I have been thinking about the time I spend with couples as their therapist. It is compelling to sit in a couple’s therapy session and witness how love can make a lot of us feel completely out of control. I see couples fight furiously and notice how each partner is completely oblivious to the fact that it’s not the money or the child that’s the issue. What they are really fighting about involves three very simple questions, Do you love me? Will you stay with me? How can I be sure that you won’t hurt me? When I witness this in a session I have the wonderful and sometimes energizing opportunity of letting them know that they are fighting for love.
We learn about love very early in life. Every time an infant cries and a caregiver picks them up to soothe them and tell them they are okay the infant begins to understand that they matter, they are safe, and that love is just a cry away. Toddlers learn about love when a caregiver allows them to go and explore the world but is also available to them when they return to check in that all is okay. A securely attached child feels lovable because their environment is safe, predictable, and loving. That said, it does not always work out that smoothly; those of us for whom attachment was lacking, continue to search for that safe, predictable, and loving figure well into adulthood.
On to the three questions:
How can I be sure that you won’t hurt me? (PREDICTABILITY)
In the beginning of a relationship, couples rarely ask this. But after that first time our lover fails to return a call or perhaps forgets to ask us how we are doing, we doubt. This is when the past rears its ugly head. When we are emotionally hurt, our brain helps by showing us all the other times we have been hurt. It does this because it wants to protect us from pain. This is a question about predictability, one of three things needed to securely attach to another. For the relationship to survive from the constant barrage of defenses against getting hurt, each member of the relationship has to be willing to be as predictable as possible. Communicate about your schedule, about how many times a week you want to see each other, about how you want the other to show up for you. This is easier said than done because committing to this means the person asking has to be vulnerable enough to ask and the one receiving the information has to be selfless enough to respond.
Will you stay with me? (SAFETY)
When we securely attach as children we feel safety in that the person taking care of us responds to us when we are in need. In a romantic relationship this is not guaranteed; it is built up through repeated experiences of our lover telling us I am here for you. Once again the key ingredient for the success of experiencing safety is allowing yourself to be vulnerable to your partner. I have a secret wish that every marriage ceremony would include this vow, “I vow from this day forward to be vulnerable to you.” If we could all take a deep breath and dive into the pool of vulnerability with our partners I promise you that most relationships would flourish. However, what often happens when one of the two is asking this question is that they are also pushing or defending the other away by giving them “the list” of how they know they will disappoint them. That said, if your gut is screaming to you not to trust or be vulnerable, listen. Perhaps you are trying to remain in a relationship that is not safe and it is time to walk away.
Do you love me? (LOVING ENVIRONMENT)
This is the trickiest of all three questions. If your relationship with your parents is difficult, complicated, or non-existent you have been asking this question most of your life and the only person that can give you a satisfying answer is your parent. It has been my experience that the only way to heal is to mourn the loss of the love we never received as children. Every time my clients take the journey of grieving the loss/hope of having their parents see and love them, they heal. Painful, but no relationship can survive one or both of the partners asking the other, “am I loveable?” It is cliché, but true: if you cannot love yourself first, it is very difficult to experience the love of another. It gets even more complicated when you take into account how much your past experiences of love influence your present experience. For example, if your parent was highly critical of your way of being, you may be really uncomfortable with someone who praises you often. It may seem strange that this person who loves you is always so “nice” to you and you may walk away. Seems odd, yes, but one more time your brain is to blame. Early on you learned that if someone loves you they are critical. So the sweet high praising lover is creepy or too clingy only because they do not match your familial and historic definition of love.
The answer in this area of the loving part of being securely attached is to begin to dissect in yourself how you define being loved. When you discover the answer, tell your partner. If you share the definition of love and they are willing to work it out with you or even better if you both work on your love definition together, you can heal your broken attachment.
It seems like a lot of work, but it is well worth it. Love is a verb. It takes action, vulnerability and awareness to maintain it.
This post was originally publish in The Good Men Project