Love can hurt. Badly. And when it does, it looks like a disease.
It can show up as an intense physical as well as emotional distress, a knife stuck in between belly and heart, which affects sleep, appetite and the meaning of life. It is no accident that just the wound made by Cupid’s arrow is among all pains of the soul the most chanted by poets, novelists, musicians and artists of all times. And there is no age or long-term relationship, which can protect us from the risk of feeling this kind of suffering. Betraying, falling in love, longing for new experiences can sometimes disrupt long-established equilibriums, revealing a sensitivity to that excruciating pain, whose memory we lost years ago under the reassuring blanket of a marital-like life.

But if it is true that at least once in a lifetime we all have felt the torment of love, for some of us love keeps showing significantly more often in equation with pain. The theme of the re-occurring suffering in the romantic relationship (or in the absence of it) can assume the most varied forms. Loves you keep dreaming about which never take off in reality, abruptly broken-off loves, love without sex, sex without love, loves crystallized into a fixed pattern that reiterates itself, sometimes even from a relationship into the next one.  A pattern can be chasing without ever reaching, fleeing in order to be never reached, betraying yourself in the name of the relationship, defending your space at the expense of the encounter with the other, etc.

The present communication era increases potential sources of romantic suffering. The ever-present possibility to connect with the person we love via telephone, text, or email makes us less capable of managing the empty space between an interaction and the following one. A message or a call left without a response can cause an unsure lover to fall apart. The web is the new territory of love wounds. It can elicit feelings as potent and true as the ones we experience in the hand-to-hand love: sense of abandonment, oppression, jealousy, etc. Tracking the posts of our loved ones, their present or past likes on social networks, the time of their last visit to WhatsApp or iMessage can turn into obsessive forms of control over the behaviours of those we love. What happens in the cyberspace can be as relevant as what happens in the real life, sometimes even more.

But why does love present itself to some of us so interwoven with pain, fear, distress, and anxiety? Why do we pay such a high price in order to love or even to protect ourselves from love? Why do we bear this mark of the torturing love?

The way we love as adults, the love we seek and the love we are able to give depend very closely on the types of love we got to know and absorbed when we were very young. Research from different angles – Neuroscience, Attachment Studies, Infant Research, Interpersonal Neurobiology –shows us today how the experiences we make in the very first years of our life have the power to influence the shape of love we will internalize from that moment on.

Newborn babies come into life with a brain which is only partially developed. It will exponentially evolve thanks to the events that will take place out of the mother’s womb. Unable to move or to use language, newborns are totally reliant on the adults who take care of them. Luckily, both the adult and the baby are designed by nature to develop a specific bond that psychology since John Bowlby (1969) defines as Attachment. This bond consists of an array of biologically determined behaviors (newborn’s capacity for eye contact and interest for faces, crying, the smile reflex, etc.), which connect a caregiver and their child, ensuring the responsiveness of the former to the needs and requests of the latter. The organ of love – children’s capacity to love and to make themselves lovable, the availability of the caregiver to viscerally respond to this call, and the quality of this love exchange – is a vital function, as essential as food and digestion or oxygen and respiration to the growth of the man cub.

However, this ingenious Attachment device that Mother Nature established to ensure the survival of the human species may develop in ways that are not always beneficial to the psychological or emotional growth of the child.

Indeed, the results of the systematic observations conducted both in vivo and in laboratory on mothers and children by Mary Ainsworth and her research group show how each dyad caregiver/baby develops a specific bond, whose quality can impact – and not always positively – the overall wellbeing of the child. The kind of love – more or less attentive, respectful, and attuned – that a baby experiences and their personal response to it determines a characteristic type of Attachment. The Attachment can be Secure or Insecure and, within the latter type, it can further be differentiated as Insecure Avoidant, Insecure Ambivalent, and Insecure Disorganized.

The still ongoing Minnesota Longitudinal Study, started in 1975 by Alan Sroufe and his team, has followed the main life events of three generations of caregivers and their children. The study indicates how Attachment bonds do not just influence children’s present sense of trust, their capacity to regulate their emotions, and their curiosity towards external reality. Beyond that, the quality of these very early interactions robustly relates to later aspects of individual characteristics, as they represent the reference point based on which further exchanges with the world will evolve. Actually, the caregiving styles to which a child is exposed can be predictive of the emotional and relational life of the adult that that child will become later in time.

Development is anything but a deterministic or linear process and an infinite amount of variables may happen along the way to shape its course. Just to give an example, let’s imagine a child who – through repetitive interactions with her mom or dad – has learned to withdraw as a way to protect herself from the overwhelming anxiety or intrusiveness of her parents. It is very likely that this child will tend to use the same strategic adaptation (withdrawing) even when she will begin to move her first steps into the world and to face challenging situations such as the beginning of school. The problem is that a child who tends to isolate herself and to hold back from interactions is very often also a child who is left alone by other classmates. So, the very first social exchanges of this child with avoiding tendencies will confirm her relational pattern, making it even stronger. We can fantasize, then, that that same child once grown up might easily experience a sense of invasion and a need for protection from intimacy even in the context of a romantic relationship.

But how does this happen from a neurobiological perspective?

Infants are born with an innate drive to interpret reality and to attribute meaning to it. A child is prone by nature to identify and master recurring relational patterns that take place in the interaction with a significant other. The ongoing repetition of a certain type of experience – for example the way a mom is used to playing the tickle game with her toddler – becomes a defined pattern of neurological activation inside the child brain. When patterns of neurological activation repeatedly occur, they become synaptic connections, i.e. memories, ready to fire again each time the same kind of stimulus – the tickle game, in our case – will present itself.

Infants are exposed to a whole array of specific ways to be in relation with the figures who are at the center of their emotional life, primarily their mom and dad.

These relational pattern – which according to the psychoanalyst and infant researcher Daniel Stern (1985) can be called “to be with“ – neurologically wire children’s internal schemes of love, in terms of constellations of neurons that keep firing and therefore connecting together. Cognition is very little involved here. Given the very early age at which the schemes of love get formed and given the fact that in the first two years of live infants do not develop the capacity for explicit memory, the schemes of love are encoded as implicit and emotional memory and keep being part of who we are for the entire arch of our life. Once created, such schemes function primarily under the threshold of our awareness.  In the context of a dual relationship, they affect the way we perceive ourselves in relation to the other, the way we internally regulate, the way we move and act towards the other, and the somatic and emotional state resulting from this interaction. Once adults, these templates orient our instinctive behavior, our gut feelings and intuitive choices in the romantic realm. When they are not adaptive enough, our inner Cupid has a weakness right for that kind of person who – despite the amount of pain, distress, fear, or anxiety they may cause to us – have the ability to get us ad make us feel at home.

Fortunately, the existence of the same Attachment system that protects the survival of the infant child when we come into life makes us humans neurobiologically prone to create bonds during our whole existence: bonds with our children, with our partners, with animals, with nature, with our passions – love bonds that are actually the essence of life itself. In the same way, this need for connection has the power to forge in the first years of our life – not always positively, as we saw – the experience of ourselves and the others, it has the power to heal us.

We know today that the human brain is an organ much more plastic than we thought in the past. Processes of neurogenesis continue for our entire life to take place in the brain areas dedicated to learning. For our entire life, existing neurons continue to respond to new experiences through the expansion and the ramification of new dendrites which, projecting towards other neurons, wire recent learning through the creation of new neuronal patterns. Maladaptive love schemes can be complemented, if not progressively replaced, by healthier neurological love templates. The realization of new relational modalities can occur thanks to the positive experiences that we make with meaningful persons we meet in the world or – most likely for the ones who lived very early deep emotional wounding – in the counseling room.

One of the consequences of the fact that our love schemes are primarily internalized as implicit – emotional and somatic – memories is that a therapy aiming to just cognitively understand our recurring patterns is not enough to modify them. Precious moments of insight are really important, but they do not necessarily promote transformation.

A therapeutic process, which is oriented to change the neurological architecture of our relational style, highly benefits from focusing on the client/therapist relationship and its moments of attunement, rapture and reparation. It should explore the impact of this relationship on the thoughts, the emotions and the body of a client. Most of all, it should be used as a corrective experience of secure Attachment, as a bandage to the old and still bleeding wounds of those who as children could not enjoy the birth right of a trustable, reassuring, and respectful love hug.

First studies made in the 1950s by R. Spitz on the effects on infants of prolonged hospitalizations and separation from their moms.

Through the Still Face experiment E. Tronick shows the impact on the child of the lack of responsiveness of their caregiver.

If you want to know more:

Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000). A General Theory of Love. New York: Vintage Books.
Siegel, D. (1999). The developing mind: Toward a neurobiology of interpersonal experience. New York: Guilford.
Stern, D. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant. London, New York: Karnac.

© Valentina Iadeluca, marzo 2018