages when trying to reconnect with a loved one: First they amp up their engagement level and fight for the connection. If this doesn’t work they actively protest by crying or screaming. Finally, if no response is forthcoming, they give up and numb themselves.
Have a look at this more recent experiment called “Still Face”:
Attachment Theory and Your Relationship:
So what does attachment theory help us understand about adult relationships?
Committed relationships are strong attachment bonds. We become interdependent to an extent that mimics the love between caregiver and child.
We need safety in order to risk commitment, and that safety comes from knowing that our partner is going to be there for us if or when we need them.
We need what Bowlby calls a secure attachment: a sense that we matter to our partner, that our partner thinks about us, or that we occupy a special role for our partner.
Only with this felt security, can we feel safe to be ourselves completely, to disagree, to express our needs, to let our guards down, and to show our partner our most tender feelings.
Why Couples Lose their Love Connection:
What happens in most adult relationships is that one or both partners begin to feel insecure about whether or not they really matter to each other. In this fearful state, they begin to react based on wired-in survival mechanisms.
Just like the child fearful of losing a connection with a caregiver, partners first try to fight for the connection, then protest against their partner’s lack of care or concern, and finally begin to withdraw emotionally.
Over time this corrodes the love in the relationship and replaces it with a fear-based struggle for survival.
Instead of risking vulnerability and sharing their more tender sides, partners now begin to see their partner as withholding, emotionally uninterested, demanding, or critical. The relationship becomes filled with dissatisfaction and the risk of being vulnerable becomes too dangerous.
Partners start doing a dance with each other, where one partner’s insecurities fuels the other partners insecurities in a never-ending cycle:
If you protest by complaining that I don’t care enough to do the dishes, I might withdraw emotionally to protect myself from feeling criticized in the relationship. This then fuels more of your angry protests, which makes me withdraw even more. And round and round we go…
How to Restore Love in Your Relationship:
When couples come to couples therapy, they often don’t know that fears have taken hold of their relationship. They are not aware of the underlying feelings of insecurity and lack of safety that are causing them to disengage or feel dissatisfied with their partner.
Couples therapy can help couples get in touch with their underlying vulnerabilities and longings that they have shut out in order to be strong and protect themselves.
It can help them reestablish safety in the relationship so that needs and feelings can be expressed directly without a fear of being “left hanging” or being “shot down”.
Building a Safe Attachment:
Only when safety is restored can love begin to flourish and grow.
As Sue Johnson, would say, we now know the steps needed to build a safer attachment between partners. And with this knowledge we know the recipe for restoring and maintaining a strong love relationship.
If you would like to read more about beginning the conversations that will lead you from an angry and unsafe attachment to a safe and loving attachment, read Sue Johnson’s book: Hold Me Tight. 7 Conversations for a Life-Time of Love.
You can also visit a therapist with training in attachment focused couples therapy. The most well-researched approach is Emotion Focused Couples Therapy or EFT.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I have received training in some of the most effective methods of couples therapy, including Gottman Method and EFT.