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Want to Feel More Intimate this Valentine's Day?

Boost Your Attachment Security!

Daniel J Sonkin, Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Sausalito, CA

"Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source." — Anaïs Nin

All the world loves love. In fact, most cultures have days or rituals that acknowledge the importance of romantic love. For example, in Japan, White Day is celebrated on March 14th, with the exchange of white chocolate and marshmallows among both friends and couples. In South Korea, Pepero Day is celebrated on November 11th. Couples typically exchange pepero (a cookie stick dipped in chocolate syrup) and other romantic gifts. But many South Koreans, especially the younger generation, feel that one day of celebrating romantic love is not enough. So they have informally designated the 14th of each month as a day of showing love and affection for their beloved. Each month has a different theme. For example, January is Candle Day, May is Rose Day, June is Kiss Day, September is Photo Day, etc.

In Israel, the holiday of Tu B'Av is also a popular day for expressing love. It falls on the 15th of Av each year. Originally, this minor holiday had ties in the Talmud, in which the day signaled the start of the harvest season. It is also the last "official" holiday of the Jewish calendar, before the new year celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Because it's tied to the Hebrew (Lunar calendar) it always falls on the full moon of the month. This year it will occur on July 30th. Today in Israel, it is customary to send a bouquet of red roses to the one you love on Tu B'Av. Romantic songs are played on the radio and parties are held in the evening throughout the country. In addition, Tu b'Av is a popular date for Jews to hold weddings.

In many cultures, the celebration of Valentine's Day typically occurs once a year, and involves reminders of the beauty and possibilities of romantic relationships. We celebrate with candlelit dinners, roses, boxes of chocolate, love notes, and gifts that signify love and affection. Valentine's Day serves as a reminder of who we love, why we love them and demonstrating through behavior our appreciation of how they enhance our lives. However, is one day of expressing gratitude enough to sustain your relationship? Absolutely not! Given the high rates of divorce, investing energy into a relationship one day a year is clearly not enough. Of course, this makes intuitive sense. If you wanted to get into physical shape, exercising once a year (or even once a month) is just not going to cut it.

Growing Your Love One Day at a Time

Psychologists have studied love for many years, and what most researchers agree (and you don't need to have a Ph.D. to know this), is that although the instinct to bond is hardwired in humans, sustaining long-term relationships takes effort - effort to find love, effort to grow it, and effort to sustain it. Some people may ask, "If you have to work at it, is it the right relationship?" Unfortunately, the answer to that question is more complex. Like a garden, love takes time, attention and care. It begins with the intention to create it, preparing the soil, planingt the seeds, protecting them from pests and patience while nature does its magic. But once the plants mature they continue to need lots of attention and effort. Some relationships require more effort than others. This obviously has to do with the individuals involved and the circumstances. Although those challenges can seem unsurmountable at first, many who persevere, reap the benefits of their efforts and patience. Unfortunately, some relationships the rewards are extremely minuscule even with a great deal of effort. And that it may a tell-tale sign that a particular relationship may not be the right one for you.

But what is a healthy amount of effort to put into a relationship? What types of effort are really important? With Valentine's Day just around the corner, many lovers are contemplating this very question. In fact, most people put quite a bit of effort into their celebration plans. What would be the perfect gift? How much should I spend on a gift? What restaurant has the most romantic atmosphere? Should I give my beloved roses or chocolates or both? In our consumer-driven culture, we are bombarded with images of what love looks like and these images inevitably include giving "things" to our beloved. The more we give, the more likely we'll "live happily ever after." Certainly, all the effort you put into making Valentine's Day special can boost or reignite a special connection with your partner. But if all that effort disappears on February 15th, and not replaced with other activities, the good feelings of the previous day, will quickly wane from yours and your partner's memories.

Besides gifts and romantic dinners, how can we grow and support our feelings of gratitude, desire and romance for our loved-ones before, on and beyond St. Valentine's Day? Let's look at how this is possible.

Attachment Theory and Learning to Love

Attachment theory may be understood as a theory of love. It was first developed by British analyst, John Bowlby in the mid 20th century to describe and understand the caregiving connection between a mother and infant. Most mothers will describe how they fall in love with their newborns. And the quality of caretaking and attention they give is partly determined by these feelings of love. Over the decade's attachment theory has been expanded to fathers and children and, most recently adult romantic relationships.

For better or worse, there is a strong connection between our first experiences of love with our parents and how we approach love and romantic intimacy in adulthood. For those who were lucky to have a caregiver who was quite sensitive and attuned to their emotional needs, they grow up and approach adult intimate relationships with openness, flexibility, hope and optimism. This doesn't mean that they never experience failure or disappointment or rejection. It just means that they tend to have more optimistic attitudes towards close relationships. They are less likely to expect rejection or abandonment from others. They are also more likely to generously give care to others when needed. And when disappointment happens, as it does for everyone, they tend to seek care and comfort from others and consequently recover more quickly. These qualities are the hallmark of "secure attachment."

But what about adults whose parents did not provide adequate sensitive caregiving during their childhood? Some parents chronically ignored or rejected their children's efforts for care and comfort. Other parents experiencde a great deal of anxiety and felt overwhelmed by their child's emotional needs. Some parents may have role-reversed and sought out care and comfort from their children. These experiences may lead to, "insecure attachment." People with insecure attachment are less optimistic and hopeful about their adult intimate relationships. They anticipate rejection or don't seek care and comfort in their close relationships. Thousands of daily, unrewarding experiences with caregivers are encoded in their memory, and these memories play a big role in how they view close relationships as adults. In the most general sense, secure and insecure attachment patterns may be thought of as expectations about others that effect our attitudes, feelings and behaviors in close relationships.

What's the Fix?

The downside of bad habits is that they are hard to change. The upside is that we can learn new habits and ways of thinking about close relationships, but it takes a lot of effort and focus - but it can be done! Phillippi Lally, at University College in London, was interested in knowing how many repetitions it took to form a new habit. She and her colleagues conducted a study and it turns out that the results varied widely - from 18 repetitions to 254 repetitions. Quite a range! But the average was about 66. Those results were coincidentally consistent with other studies of learning new behaviors. For example, Richard Davidson, at the University of Wisconsin, found you can change how we approach problem-solving (seeing a glass as half empty to seeing it as half full) by practicing mindful-meditation six times a week for approximately 60 days. So if you can learn to change the way your approach problems in approximately 60 days, what about changing attitudes and behaviors in close relationships?

Changing Attitudes Through Priming

Attachment researchers, Phillip Shaver and Mario Mikulincer were interested in this question, and they decided to approach it through, "priming." Priming is how we learn through observation, and it generally occurs outside our awareness. Think about the first time you were given the keys to the car. Pretty exciting, right? Although you had to learn many new skills to drive carefully, you already knew quite a bit. You knew about the pedasl and where to place your feet. You knew how to hold the steering wheel. You probably knew how to turn on the engine and use the directionals. All of this was learned by observation. Sitting in the back seat as a child, you had a good view of people going through these routines on a fairly regular basis - mother, father, older siblings, grandparents, other relatives, friends parents or even babysitters. In fact, your parents might have even let play behind the steering wheel when you very young. So when you were finally handed the keys, you already knew quite a bit about driving a car. The rest was learned by focused instruction and experience. There is certainly no replacement for real experience. However, we do learn a lot through priming - watching life happen unfold before our eyes. And, as I mentioned above, we learn a lot about relationships from just watching and experiencing our family for many years - in other words through, "priming!" If we developed negative attitudes or behavioral habits through priming, we can we develop new positive habits from priming!

Priming the Secure Base in You

Shaver and Mikulincer found that they can temporarily alter attitudes, feelings and behaviors about attachment relationships through "secure base priming." They developed a method for helping people with insecure attachment temporarily respond more like people with secure attachment. They accomplished this with a number techniques that have been used in many studies over the past fourteen years and that have yielded very consistent results. They used subliminal (outside awareness) and supraliminal (within awareness) techniques to boost attachment security. They used words (comfort, embrace, love, etc.), images (pictures of happy parents and infants, couples, etc.) and guided imagery (think about a positive situation....). But like most research findings, there are limitations. Most of the studies conducted to date, the subjects were only primed once, and therefore the changes are very short-lived - minutes or hours. But psychologists, Katherine Carnelley and Angela Rowe in the United Kingdom are looking at whether they can obtain more sustain, longer-term effects through repeated priming. Where as Shaver and Mikulincer required subject to come to their labortory to receive the primes, Carnelley and Rowe are using smart phone technology (eg, texting) as a way of delivering the primes. Can repeated priming create a more lasting change our relationship attitudes, feelings and behaviors? I am asking that very question and you can participate in a study at www.securebasepriming.org.

Give the Gift that Keeps on Giving this Valentine's Day

So you may be asking, "What does priming have to do with Valentine's Day?" On Valentines Day (and the days leading up to it), we are exposed to all kinds of messages in the media about love (and of course consumerism - buying flowers, jewelry, etc.) and that exposure is meant to boost our interest in love and expressing it to others. And although the messages are often trying to sell something - the message of love and expressing it to our loved ones also get's communicated. Perhaps the best way couples can make this Valentine's Day, and everyday, even more special, is to work to boost their attachment security all year round. The greater your attachment security, the more likely you'll experience and express more positive attitudes and feelings in your close relationships, which get translated into behaviors. Although the idea of repeated priming is new, our preliminary data suggests that ten days of secure base priming priming leads to a significant increased mood and an ever so slight increase (though not statistically significant) increase in attachment security. Although the average number repetitions for creating new habits in general seems to be about 66 days, you can start moving in that direction today.

There are many ways we can boost attachment security through priming - even without an online program or psychological experiment. Looking at happy images of couples in love and thinking about positive attachment-related words (love, embrace, caring, affection, etc) can both have a positive effect on your mood and thoughts about intimacy. Thinking about positive past experiences you had with your partner can also be powerful booster of attachment security. Below is a guided imagery you can try that may increase your mood and start you moving in the direction of greater attachment security. Even making up stories about positive attachment experiences has shown to have the same security enhancing effects as memories of real experiences. But as Lally's studies on habit-forming suggest, doing this once in a while is not sufficient to build new habits. You really need to put in the effort every, single day. And although you may not notice a big change immediately, try priming your secure base for sixty days and perhaps you'll be pleasantly surprised. You'll still have time to celebrate White Day in Japan. Happy Valentine's Day!

Secure Base Guided Imagery

Please think about a relationship you have had in which you found that it was relatively easy to get close to the other person and you felt comfortable depending on the other person. In this relationship you didn't often worry about being abandoned by the other person and you didn't worry about the other person getting too close to you.

Now take a moment and try and get a visual image in your mind of this person. What does this person look like? What is it like being with this person? You may want to remember a time when you were actually with this person. What would he or she say to you? What would you say in return? How do you feel when you are with this person? How would you feel if they were here with you now?

Please spend a few minutes thinking about the person you visualised and how they make/made you feel safe, secure and comforted.

If you are having difficulty identifying a relationship in this exercise, complete the following alternative exercise.

Imagine yourself in a problematic situation that you can not solve on your own, and imagine that you are surrounded by people who are sensitive and responsive to your distress, want to help you only because they love you, and set aside other activities in order to assist you.

Now take a moment and try and get a visual image in your mind of these people. What is it like being with these people? You may want to imagine a specific problem you are seeking comfort or help with. What would these people say to you? What would you say in return? How do you feel when you are with these people? How would you feel if they were here with you now?

Please spend a few minutes thinking about the people you visualised and how they make/made you feel safe, secure and comforted.