Marriage may be on the rise in the US but that doesn’t mean we’re getting any better at relationships. Now research shows that love may be less of a mystery, a frenzy of sex and emotion and instead the result of behavior that we can apply logic to.
As a clinical psychologist and researcher for over 25 years, it’s become clear that two things make or break relationships: the ability to respond emotionally and offer support when it’s needed.
In a study of 168 couples across 14 years of marriage, University of Texas professor Ted Huston found that this element was the very best predictor of relationship quality. Numerous studies, including my own research on how couples successfully repair their love relationships, confirm that the ability to respond to a lover’s emotional signals builds secure and lasting bonds. These studies are part of the revolutionary new science that has, in the last 15 years, outlined the laws and logic of love. This science has progressed to the point where we cannot only help a couple move into satisfaction, but build the kind of secure connection where simply holding a partner’s hand calms your brain and lessens pain, even in the face of the threat of electric shock.
When logic and science show us the way, we can shape and heal romantic bonds. Using an intervention called emotionally focused therapy (EFT), we’ve found that 70 to 73% of couples can completely repair their relationship and 86% can make significant and lasting improvements to their bond. During EFT, we show couples how the habitual way they send out signals to their partner triggers wired-in threat responses, so that neither partner feels safe enough to reach for the other. We then help them identify their emotional needs for belonging and support, and communicate them in a way that pulls their partner close.
A typical couple I see are like Paul and Amy. Paul is a smart, focused man in his mid-forties who has made a fortune with his cutting edge computer company. He walks into my office with his wife, Amy, who has announced that, after 10 years and two kids, she is about to leave him. He tells me, “I can figure anything out, but I just don’t get why she is so angry with me. I do all the tasks and solve the problems around the house. But I never get it right. She is never happy with me. It’s like I have no tools—my head can’t figure this one out.”
I tell him. “You know how to focus and pay attention; you know how to put things together in a way that makes sense. It just a question of changing the program a little.” He smiles. Amy looks at me, doubt all over her face. But four months later, she too is smiling. What has Paul learned?
He learned that love is an exquisitely logical survival code designed to keep special others we can depend on close to us and that his intellectual explanations and emotional distancing were danger cues for his lonely wife. He learned to let his wife know when her criticism hurt rather than exiting into logic and distance. Reading the research of Nancy Eisenberger from UCLA helped him grasp how his brain coded rejection from his wife as a threat to survival, responding in the exact same way as to physical pain, cueing his freeze and flee response.
He discovered how to tune into the emotional channel, share his fears of rejection and explicitly ask for the reassurance he needed, and encourage his wife to do that same. We call this a Hold Me Tight conversation and across nine studies it consistently predicted successful relationship repair.
Paul had the usual reservations about asking for caring. He, like the rest of us had been taught that needing loving connection was somehow a weakness or a sign of immaturity. Research shows that those of us who can effectively turn to others for support are the most confident, resilient to stress, most able to risk, explore and reach career goals and the ones who have the most positive sense of self. The new research on mirror neurons fascinated him and persuaded him that it was important to turn towards and look directly into Amy’s face to trigger these neurons in his brain and allow him to directly feel in his body the emotions he saw in her face. This way he could grasp her emotional reality, read her intentions, and move in harmony with her.
He told Amy that he shut down to deal with his sense of bewilderment about how to respond to her and that he needed her support. “And I get that I have to stay in the emotional channel and let you know I am there for you,” he began. “That is what matters in love. I don’t always have to have the answer or solve the problem. Just really being there and helping each other with our emotions is the solution.”