When we feel generally secure, that is, we are comfortable with closeness and confident about depending on loved ones, we are better at seeking support – and better at giving it. In a study by psychologist Jeff Simpson of the University of Minnesota, each of eighty-three dating couples filled out questionnaires about their relationship and then sat in a room. The female partner had been warned she would soon be participating in an activity that made most people very anxious (the activity wasn’t spelled out). The women who described themselves as feeling secure in love relationships on the questionnaires were able to share their unhappiness about the upcoming task openly and ask for support from their partners. Women who generally denied their attachment needs and avoided closeness withdrew more at these moments. Men responded to their partners in two ways: when they described themselves as secure with relationships, they became even more supportive than usual, touching and smiling at their partners and offering comfort; if they described themselves as uncomfortable with attachment needs, they became markedly less sympathetic when their partners expressed their needs, downplaying their partners’ distress, showing less warmth and touching less.
When we feel safely linked to our partners, we more easily roll with the hurts they inevitably inflict, and we are less likely to be aggressively hostile when we get mad at them. Mario Mikulincer of Bar-Ilan University in Israel conducted a series of studies asking participants questions about how connected they felt in relationships and how they dealt with anger when conflicts arose. Their rates were monitored as they responded to scenarios of couples in conflict. Those who felt close to and could depend on partners reported feeling less angry with and attributing less malicious intent to their partners. They described themselves as expressing anger in a more controlled way, and expressed more positive goals, such as solving the problems and reconnecting with their partners.
"WHEN WE FEEL SAFELY LINKED TO OUR PARTNERS, WE MORE EASILY ROLL WITH THE HURTS THEY INEVITABLY INFLICT, AND WE ARE LESS LIKELY TO BE AGGRESSIVELY HOSTILE WHEN WE GET MAD AT THEM."
Secure connection to a loved one is empowering. In a group of studies Mikulincer showed that when we feel safely connected to others we understand ourselves better and like ourselves more. When given a list of adjectives to describe themselves, the more secure folks picked out positive traits. And when asked about their weak points, they readily said they fell short of their own ideals but still felt good about themselves.
He also found, as Bowlby predicted, that securely bonded adults were more curious and more open to new information. They were comfortable with ambiguity, saying they liked questions that could be answered in many different ways.
The more we can reach out to our partners, the more separate and independent we can be. Although this flies in the face of our culture’s creed of self-sufficiency, psychologist Brooke Feeney of Carnegie Mellon University found exactly that in observations of 280 couples. Those who felt that their needs were accepted by their partners were more confident about solving problems on their own and were more likely to successfully achieve their own goals.
The good news is that positive loving connections with others protect us from stress and help us cope better with life’s challenges and traumas. Simply holding the hand of a loving partner can affect us, literally calming jittery neurons in the brain. Psychologist Jim Coan told women patients having an MRI brain scan that when a little red light on the machine came on, they might receive a small electrical shock on their feet – or they might not. This information lit up the stress centers in patients’ brains. But when partners held their hands, the patients registered less stress. When they were shocked, they experienced less pain. This effect was noticeably stronger in the happiest relationships, the ones where partners scored high on measures of satisfaction and that the researchers called Supercouples.
CONTACT WITH A LOVING PARTNER LITERALLY ACTS AS A BUFFER AGAINST SHOCK, STRESS AND PAIN.
When we are close to, hold, or make love with our partners, we are flooded with the “cuddle hormones” oxytocin and vasopressin. These hormones seem to turn on “reward” centers in the brain, flooding us with calm and happiness chemicals like dopamine, and turning off stress hormones like cortisol.
Love is not the icing on the cake of life. Love is not something that just happens to you. The studies have shown us that it is a basic primary need, like oxygen or water. It is a verb. An action. Here is a definition of love: It is the feeling we get when we actively practice connection. We must focus on engaging in the daily tools and practices that lead us towards connection and attachment. Once you understand and accept this, you can start to participate in the daily practice of love, and create the relationship of your dreams.