Month: April 2018
I began my psychotherapy career working with victims and survivors of intimate partner abuse. Once I felt more comfortable with the practices of safety planning, educating clients on red flags, and discussing the abusive dynamics of power and control, I started to ask myself deeper questions about the nature of romantic relationships and the patterns that emerge in clients’ lives. More specifically, I wondered why certain individuals would enter into abusive relationships and others would not. I also felt challenged by the complexity of helping clients create healthy relationships when they never had experienced healthy love before. I saw several clients leave toxic relationships only to find new ones that were equally toxic. Many of the clients were just as baffled by their patterns as I was. When I read A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D. and Richard Lannon, M.D., I formed a greater understanding of how it is we come to love whom we love and the ways that can be changed.
A General Theory of Love combines the advances in Neuroscience and Interpersonal Neurobiology with Attachment Theory and cultural influences. The book is beautifully written albeit dense with biological and anatomical discussions. After an in-depth look at the structure of the brain, the authors focus on the limbic system and its role in parent-child attachment relationships. Essentially, our early relationships become maps for future intimate relationships. An infant does not know the difference between healthy love and unhealthy love – love is our emotional experience. As the authors in the book state, “If a parent loves him [child] in the healthiest way, wherein his needs are paramount, mistakes are forgiven, patience is plentiful, and hurts are soothed as best as they can be, then that is how he will relate to himself and others. Anomalous love – one where his needs don’t matter, or where love is suffocating or autonomy intolerable – makes its ineradicable limbic stamp. Healthy loving then becomes incomprehensible.” Additionally, our early experiences of love (or lack thereof) tend to be reinforced later in life due to the attractors that have already been established. We are likely to find ourselves in relationships that resemble those with our caregivers and we are likely to behave in ways that extract the traits we expect to see in intimate relationships. Unfortunately, as the authors argue, insight into these patterns is not enough. We need to have the experience of being regulated well in relationships to learn to choose differently moving forward – this is where therapy comes in.
The role of the therapist in this process of change is to become the relationship the client is trying to create. The therapist then uses “the strong template of healthy relatedness within himself” to offer a new way of experiencing communication, boundaries and emotional regulation. The authors argue, “Psychotherapy changes people because one mammal can restructure the limbic brain of another.” This theory places a tremendous burden on the therapist to be healed and healthy enough to provide a different (enough) experience of relating. As the client internalizes these traits, and new neural connections are made, the client is more likely to recognize love in novel ways. These novel ways may take the form of reciprocity, compassion, respect, safety and trust. And so, for those clients who only recognize love as painful and/or chaotic, a new template can be formed by staying close to those people who exemplify the opposite. These people will not engage in those relationship dynamics and so the familiar dance is interrupted and new steps are practiced.