A willingness to be vulnerable is a significant feature of lasting relationships — ones in which partners are allies, not foes.
The need to form a mutually protective alliance is innate, according to psychoanalyst John Bowlby. This need persists throughout life; the search to be both cared for and caregiver underlies falling in love.
Long-lasting couples manage to keep this vulnerability alive. Each person’s awareness of the importance of partnership underlies his or her attentiveness to the other. This “protective love” focuses on the partnership and the ability to put the other first. As parents, they instinctively soothe their children’s tears, and in the same way, they are responsive to each other.
Such deep caring comes easily at a relationship’s beginning. Lust and novelty keep us attentively glued to each other when we fall in love. It’s in the next phase, when routines and irritations set in, that protective love is tested. Deep connectedness — feeling our partner’s triumphs and setbacks as our own — is a hallmark of the early stages of love. We are careful with our words and behavior and take care not to wound the other.
Remaining this attuned to a partner takes energy and commitment. Barriers may still stand in the way, though:
- Busyness. Our busy lives mean we have to make an effort to take the time to talk and catch up. Such moments are essential for keeping empathetically tuned in to one’s partner. You need to motivate yourself to go out together, just the two of you, to focus on each other after a long day at work. This is the choice that long-lasting couples make. In a successful partnership, “I” develops into “we,”, and “independence” into “interdependence.”
- Fear of dependence on another. Growing up means becoming strong and standing on our own two feet, which implies independence. We can be reluctant to admit we miss our partner when they’re not there. But obeying a rigid script of independent adulthood doesn’t allow a close relationship to grow. We can take note of our need for our partner, our disappointment and loneliness when they are away, and give ourselves permission to miss them.
Prolonged stress tests protective love. Taking the long view — using memories of past happiness as insurance for the future — can help. Recalling our original commitment and promises to each other can help love endure the inevitable rough patches.
When John Bowlby’s attachment theory was extended to adult romantic relationships, psychologists found that partners in relationships classed as “secure” tend to show low anxiety and avoidance. In other words, they are relaxed about opening up to each other. Research suggests these partnerships allow people to cope better with stress, including the stress of having a child.
Securely attached people tend to have positive views of their relationships, often reporting a great deal of satisfaction in their relationships. They feel comfortable both with intimacy and with independence, seeking to balance the two. When they do feel anxious, they try to reduce their anxiety by seeking physical or psychological closeness to their partner. During difficult situations they seek support, comfort, and assistance from their partner. A secure partner then responds positively, reaffirming a sense of normality and reducing anxiety. This expression of love puts into practice the key elements of a secure partnership: consistency, attunement to the other, and availability when needed.
Thinking about the concept of attachment in your relationship can add new meaning and help you develop a deeper, lasting bond. We all need someone we can rely on in order to maintain a sense of wellbeing. Knowing your partner is encouraging and rooting for you frees you to concentrate elsewhere. Secure and supported, you are able to produce, enjoy and be open to new experiences.
Bowlby, John. Attachment. 1983: Basic Books.
Hazan C. and Shaver P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 52, pp. 511-24.
Mikulincer M. and Florian V. (1995). Appraisal of and Coping with a Real-Life Stressful Situation: The Contribution of Attachment Styles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 21, pp. 406-14.
Simpson J.A., Rholes W.S., and Nelligan J.S. (1992). Support seeking and support giving within couples in an anxiety provoking situation: The role of attachment styles. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 62, pp. 434-46.
Sable, Pat. Attachment and Adult Psychotherapy. 2001: Jason Aronson.