Post-Valentine’s Day Reflections on Love and Relationships
By Annabelle Mebane, MA, AMFT
Valentine’s day – the holiday dedicated to celebrating love – is behind us until next year. But tending to one’s relationship is not just a one day a year event. So in the spirit of nurturing love all year long, this month on the blog we are discussing research from a few of the foremost relationship experts in the field: Dr. Sue Johnson and Drs. Julie and John Gottman.
What Dr. Johnson and the Gottmans each observed in their initial work as couple therapists was that the tools they were given to help couples with conflict resolution, communication and problem solving seemed useful, but these tools alone didn’t seem to help couples relate to one another more effectively. The therapists found themselves stuck and wanting to understand why.
Dr. Johnson turned to attachment theory to better understand couples.
Attachment theory, developed by Dr. John Bowlby and Dr. Mary Ainsworth, suggests that as infants and young children, one of our most fundamental needs is to rely on a loving, safe, secure, reliable connection with a responsive other (typically a parent). Dr. Ainsworth and Dr. Bowlby found that children who were securely attached (able to rely on that connection) were more resilient, more adept at self-soothing and regulating their emotions, and more open to exploring their world while relying on their parent to be a source of comfort and support.
According to Dr. Johnson (2008), attachment theory makes clear that love is not just a warm fuzzy feeling, but “the most compelling survival mechanism of the human species” (p. 15).
Contrary to securely attached children, children who were insecurely attached exhibited trouble regulating their emotions, and displayed anxiety, anger, aggression, and were more emotionally distant from their caregivers. In other words, they showed signs of distress at the lack of reliable connection with their caregiver, and engaged in behavior designed to alleviate their distress and reengage their parent.
Dr. Johnson posited that our basic need for secure attachment didn’t stop with childhood,
but that all through adulthood we maintain that same need for safe, reliable connection with a responsive other. However, in adulthood we typically look to our romantic partner to fill this role rather than a parent. It was out of this theory that Dr. Johnson developed Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), a gold standard empirically supported couples therapy approach.
EFT suggests that because love and attachment are so core to our survival, when we feel emotionally disconnected from our partner, we experience a “primal panic” that causes us to enter fight/flight mode.
Most conflicts between couples, according to EFT, are protests over emotional disconnection. The two characteristic responses to the panic of disconnection to demand, cling, and pursue or to withdraw, detach, and distance. Couples can get stuck when they find themselves in a vicious cycle where one partner demands and the other withdraws, each of them experiencing the pain of emotional disconnection, but stuck in a pattern that only reinforces and increases the disconnection.
To interrupt this cycle, couples must learn to attune to the emotions underneath it.
Emotionally focused therapy helps couples to first identify their cycle of disconnection and to treat the cycle as the problem rather than each other, and then to learn more effective ways to express their emotions and needs underneath their protest attempts. It helps facilitate an understanding of how to be more emotionally responsive to each other and to nurture that vital attachment bond. It involves learning to be accessible, responsive, and engaged with one another, and understanding each other’s longings, fears, pain, and needs. It transforms life’s trials and tribulations from roadblocks into opportunities to attune to one another and strengthen the loving bond between one another.
Meanwhile, the Gottmans' research focused on what went wrong in marriages that failed, as well as what went right in the ones that thrived.
Though the Gottman’s research is not focused through the lens of attachment theory, in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman (1999) states, “the basis of my approach, which forms the first three principles, is to strengthen the friendship and trust that are at the heart of any marriage” (p. 51).
His rationale is not quite the same as Dr. Johnson’s, but after encountering Dr. Johnson’s work, the themes of attachment stick out in these principles. Dr. Gottman’s first three principles are:
knowing one’s partner inside and out, including each others’ quirks, likes, dislikes, passions, stressors, and emotions,
expressing fondness and admiration for one another, and
turning toward each other instead of away and attuning to and connecting with one another.
In essence, it is crucial to show your partner that you see them, know them, and pay attention to them, that you cherish them for who they are, and that they can count on you to be there for them and to respond rather than ignore or turn away from them.
These are the building blocks of secure attachment. They are answers to the questions that Dr. Johnson suggests are underneath couples’ conflicts: “Can I count on you, depend on you? Are you there for me? Will you respond to me when I need, when I call? Do I matter to you? Am I valued and accepted by you?” (p. 30).
Valentine’s Day is one day a year where we focus on traditions and gestures that express our love, but it’s finding ways to affirm these questions regularly that profoundly strengthens our relationships.
Both Hold Me Tight and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work offer powerful tools to tend to your relationship and to your bond as a couple. However, if you find yourselves stuck and in need of the support of a therapist in your journey together, Emotionally Focused Therapy can help.
If you or someone you love might benefit from couples therapy or therapy for codependency, anxiety, low-self esteem, trauma or depression, please contact Jodi Staszak, LMFT. Jodi offers Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP) for individuals, and Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, in addition to Overcoming Codependency groups for individuals struggling with codependence. Jodi can be reached at 619-818-0375 or JodiS.MFT@gmail.com.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practice
guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. Three Rivers Press.
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. Hachette Book