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Balancing Act

Attachment theory connects just as well for married couple

Psychologist says attachment theory can be applied to marriages as well as parenting

Heidi Stevens

Balancing Act

March 9, 2014

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Sue Johnson is launching a marriage revolution.

Her timing couldn't be better. Marriage rates are the lowest in a century, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, almost 60 percent lower than in 1970. Divorce rates, meanwhile, rose for the third year in a row in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Those figures aren't necessarily bad news. I'm all for getting yourself out of a lousy marriage — or avoiding the construct altogether, if you're so inclined. But they do indicate an institution ripe for revolutionizing.

In her new book, "Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships" (Little, Brown), Johnson asserts that British psychologist John Bowlby's attachment theory, which transformed the way we raise children, is applicable — indeed, critical — to creating solid marriages.

Attachment theory puts emotional and physical connection at the center of our relationships. If that sounds like, "well, duh," consider that prior to Bowlby's work, women were counseled to withhold affection from their offspring.

"Never, never kiss your child," warned psychologist John Watson in the 1928 book "Psychological Care of Infant and Child." "Never hold it in your lap. Never rock its carriage." Johnson notes that Watson called a mother's love a "dangerous instrument."

Bowlby's work in the late 1940s and early '50s helped put an end to that nonsense by observing and recording interactions between mothers and their children and finding that ongoing, reassuring physical and emotional connections (eye contact, hugs) produce physically and mentally healthier humans.

Johnson, a clinical psychologist and research professor at San Diego-based Alliant International University, says it's time to take the same approach with our marriages.

"A secure attachment changes the way a baby sees the world because they learn that they're not alone," she told me. "Adults are the same. A sense of connection changes one of the most basic elements of the brain, which is how you perceive threat. It changes the world into a safer world."

But for a host of reasons, we resist connecting.

"We like to think, as adults, we're somehow self-sufficient," Johnson says. "You're not supposed to need another person to balance you. You're not supposed to need someone to hold your hand."

So in our low moments, when our days go lousy and our schedules feel inhumane and we're not bringing our best selves to much of anything — our work, our kids, our friendships — we turn inward. We shut out our partner, the very person we need for ongoing, reassuring support. We turn ourselves into standoffish roommates.

We're responding, most likely, to a culture that tells us to buck up. We're also responding to our past, especially when we asked for support and didn't receive it.

"If I come home and I'm upset, and I try to get my husband's attention and I can't, if he says, 'I'm going to bed. I'm exhausted,' I suddenly have this feeling of, 'I'm alone,'" Johnson says. "Our brains read that as a threat."

Threats aren't always, "I'm leaving you." Sometimes they're, "I can't help you."

"We are mammals who rely on each other for survival," Johnson says. "We are wired for connection. When you feel shut out, your brain registers that the same way it registers physical pain. It's a danger cue. Your response is to avoid the danger. To shut down."

Securely attached couples, she says, give voice to their fears. I'm lonely and I need some company. I'm exhausted and I need some help. I feel like I'm turning to you for support and I'm not getting it.

They let go of notions of independence and pride and scorekeeping and do everything in their power to balance and strengthen each other.

"The way to create strong people is not to tell them to be self-sufficient," Johnson says. "The way to create strong people is to create stronger relationships."

I can't think of a single exception to this rule. And I can't think of a better time to start living it.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13