In my practice, I have seen hundreds of couples for marital therapy. So often, one of the findings of a marital therapy evaluation is an absence of a core love that once existed in the relationship. Somehow, this deep love for eachother that was once there has been covered up in the tangled web of lifeís struggles, extended family obligations, children, financial stress, and the vicissitudes of life that collectively interfere with a couplesí access to what was once their deep love for each other.
Inherent in that deep love, at its essence, is a desire for a secure connection with another person. The mutual deep love that was once the hallmark of the relationship when it first began, often grows into each person relying on the other for nurturing and affective sustenance. Researchers have uncovered clear evidence for humans being wired for needing emotional contact and responsiveness, emanating from the earliest years of oneís infancy wherein a baby seeks comfort with its mother. This is the sine qua non of attachment theory and those of us who subscribe to the seminal importance of attachment theory believe that this need for secure attachment never disappears. However, many of the components of our culture have framed such deep needs for attachment as a flaw in our personality makeup. There has been a confounding of what is a healthy intense desire for attachment and love, with a pathological level of neediness. Having an attachment to a trusted and loved person in ones life is a tremendous source of security and safety that is a hallmark of mental health. In its absence, people often suffer with feelings of loneliness and isolation that can lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms and be psychologically damaging and even traumatizing.
I have seen so much separation in so many couples that present for marital counseling, and while each person experiences this separation in their own way, what is common among both parties in so many couples, is a feeling of disconnection. At those times, we struggle to express our wants and needs directly and because of unmet needs for safety and security, and end up expressing our needs for connection and attachment in unhealthy ways. When we most need our partner to reach out to us, it is often exactly the same time that we have the most serious doubts about our partnerís love for us. As a result, we question whether or not we are valued, loved, or desired.
Superficial arguments as well as more deep-seated conflicts can be understood within a framework of becoming more aware of our doubts about the deep love that was once present in the relationship. Expressions of anger, feeling attacked, withdrawing emotionallyÖall of these mechanisms make it harder for each individual to express their longings for a safe and secure attachment, the sine qua non of deep love.
As deep love is felt between two people, an intensely fulfilling, encompassing, and rewarding relationship ensues. But what can also and often does emerge is the fear of the loss of that love. These fears can turn into day to day arguments over power and control, struggles between being emotionally available for each other versus being selfish, acting up and acting out, or verbal attacks and withdrawal. At such times the pain can shut down our hearts and make us less open to expressing our needs in a healthy way. At such times we need to try to embrace complete openness and honest communication about our needs and wants, always with compassion. It is this completely open and honest expression of our heart that is the first step along the path out of unhealthy and destructive patterns of relating.
When embarking on a completely open and honest expression of feelings (as earlier noted always with compassion), the role of awareness emerges with great importance. By becoming aware of yourself and your needs, and allowing your partner to enhance your awareness, you can come to love yourself more fully, and be more fully accepting yourself. This then opens you up to be more completely accepting of your partner. By looking within rather than to your partner for your own happiness, you become increasingly aware that no single person can meet all your needs, avoid unhealthy neediness, and feel intense desire that is void of expectations.
In my work to help couples work through their unhealthy relationship struggles, I often teach them to go far beyond basic communication skills. Through mutual understanding of each personís underlying needs for a safe and secure attachment and deep love, the emotional distance with which each person is suffering can be decreased on route to a more satisfying marital relationship. Hearing the message from an attachment-based prospective, and understanding each of our needs for deep love from our partners, is so often the healthiest way in which to repair even the most damaged marital relationship.
Getting help in maximizing oneís awareness of these needs for a safe and secure attachment and deep love is often the first step in repairing a relationship that is burdened by separation. Accepting your attachment needs and desire for a safe and secure relationship is often then a theme throughout the process of getting a relationship back on track. After that awareness is enhanced, a deep and lasting love for each other can be established by ongoing examination of what oneís own needs are that occur in re-occurring arguments. At a particular time in the treatment process, when I have asked my patients to hug each other for 30 to 60 seconds in my office, I am hoping that each personís longing for feelings of attachment can become palpable. I am also hoping that feelings of deep love can be rekindled, and fears can be mitigated. By prescribing such an extended hug, I try to help a couple to let go of fears of rejection and in so doing, find more of their true selves, more connection to their own healthy, love for themselves, and an ability to deeply love their partner.