‘We are all born for love. It is the principle of existence, and its only end’
– Benjamin Disraeli
In my work as a counsellor, I often come across people who want to meet someone, fall in love and be in a relationship – but find that hard – despite their best efforts.
This can be bewildering and frustrating for them, especially since we live in an age of endless possibility. But as we all know, swipe right doesn’t always equate with meaningful connection – far from it. Sometimes it can can seem like that everyone is focused on a small screen rather than human connection. To complicate matters, societal norms and expectations are less rigid, meaning that even the idea of a relationship isn’t as straightforward as it used to be – for sure, it’s not just about the binary, monogamous, hetero-normative model of 50 years ago – there’s a whole spectrum of options available to us now. No wonder being relationship ready can feel like a Herculean task.
Connection is an essential part of the human condition. In the early 20th Century, the writer E. M Forster explored this in his novel Howards End:
‘Only connect … Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die’.
This wasn’t mainstream thinking though. The prevailing behaviourist school of thought in the early 20th Century – when Forster wrote Howards End – argued that children just needed food and a moral education to survive. This is very much in line with Descartes-ian theory – ‘I think therefore I am’. The modern Western world – of patriarchy, industrialisation and scientific discovery valued cognition and education over emotion.
What people couldn’t understand though was that infants in orphanages – with a bed and a bible – were neither thriving nor surviving – between 30-70% were dying. Psychologists in the 1940s and 50s began to work out that infants needed secure attachment before they will even feed.
When we have secure attachment – we reach out, we socialise and we learn to be creative – all qualities we now associate with being human. The writer and psychologist Siri Hustvedt proposes a radical cri de coeur, ‘Descartes was wrong. It isn’t: I think, therefore I am. It’s: I am because you are.’
Connection doesn’t have to be complicated. But as the 21st Century has proved, sometimes it feels safer to be connected to a phone or hook-up site. So why is this? Why do we push away from connection and find comfort in what is essentially a digital comfort blanket?
Infants instinctively reach out or push away from their primary caregiver, exploring their sense of identity and what makes them feel secure and safe. As infants develop, they react to the emotional, limbic response of their caregivers. Secure attachment is ‘good enough’ – lets not put too much pressure on frazzled parents! But too little attachment and the child will eventually learn not to reach out as it will feel traumatic not to have their needs met. In between there is a whole spectrum of experience.
Without connection, ‘repeated mini-traumas and misattunements build up like grains of sand, causing changes in neurological and physical systems which lead to cognitive, social, emotional and health difficulties later in life.’ (Felitti et al, 1998).
Many of us come into adult relationships with traumas and misattunements and this goes some way to explain why respond the way we do to the possibility of love. But let’s not beat ourselves up about this. Finding compassion for ourselves and others is part of our healing process.
Psychotherapist and author Esther Perel sums this up beautifully:
‘We all come to relationships with an emotional dowry of our fears, anticipations and expectations. We have suffered wounds, we have developed strengths. Consider this with proper calmness, suspending for a moment our judgement and prejudice. By doing this, we can begin to understand the very real challenges we face – and perhaps – if we are lucky, we can begin to navigate them a little better.’ (Esther Perel – Mating in Captivity).
People often ask, ‘why am I so drawn to the person who can’t offer commitment?’ What I hear in this question is a sense of longing, which may mirror unmet needs. Let’s face it, infancy, childhood and teenage years are a developmental minefield one way or another. As adults this can mean that we are on ‘high alert’ for rejection – so in a way, it’s familiar to be attracted to someone who can’t offer commitment. Paradoxically, it’s a human response to want to heal the pain of the past, so unconsciously we are often attracted to people with their own issues around intimacy, in the hope that through relationship we can heal not only them but ourselves too.
The good news is that we always have neuro-plasticity. Our traumas and misattunements do not need to define us. We have the ability to create our own story. We have the ability to love whatever our past trauma.
The book A General Theory of love explains what role therapy can play here:
‘Therapy doesn’t clarify the object of desire so an intoxicated traveler can spend the rest of his life dodging it. Therapy worthy of the names changes what he wants. When he finishes, his heart tends in a healthier direction, the allure of former pathology diminishes, and what was once barely noticeable becomes his new longing.’
And if that all sounds a bit improbable, let’s not forget, therapy is in itself a one-on-one relationship. It’s hope! When we begin this process of deep emotional exploration – we discover more about our self and what makes us tick – and when we do that – we find out what we really deserve. (Here’s the spoiler – it’s love!)