Positive psychology


Love’s Mystery

Valentine’s Day is rapidly approaching and our thoughts quite naturally turn to love—of the one we have or wish we had.

Recorded history reveals attempts to display, if not to conceptualize love as long ago as 2000 B.C. Dr. Shelley Wu, in an article entitled “The psychology of love,” described love poetry and love songs across cultures spanning 1000’s of years. Here is an example.

“But love is such a mystery,
I cannot find it out;
For when I think I’m best resolv’d,
I then am most in doubt.”

Sir John Suckling (1609-1642), I Prithee Send Me Back My Heart.

More than 400 years have passed since the poem above was written, and at least 4000 years since the demonstration and language of love were first documented. It appears that we may now be closer to solving the mystery of love than Sir John.

Love as Attachment

It has only been in recent years that social psychologists have considered love as a topic worthy of research. What they have found reveals some clues that may help bring clarity to love’s mystery.

A number of theories of love are used to define and frame this mystery—the most common one being attachment theory—based on the joint work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 1970’s.

This belief about love focuses on the notion that in an adult romantic relationship we continue the sort of attachment that we developed in infancy with our primary caregiver, usually mom. In other words, we attach to a significant other the same way we formed a bond with mom.

If the notion of lover as “mom” disturbs you, forget the incestuous notions of what you may have learned in beginning Freudian psychology about fixation at a phallic stage of development. What is being described here is an emotional bonding that keeps us close to the loved one. Our pattern of attachment in infancy appears to be a determinant of how we will bond in adult romantic relationships. How then do we “attach”?

Kinds of Attachment

Ainsworth (1978) and others believe that there are three distinct patterns of behavior that we display as we bond to our mother and later our lover. The behaviors are described as attachment styles.

The three styles are 1) Secure (around 50% of lovers fall into this category); 2) Anxious/Ambivalent (about 20%); and 3) Avoidant (an estimated 25% are included here). In “Romantic Love and Attachment Styles,” Dr. Wu described characteristics of each style:

Securely Attached Lovers

“These are the people that find it easy to get close to their lovers and are comfortable depending on them. They are not preoccupied by thoughts of being abandoned. Nor do they often worry about people getting too close to them.”

Securely attached lovers use the love relationship as a safe base from which to operate. The behaviors of the securely attached appear to facilitate long-lasting, constructive and mutually satisfying relationships.

Anxious/Ambivalent Lovers

This style of attachment or loving is characterized by insecurity, fears of abandonment and rejection, and emotional outbursts. Dr. Wu described the anxious/ambivalent lover as often engaged in a love-hate relationship with their partner. These relationships often result in a “high breakup rate despite deep involvement.”

Avoidant Lovers

Avoidant loving is evidenced by distancing. Closeness is anxiety producing. “Avoidant lovers have less invested in the relationship, use work as an escape from intimacy, and withdraw from partner when partner or self is stressed” (Wu). They do not allow themselves to rely on their partners. These lovers care little whether their partners come and go, and make little effort to reach out for intimacy and sharing. Such relationships may continue for years—in isolation and loneliness.

Mystery Solved?

Knowing how we attach is useful information. It is important to our long-term emotional growth and relationships to understand the theory behind love and how it develops. But sometimes one can overanalyze something and not be closer to discovering its mystery. Such may be the case with love.

What is love?

Love is a noun, but also a verb. It is what we DO and what we ARE. It is what we FEEL, and what we EXPRESS. It’s what we GET and what we GIVE AWAY. Surprisingly, we discover that the more love we give away, the more love comes back to us.

Do we really care if love is a noun or verb or any other part of speech? We might just leave that puzzle to the social psychologists. All of us need and can profit physically and emotionally from a daily dose of hugs and affection. Love is a powerful emotion, and I do not mind if it is a mystery. Do you?

Contact Dr. Thompson at caroltmcc@comcast.net