In my experience working as a marriage and family therapist, most couples enter therapy explaining their problem/s to be a break down in “communication” and/or intimacy in their relationship. These couples begin therapy with a wanting to feel a love and connectedness similar to the day they first met, or the day they married; like on cloud nine. When in the moment what a person needs most are closeness, trust, and security, partners confusingly seek these out through behaviors such as distancing, yelling, anger, criticizing, blaming, or putting up defensive emotional shields against their partner.
Sue Johnson, developer of Emotion Focused Therapy, explains these behaviors as an adaptive protest against the loss of a primary attachment figure (2004). She bases her theory on John Bolwby’s and Mary Ainsworth’s theory of attachment, stating that a healthy course of child development is dependent upon a child’s ability to form a strong relationship with a primary figure in their life, typically a parent. For example, when a parent or caregiver provides consistent support and offers security, a trusting and securely attached relationship develops. Yet, should a parent/caregiver present themselves as aloof, inconsistent, and distant, an anxious or avoidant style of attachment would develop.
The manner in which this attachment is formed greatly impacts the dynamics of one’ romantic relationship as an adult. Problems develop in relationships when “partners organize or process their experience in a constricted manner, limiting awareness and rendering behavior responses inflexible” (Johnson, 2004, p. 46). In cases of romantic adult relationships, weak attachment presents itself as feelings of inadequacy, defensiveness, and a lack of intimacy. Where attachments are disorganized and overwhelming, one may experience issues of codependency, manipulation, and/or blaming.
My job as a marriage and family therapist working with couples is to help couples expand their understanding of current experiences, translate these experiences into emotion, and help guide couples toward modifying their interactional patterns in ways that will bring them closer in love. Also important to this process is helping each partner express what love means personally and guide them towards requesting and sharing love in ways that makes sense to their partner. Although I think most couples would prefer to take a magic pill, it takes effort, desire, and patience to create change in relationships.
Love is a universal phenomenon, yet its definition varies across differing people, genders, ages, and cultures. According to Karandashev (2015), “Culture is the main factor that transforms passionate love into romantic love” (p. 9). Critics of attachment theory argue that this theory doesn’t take into account cultural differences. When working with couples, it is important to recognize how ones’ culture (i.e., individualistic, collectivist, or patriarchal cultures) emphasizes, explains and encourages love. For example, American’s exhibit high levels of emotional investment in relationships, whereas, Eastern collectivist cultures place little value on emotional connection and engagement in relationships. In some instances, verbal expressions of love are reserved only for special occasions, where an everyday occurrence is seen as excessive, or love is shared through working through hardships, keeping promises, or helping one’s family.
In these cases, “Their love is not minimal or invisible, but instead, the love is omnipresent and understood, and there is no need to flaunt it” (Karandashev, 2015, p. 15). Johnson (2004) states, “From the cradle to the grave, humans desire a certain someone who will look out for them, notice and value them, soothe their wounds, reassure them in life’s difficult place, and hold them in dark” (p. 34). What this exactly means is different for each person, and in the end, it doesn’t matter to me what love means to each of these people, just that they can express it and share it in ways that make sense to their partners.