We humans need safe, loving relationships where we receive support, a deep sense of security and emotional nourishment. The research on attachment and bonding tells us that we feel braver, happier, more confident, and our immune systems are stronger, as a result of secure interdependent connections.
Hardwired into our brain throughout our evolution is the need for warmth, affection, and emotional responsiveness. In a word: LOVE. This loving between humans is an enormous key to our survival. We respond to abandonment and isolation as danger. In practical terms this translates into some very basic questions that we, in the western world especially, carry deep inside: “Are you there for me”, “Do I matter to you?” “Do you know how much I love and need you?” “Will you be able to respond to me?”
When the answers to these questions are mostly “I am here; I love you” or “We are in this together” or “I want to hear your needs, and will be here with you”, we respond with a sense of emotional safety. We feel as if we “belong”, we are connected. Our flight and fight response relaxes, and we open our hearts. When we consistently receive a negative or threatening response to our vulnerable questions, we shut down and feel endangered.
Danger and safety are primitive mammalian responses. They are not logical and they are not optional. We can, however, understand them logically and learn to behave in ways that engender more safety and connection in our relationships.
The research on attachment between mothers and infants has a correlation with how lovers behave. When we love someone, and are loved in return, we emotionally tune into one another. When this attunement is satisfying, we help regulate each others’ emotional and physiological lives. We help each other balance, and this supports each of us to function happily and confidently in the world.
When we are insecurely bonded, and cannot get a loved one to respond to us, we are hard wired to automatically complain. We begin by hopefully (but probably not skillfully) airing our frustrations. If we don’t receive an emotionally connecting response we become angry, then desperate and eventually coercive. If that doesn’t work, we shut down, get depressed and despairing. Our evolutionary need for love evokes an auto response to disconnection: We withdraw or attack. This is how powerful and survival-based, the need for secure attachment is.
Sadly, our innate abilities to reach out, comfort, care, and nurture are always there, hard wired as well. But so often these are denied or subsumed, in the face of the sheer panic (and it IS panic) that arises if we feel abandoned, un-met, or mis-attuned to.
In our work with couples, we understand that the deepest need is to feel safe. Safety evokes the experience of open-heartedness. When our hearts are open we trust one another, and can more easily share our core fears and needs, instead of arguing about the kids, the money, the vacation, and the household jobs. Once our conversation goes to this deep level, we begin to feel the energy of love, the warmth of wanting to be there for each other. This evokes the desire to meet one another’s needs… not because someone is demanding, but because our hearts are moved with empathy and compassion. Then our loving is translated into specific action.
As partners begin to connect and experience that they are there for one another an interesting phenomenon occurs: Lovers are flooded with the cuddle hormone, Oxytocin. Oxytocin is released during orgasm, breast-feeding, hugging, or a mere loving gaze. It is also linked to the release of dopamine, the natural brain chemical linked to pleasure and de-stressing.
This is the neurochemical basis of love, bonding, and secure connection. Our need for the calm, blissful feeling of love is even more important than food. It is imperative to our very survival and success as human beings.
The time and attention you give your love relationships could literally, save your life.
Gratitude to Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, as well as all the great thinkers, therapists, psychiatrists and researchers who went before: Bowlby, Ainsworth, Main, Fonagy, Schore…