I started thinking about this topic back in 2006. after a brief and intense love affair that ended in a breakup. The result of this process was the collection and reading of professional literature. When my future wife first entered my apartment, she came across scattered books and magazines with titles that spoke of love. She had been trained in couples therapy, so the topic was familiar to her. She later told me that she was pleasantly surprised because I was the only man in her life who was interested in this area. This interest led to many lectures, that were well received and appreciated. Colleagues from work jokingly called me Dr. Love. Reading of professional literature and many years of working with patients have convinced me of the importance of love in our lives. For many, although they came for treatment because of symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia, etc., problems in intimate relationships lurked in the background. I am not talking about sex, because as we know, no one died from lack of sex, but from lack of love. Further research introduced me to John Bowlby and his theory of attachment, which I will briefly describe before returning to the topic of love.
Did you know that emotional attachment (intimacy) is an instinct (drive) that is crucial for survival? The human baby / child is the most powerless being in the first 7 years of life, and if it does not have a high-quality emotional connection with the parent (mother or surrogate), regardless of the physical conditions (food, warmth, care), the child is unlikely to survive or at best will have serious developmental problems. This innate need is based on specific brain cells that are active only for this purpose (the so-called “mirror neurons”) and, with the help of the hormone oxytocin, strengthen the bond between the child and the mother. The experience with mother is deeply and subconsciously remembered and is a model for all other close relationships in childhood and adulthood. In this sense, Freud was right to emphasize the importance of the first five years of life.
If a child’s emotional attachment is positive (secure), it leads to the ability to regulate stress, satisfaction in relationships with others, self-esteem, and mental health. Mental health depends on the system of integration, regulation, and balance of the so-called social brain in processing negative emotions such as anger and anxiety. These systems are optimally integrated, balanced, and regulated in the first 2-3 years of life based on a secure emotional attachment to the mother, so that from the age of 5 the child is able to self-soothe, because the “good mother” has become part of his internal landscape.
On the contrary, if this attachment is negative, the child cannot “count” on the mother to be available and able to calm him, understand and establish the feeling that he is loved. This insecure attachment takes several forms: an avoidant, anxious, and chaotic style. All styles are a risk factor for mental disorders and unsatisfactory relationships.
Traces of the first intimate relationship from childhood are evident in romantic love. The two stages that we all go through when we love are the phase of falling in love and the phase of devoted love. During falling in love, we are somehow lost to realistic judgment. Then we are in a state of intense longing for a loved one, and everything else does not matter, regardless of life circumstances and needs. We act irrationally and unpredictably. This condition, fortunately, is usually short-lived. Some even compare it to addiction, because of activation of the brain center and chemical (dopamine) as in people with cocaine addiction, which is manifested in bliss in the presence of a loved one.
When this stage is successfully completed, and we enter the phase of devoted love, we not only want to be in close contact with the person we love, but also perceive this person as a best friend, whom we look for support and safety. We completely relax and turn to other interests and desires. If we had a positive attachment to our mother as children, devoted love is characterized by longevity and stability, confidence and friendship, support when we are stressed, flexibility in response to conflict, and mutual respect.
If the attachment to the mother was insecure, and depending on the dominant style, the problems at this stage of love are numerous. For example, in the avoidant style, there is a disinterest in intimacy, frequent breakups and divorces, withdrawal under stress, lack of resolution of conflicts, unwillingness in meeting the needs of the partner, even a tendency for harassment. This over-reliance on independence and the apparent devaluation of intimacy, deepens the feeling of loneliness.
The anxious style is dominated by jealousy, frequent separations and reconciliations, concern about rejection, a tendency to control, and self-obsession. There is a dependence on a partner to soothe the fear of loss and the need for attachment. These characteristics are not conducive to a long-lasting relationship, leading to even greater feelings of loss and anxiety.
In the chaotic style, problems are often extreme with a tendency to self-harm, the development of physical ailments, fluctuations between attachment and distancing from the partner, the manifestation of strong negative feelings of anger, anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior. None of the strategies succeed in eliminating problems with traumatic fear, born under the influence of a frightened or frightening parent.
How can we help people with the love related suffering and accumulated problems described above? It is not easy, but it is not impossible. First, there must be a desire and insight in the attachment related difficulties. In addition, therapy is needed (formal or informal), which will correct the past and create a new template for a healthy relationship. As I said at the beginning, the desire to have a secure emotional attachment is inborn drive that exists in all of us throughout our lives. During therapy, we work on developing empathy, understanding, adaptive strategies for regulating emotions, developing flexibility in dealing with conflict, coping with traumatic events and losses, and most importantly, using ordinary situations (problems) and breaks in therapy to develop adaptive ways in overcoming attachment related distress. Therapy can be individual or together with a partner who is motivated for this kind of demanding therapy. In essence, for successful therapy of this kind, the most important is sensitivity for verbal and nonverbal communication and cooperation between the patient and the therapist.
I hope that through this blog, I was able to expand your interest in love in a different way, as an area that requires serious study, rather than how it is portrayed in heartbreaking movies and romantic novels. If you have encountered some of the issues identified here, or you disagree with the way I have explained them, and even if you 100% agree, it would be helpful for all the readers, including me, to comment and give your opinion on the matter.