A quiet revolution has happened over the last 15 years – a revolution that we all need to know about. A revolution that – at last- makes sense of romantic love.
In my lab, we have now, in a landmark study, shown that, when we use the new science of attachment and bonding as a map, we can effectively help couples, not just understand their relationship a little better and become less distressed, (this we have already shown in 15 previous studies) but we can help couples create and repair their precious emotional bonds – their sense of loving connection. We also show that certain pivotal bonding conversations, we call them Hold Me Tight conversations, predict this renewal of loving connection, especially for partners who are anxious about the security of their bond.
But to let you know just how sophisticated the new science of love now is, I want to share with you just one particularly fascinating part of this study published in PLOS ONE – an on-line free access journal. This is the brain scan part of the study conducted with my neuroscientist colleague Dr. Jim Coan.
The study is called “Soothing the Threatened Brain” and is based on the idea that when human beings feel safe and close and loved, contact with their loved one is a natural antidote to the fear and uncertainty we all face in life. Studies on adult attachment tell us that secure bonds have a naturally calming effect on us. Our partners have a huge impact on us – they can help us bring our bodies and our emotions into equilibrium – into balance.
In this study we wanted to demonstrate that if you can help a couple move from distress into a more secure loving bond that their body and brain responses will follow along. We believed that working on a couples emotional bond in a therapy that we call Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT would result, after therapy, in partners being able to use contact with their lover to buffer physical fear and pain. New experiences of loving connection – would lead to new brain responses.
SO Jane and Carl, seek out Emotionally Focused Therapy- EFT. Before their first therapy session, Jane lies in an MRI machine for a brain scan. She is signaled that a shock to her ankles might be coming. Alone in the machine, her brain lights up like the 4th of July sky and if and when the shock comes, she reports that it HURTS. When a stranger holds her hand, the results are the same. When Carl holds Jane’s hand, her brain activity again indicates real alarm and she says the shock is painful. Contact with her husband does not soothe or calm her brain.
After Jane and Carl’s last therapy session and bonding conversations, Jane is again alone for the MRI and her brain lights up when she sees the “X” indicating a shock is coming, and the shock hurts. When a stranger holds her hand, her alarm response and pain are a little lessened. Then, when Carl holds Jane’s hand and she sees the “X,” there is a powerful difference — little brain activity indicating any kind of anxiety or threat can be seen. The loving comfort she now perceives from her husband’s touch persuasively changes how her brain encodes this “threat” and she reports that the shock is only “uncomfortable.”
Now that is INTERESTING – in fact – these kinds of results make us forget that we are academics and stuffy old researchers and remind us that we can do a touch down victory dance with the best of them – But what does this study, especially the brain scan part of it tell us?
First, that when we make sense of love, we can tune into the attachment channel and shape loving feelings in therapy –( yes – you can evoke this mysterious thing called love just by talking in a new way – a deeper more emotional way – with each other). And when we shape this connection, we can change the way our brains respond to threat and pain. Love is a safety cue that literally calms and comforts the neurons in our brain.
Second, these results support all the new research on adult love and bonding – they confirm that secure bonds offer us a safe haven from the perils of life and a respite from anxiety, not just when we are two or three years old but also as adults. The quality of these bonds then have profound implications not just for happiness but for mental and physical health and our ability to face life and its uncertainties with poise and grace. This is just the beginning of the new science of relationships – is there anything more important for us to understand and shape –we all fear facing life alone and we all long for loving connection – a hand to hold that changes our world to a safer place and soothes our brain.