Some Wisdom for Valentine's Day

When adults enter into a sexual relationship, they engage and develop physical and emotional routines that are similar to a mother and infant: they hug, kiss, rock and hold each other, comfort each other with baby talk, and provide care for each other. An adult “pair bond” forms from these activities (though they are being used for genital sexuality, not for infant protection and survival). Consequently, an adult sexual relationship produces feelings of infantile or childish attachment that happen even if the relationship is abusive or psychologically toxic. Adult sexual pair-bonding is a powerful emotional glue and it comes with universal emotional and psychological dynamics: identification with the partner, the desire to stay close, searching behavior in absence, feelings of vulnerability, and separation anxiety (wanting to know where the other person is and whether that person is committed, for example) when the bond is threatened, and grief if the bond is broken or the partner is lost. Whether or not you want to “feel” these dynamics — whether or not you have an “agreement” to an “open” relationship — you will feel the emotional effects of sexual pair bonding unless you are a sociopathic individual because they are a built-in part of being human.

And yet, attachment bonding does not provide the capacity to become a witness to another’s individuality and to remain interested through the ups and downs of that person’s life or to learn how to develop psychologically and spiritually in order to go on loving that person through conflicts and disruptions while being responsible for oneself. A secure attachment bond does not guarantee becoming and remaining a whole self or awakening to your own interior life. All of these things are required in today’s marriage in order for it to last and remain intimate and exciting. Human biology and reproductive drives do not provide the range of skills and development that personal love requires. When we confuse attachment bonds with love, we misconstrue what is required of two people to sustain a mature intimate relationship. We then mistakenly assume that closeness and ease will be guaranteed if we find the “right” partner and the right chemistry. It makes sense, then, to trade in a partner as soon as she or he does not “feel right” any longer or when you feel that you cannot personally identify yourself with that person. But a secure adult pair bond (a regular and satisfying sexual relationship), or even a secure attachment bond with a loving parent, does not translate into developing the psychological maturity that is needed to love another person as a changing individual. In fact, the mistakes we have already made in assuming that personal love is biological have badly distorted our cultural lens and caused us to ignore the psychological and spiritual demands that personal love places on a couple. Similarly, we may not appreciate the new horizon for growth and development personal love has brought into many of our lives.

Personal love – in order to become true love — requires spiritual and psychological development in both individuals. It also promises a new kind of human being: a person who can live with conflict without destroying a bond or becoming dishonest; a person who understands the importance of constraint and commitment in developing over decades as witnessed and being witnessed by another; someone who cannot ignore inner life because she or he comes to understand how unconsciousness shapes feelings and how we each need to become responsible for our feelings; and someone who learns to live with an equal partner in an atmosphere of harmony because conflicts can be negotiated. All the while, this someone continues to help and need and be interested in the same partner over time. Personal love, as an aspect of twenty-first century culture, may be promoting a new psychological horizon in relating to human difference, as we learn to achieve harmony by recognizing our own less conscious or unconscious motivations.