To shape love, we have to be open and responsive, emotionally as well as physically. We can see what love encompasses in studies of the fluffy little titi monkey conducted by Bill Mason and Sally Mendoza of the University of California. Females nurse their babies but don’t offer any other maternal responses. They do not groom or touch their infants. The true nurturer is the male, who assumes 80 percent of the infant care. It’s the male who holds and carries the baby, who is emotionally engaged and is the safe haven. Baby titis don’t seem to mind at all when the mother is removed from the family for a while, but when the father is taken away, the infants’ levels of stress hormone cortisol soar.
In my office, more emotionally distant partners sometimes tell me, “I do all kinds of things to show I care. I mow the lawn, bring in a good salary, solve problems, and I don’t play around. Why is that, in the end, these things don’t seem to matter, and all that counts with my wife is that we don’t ‘talk about emotional stuff and cuddle’?” I tell them, “Because that’s just the way we are made. We need someone to pay real attention, to hold us tight, to come very close sometimes and respond to us in an emotional way that moves us, connects with us. Nothing compares with that. You need that, too. Have you forgotten?” Connection is sweet, holding is deeply calming and satisfying, whether we are receiving or giving. Most of us love to hold a baby. It feels so good, just as it feels good to hold our lover.
But is attachment and bonding the whole ball of wax? Adult love also involves sexuality and caretaking. Attachment is the bottom line, the scaffold and caretaking. Attachment is the bottom line, the scaffold on which these other elements are built. The interconnections are obvious. Sexuality is best when there is safe connection. The risk that is essential to eroticism does not come from constant superficial novelty, but from the ability to stay open to your partner in the moment.
Caretaking and pragmatic support come naturally when we feel close and connected. “When you love, you wish to do things for,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. “You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.” We know from research that secure partners are more sensitive to each other’s needs for care.
Rose and Bill, a grad-school couple, fought about everything, but especially emotional connection and pragmatic supportiveness. Even at the conclusion of therapy, after they’ve made considerable progress, they get into a fight about the fact that he doesn’t keep the pediatrician’s number on his cell phone although she had asked him to do just that. When the baby gets ill, she can’t use his phone to call the doctor. They finally find a way to step out of the argument. “When I can’t find that number, I get scared,” Rose says to Bill. “I need you to listen when I ask for stuff like that.” Bill now offers support. “I hear you,” he says. “It’s like you are saying to me, ‘Do you have my back?’ You need to depend on me here. And you are a great mother to our kids. I have put the number on my phone and ordered you your own cell phone so this won’t happen again. Maybe there are other ways I can support you here?” In a later session, Rosie tells Bill that she no longer resents taking care of the kids in the evenings when he needs to study. Now that she feels closer to him, she actually enjoys bringing him coffee and listening to how he is doing with his courses. Being able to create a more secure bond frees up our attention so that we can tune in to and actively support our loved one.
In a romantic relationship, secure attachment, sexuality, and supportiveness all come together. Partners create a positive loop of closeness, responsiveness, caring, and desire. In his first counseling session, Charlie solemnly announced that he had hired a divorce lawyer. Now, a few months later, he tells me as his wife, Sharon nods happily in agreement, “We are a lot closer. I don’t think we have ever been this close. Somehow I just don’t get so uptight and jealous anymore. I trust her. I can tell her when I need her help to set my mind at ease, and she can turn to me, too. We feel closer in bed. Sex is so much easier. I think we both feel desired and that we can ask for what we want. When we feel close like this, I like taking care of her. I like helping when her back hurts. I went and found her a little heating pad. And she is helping me to stop smoking. This is like a whole new relationship here.”
But making love work is also accepting that, even when it’s good, it is always a work in progress. Just when you get it right, one of you changes! Ursula Le Guin, the novelist, reminds us that love “does not sit there like a stone. It has to be made like a bread, remade all the time, made new.” The intention behind EFT is to offer couples a way to do just that.
Twenty years of research tells us that we have helped many different kinds of couples “make” their love, newlyweds and long married folks, gays and straights, the basically happy and the seriously distressed, traditional and unconventional, highly educated and blue-collar, reticent and effusive. We have found that EFT not only helps heal relationships, it creates relationships that heal. Partners who are depressed and anxious benefit enormously from the experience of supportive connection that a more loving relationship offers.
If I had to summarize the lessons I’ve learned from all these couples, they would look like this:
- Our needs for others to come close when we call- to offer us safe haven- is absolute.
- Emotional starvation is a reality. Feeling emotionally deserted, rejected, or abandoned sparks physical and emotional pain and panic.
- There are very few ways to cope with our pain when our primary needs for connection are not met.
- Emotional balance, calm, and vibrant joy are the rewards of love. Sentimental infatuation is the booby prize.
- There is no perfect performance in love or sex. Obsession with performance is a dead end. It is emotional presence that matters.
- In relationships there is no simple cause and effect, no straight lines, only circles that partners create together. We pull each other into loops and spirals of connection and disconnection.
- Emotion tells us exactly what we need, if we can listen to it and use it as a guide.
- We all hit the panic button at times. We lose our balance and slip into anxious controlling, or numbing and avoiding modes. The secret is to not stay in these positions. It’s too hard for your lover to meet you there.
- Key moments of bonding, when one person reaches for another and the other responds, take courage but they are magical and transforming.
- Forgiving injuries is essential and only happens when partners can make sense of their own hurt and know that their lover connects and feels that hurt with them.
- Lasting passion is entirely possible in love. The erratic heat of infatuation is just the prelude; an attuned loving bond is the symphony.
- Neglect will kill love. Love needs attention. Knowing your attachment needs and responding to those of your lover can make a bond last until “death us do part.”
- All the clichés about love- when people feel loved they are freer, more alive, and more powerful- are truer than we ever imagined.
Knowing all this, I still have to relearn these lessons every time I lose connection with a loved one. I still have to face that nanosecond of choice: to blame, to try and grab control, to dismiss, to get revenge, to shut down and shut out, or to breathe deep and tune in to my own and my loved one’s emotions, to risk, to reach, to confide, to hold.
(Excerpt from Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love)