Emotional Connection: The Essential Ingredient for Lasting Love
The Essential Ingredient for Lasting Love:
What is the one thing that will surely make or break a relationship? Is it arguments about finances, a lousy sex life or poor communication? Too few date nights or not understanding each other’s love languages? Is it too much work pressure or struggles raising kids? What do you think is the essential ingredient for lasting love?
All of those listed above, and more, may play a part in relationship success and satisfaction. But none of them is the essential ingredient that pulls a relationship together and keeps it secure.
You may argue that communication is the essential ingredient to great relationships. OK you are partially right. And many of the couples who come into my therapy practice blame their relationship distress on not knowing how to communicate with one another.
Therapists have been teaching communication skills for decades with so-so results and generally temporary outcomes. You may have learned the active listening game. (You say it and I will repeat it back in a non-judgmental way so that you know that I hear you. Then I will tell you what I think.) This is certainly a quantum leap ahead of bashing and brawling arguments that couples get into when amped up. This kind of tidy, polite, somewhat logical communication will not provide the glue that makes relationships stick.
There is now a big buzz that is humming around the therapeutic and neuroscience world. It is a revolution of sorts that challenges, from the inside out, the Descartes’s maxim “I think therefore I am”. Scientists and therapists are proving that it is emotional, not cognitive communication that is most important for brain growth and development. Most of this development happens in the first two years of life. (See Allan Schore, The Neurobiology of Secure Attachment https://youtu.be/WVuJ5KhpL34)
It is the emotional mirroring between child and primary caregiver that forms the foundation of a safe and secure relationship. Watch the Still Face Experiment for a great example of how healthy parents connect with their children to form secure bonds. https://youtu.be/apzXGEbZht0
This research validates the original findings of John Bowlby back in the 1940s, who suggested that all human beings have a need for emotional connection, from cradle to grave, with at least one significant person. He maintained that secure attachment is the foundation on which the emotional life is built and is the basis for lifelong happiness and health.
Bowlby wasn’t very popular for making this claim at the time when Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner were in their hay-day. Psychiatrists and psychologists in that time did not understand the importance of emotional communication for making relationships work or for making us healthy in general. Freud had patients spend hours on the couch analyzing dreams and unconscious fantasies in an attempt to get at repressed needs and desires. Skinner thought that if you simply modified the behavior through positive reinforcement you changed the person. While both Skinner and Freud had their place, neither had their finger on the essential ingredient that creates lasting love.
Emotional Connection and Adult Love: What’s the big deal?
So what does emotional connection have to do with adult love? According to Allan Schore and other neuroscientists and attachment experts it is the emotional communication in infancy that lays down the neurology for secure emotional communication and connection in adult love relationships.
You may be thinking that you still do not understand why emotional communication is so important through out the lifespan? It’s actually pretty logical when you think about it. Infants will die without the care of an adult. Right? They need to be fed and held to thrive. This is true for humans and primates. Check out the video of Harry Harlow’s original research with monkeys. https://youtu.be/_O60TYAIgC4. The only way that infants can communicate their need to be held, interacted with and fed, is through their emotions. Again the Still Face Experiment above is a great example of this kind of communication.
It’s in the wiring:
In adult life our emotions alert us when we are in danger and when we want love and comfort. In both cases, the person we first turn to for a response to our emotions is the person we love the most. We are biologically wired to need an emotional signal (response) sent from our primary love relationship to reassure us that they care about what we are feeling. It’s this signal which creates a feeling of safety and being cared about in our emotional memory. This is the essential ingredient that makes relationships last.
If we do not feel that our partner cares about how we feel, we will disconnect and eventually create distance in the relationship. We will become low hanging fruit for the first person who meets our wired in need for emotional connection.
This point is really important! No matter how COMMITTED we are to our primary love relationship, we will have a difficult or even impossible time resisting the loving emotional responsiveness of another person when we are not getting our emotional needs met in our primary love relationship. We are biologically wired to respond to emotional responsiveness.
And Along Comes the Affair:
This is how affairs happen. They are rarely a result of what one client years ago called “sport f___ing.” Most often affairs are an unconscious opening up to another person due to unmet attachment needs. But here’s the truth. Even the person that thinks they are having sex only for fun will nearly always struggle with insecure attachment. In our book Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love, I use the term dating for dopamine to describe people who use the rush of a new-love sexual experience to cover up the deep ache for emotionally loving validation. I expand on this and suggest that using another person to momentarily feel better is an addictive process. Others have suggested that all addictions are a way of covering up the deepest human need for emotional connection.
In a healthy adult love relationship we are available, responsive and engaged (see Sue Johnson’s Hold Me Tight) in a way that allows emotional connection to grow lasting love. Knowing that we have one special person that is there for us through thick and thin, no matter how we feel, is what makes our commitment last. We simply do not believe that our partner truly loves us or is committed to us unless we see him or her emotionally respond to us when we need them the most.
Committed to Connection: The Essential Ingredient for Lasting Love
My wife Paula and I have lived through relationship ups and downs. We’ve both struggled to find emotionally connected relationships. In our previous marriages neither of us knew how our own insecurities from childhood affected our ability to be secure partners in adulthood. Everyone likes to believe that the other person is the problem. After my divorce from a 25-year marriage I began to devour the science of lasting love. It was in attachment science that Paula and I discovered why our previous relationships were not secure from their start. A false sense of security exists when couples are more committed to commitment than they are to staying emotionally connected in a marriage. This is a recipe for disaster.
Our commitment to connection formed the foundation that we have been building on for the last years. As a certified Emotionally Focused Therapist I have helped hundreds of couples learn how to heal and grow their relationships with emotional connection.
I have found that even when couples are doing Emotionally Focused Therapy they do not understand how the need for emotional connection plays itself out from cradle to grave. Paula and I talked about this problem. And we decided to take on what would be a three-year writing project to meet this need. Our book, Emotional Connection: The Story and Science of Preventing Conflict and Creating Lifetime Love, is designed to help couples understand the big picture of why emotional connection is the essential ingredient for lasting love.
How it’s different
In Emotional Connection Paula writes a story about Ben and Claire. They represent the majority of couples who come in for therapy. This is a successful committed couple in crisis due to Ben’s emotional affair. The book starts with the present crisis and then takes readers into the childhood, adolescence and young adult lives of the couple. It shows how a lack of secure emotional attachment has played itself out and contributed to their present conflict.
With every phase of the story that Paula writes, I write therapy and science sections. I explain to the reader the science and therapeutic process that are used to heal the relationship and create lasting love. Early feedback on the book has been great. It is an engaging read and a great way to understand why emotional connection is indeed the essential ingredient for lasting love.
I’m Dr. Michael Regier. I’m a Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist and EFT Supervisor in Visalia and San Luis Obispo, California. I work with individuals and couples to repair broken bonds and find emotional connection. My wife Paula and I are co-authors of the book Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love.