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Live, love longer with the one you’re with

Live, love longer with the one you’re with

LOVE SENSE: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships By Sue Johnson 340 pp. Little, Brown & Company 2013. Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.com.

Sue Johnson’s Love Sense is indeed about romantic love as popularly defined. More specifically the book targets prospects for “happy ever after”. Her continuing professional and research focus is fostering the enduring emotional attachment she believes truly happy couples exhibit. According to Johnson’s clinical experience, despite inevitable conflicts or setbacks, true long range love is no fairy tale. By extension and example, Love Sense is also about the many other forms of strong attachment mainly as the author believes the roots of all human affection are essentially the same. Johnson’s work has real implications for positive psychology.

Not every researcher would agree. According to the well known intimacy scientist, Helen Fisher, different neurological systems are at work in mate-seeking, pair-bonding and child-rearing. In her New York Times review of Love Sense she writes about how her own extensive research supports distinctive brain based systems for sex drive, romantic attachment and parental care, each with its own neurochemical triggers. While Fisher describes these triggers (fairly) as separate “reproductive strategies.” Johnson’s hypothesis is that secure emotional attachment is more than an innate or calculated technique for genetic continuance, but instead represents a more inclusive, enduring long term survival strategy for both the individual and the species as a whole. In support of that position she has assembled many years of clinical evidence.

If Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is as effective as she claims in this book and in her previously well received, Hold Me Tight, which introduced Johnson and her research to a world beyond her University of Ottawa based therapeutic practice, she credits much to the work of British child psychiatrist, John Bowlby. Originally a child psychiatrist under psychoanalytic pioneer Melanie Klein’s supervision, with the important contributions of his associate, Mary Ainsworth who painstakingly collected much of the data, he pioneered the formulation of Attachment Theory.

The gist of Bowlby’s theory and approach is that early childhood experience produces one of three basic strategies for relationship formation. The chosen one of these three options tends to persist throughout life: positive, ambivalent or detached. Positive anticipation tends to lead to open, joyful interaction, ambivalence to anxious, strained experiences with others while detachment produces shallow, fragile connections at best. In a sharp departure from psychoanalytic practice, Bowlby borrowed from the methods of ethology (the study of animal behaviour) and observed the reactions of children interacting with their parents in the context of their home settings. This was a big change from just listening to his young clients reflecting on their emotional lives.

Sue Johnson has helped us see that whatever the triggers or filters, the personal bond and the bonding style matter most over the long haul. Important for all of us (and who isn’t eventually wounded in love) weak or damaged bonds are repairable with deliberative practice. Johnson’s EFT practice offers clinical evidence. Some issues important to individuals and by extension the community are not resolved by Johnson’s emotion focussed system. She would probably agree the powerful emotional cohesion of a community derives at heart from many of its members being in strong pair bonds. Perhaps this is not directly obvious, but it does have something to do with the attachment style of those who belong.

Whatever many social traditions or certain neurochemical releases might favour, life and love are about much more than monogamous commitment. A strong lifelong bonding might serve many couples’ as well as society’s needs but does present problems once freedom of choice, passion or full expression of values come into play. Literature is rich and getting richer in its exploration of such complexities; the continuing strength of romantic themes in every medium attests to their mesmerizing influences. Helen Fisher points this out in her review. For her part, Sue Johnson explains at length that attachment to our children, other family, close friends, buddies and team mates also releases serotonin and oxytocin while building resilience, suppressing stress, increasing longevity, promoting happiness and increasing social capital. She is quick to observe as well that the same positive effects accrue to enduring same sex intimate relationships.

It’s fair to say none of these other positive relationships detract from her bedrock message. In a quickly changing era when many people live alone most of their lives, when diverse workplaces or communities require us to interact with individuals we might not  be inclined to associate with, the absence of the close connections we used to take for granted is not a healthy development. Sue Johnson warns of the potentially disturbing consequences our always on world of technologically mediated connection portends. As a supplement to strong interpersonal connection social media can play a helping role. However, when our lives are filled with emotionally thin electronic chatter, what potentially deep relationships will be stifled in the din? As Johnson notes, it is ironic that the new science of emotional bonding is emerging just when real threats to close relationships are accelerating everywhere.

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