Never underestimate the power of someone who has your back: It’s the message in Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships, the book by Ottawa clinical psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson, slated for release on Dec. 31.
Her thesis, based on decades of neuroscience research into human emotion, is that just like the bond parents have with their offspring, monogamous love makes sense as a survival code.
“We’ve understood so much about the power of adult love relationships, how this emotional bond creates a safe haven for us in life, allows us to grow and function on an optimal level, as well as how emotional isolation and disconnection are extremely costly to us as a species,” Johnson said. (Johnson is a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa and founder of the not-for-profit organization the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy, which trains mental-health professionals – not to be confused with Toronto’s vibrator-waving sex educator Sue Johanson.)
Monogamy, she says, makes sense, and yet “there are so many forces pulling us away of being aware of relationships.” Among them are porn, a robust friends-with-benefits culture and attention-splicing technology, she says. Just as parenting has undergone a radical shift over just several generations, Johnson is hoping for an overhaul in the way North Americans think about love.
“In the last 40 years we’ve really started to understand exactly how much impact a parent can have on a child’s development,” she said. “The revolution that we went through in parenting, we have to go through it with romantic relationships.”
The Globe asked the author about 10 of her more surprising claims regarding modern love.
Our culture exalts independence even though it’s not natural
“We are supposed to live in a rich social environment, and part of it is long-term bonds with special people. It sometimes feels like modern society is just determined to forget this,” said Johnson, referring to the high rates of solo dwellers in North America. (Census figures released last fall showed that 27.6 per cent of Canadian homes have just one occupant, a massive shift from decades past.) “We don’t live in little villages any more. People now often depend on romantic love as their main source of social support.”
Romantic love is a bonding attachment like that of a mother and child’s
“We are not wired to face the perils and uncertainties of life by ourselves. Our brains are designed to use the people we love as physiological and emotional safety cues to make the world a safer place. What our society does with that is, as children we have parents, and then we have life partners as we get older. These are the bonds that we count on,” explained Johnson. “In that sense we never grow up.”
Emotional dependency is healthy, not ‘clingy’ and pathological
“Secure attachment – having one other person you can count on as an adult – is related to almost every index of good functioning, happiness and health,” says Johnson. She cites the physical and mental-health implications of social isolation and loneliness, from increased risk of anxiety, strokes and heart attacks to elevated heart rate and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which impacts the immune system. “Having no one to confide in at all literally is going to stress your body out all to hell.” The caveat: “You don’t have to be glued to each other, that’s not healthy, but you have to be available.”
People are at their best when coupled up, not isolated
“It’s been shown in research but we know in our gut that with somebody valuing us, loving us, listening to us and supporting us, we are the best we can be then,” said the author. “We take risks, believe in ourselves and deal with problems better. If you’re securely connected you’re more assertive, more trusting, confiding … you’re better at dealing with ambiguity.”
Secure relationships breed independence
Beyond health, the benefits of monogamy extend to “emotional balance,” says Johnson. “The safer our relationships are, ironically, the more independent we can be. Closeness and independence are two sides of the same coin. They’re not opposed.”
Attachment styles can change, depending on their partner
“Yes, people can change,” says the psychologist. The thinking used to be that we receive a relationship template from our parents, a model we would then use our whole lives. Newer research suggests “we’re adaptable animals,” says Johnson. “If we have new experiences and we’re open to them, we can change our template.”
The novelty of open relationships is ‘overrated’
Friends-with-benefits relationships don’t “make sense” as a survival code, says Johnson. The trouble with polyamorous arrangements, she says, is they don’t fulfill the physiological bonding needs people have for “someone in the universe to depend on, who we come first with.”
Porn is a bad teacher
“People who don’t trust other people are into performance and sensation. The trouble with that is it’s endless: You need more and more performance and sensation because you’re emotionally numb,” said Johnson. “What we’re creating in our society is this empty, formulaic, going-through-the-motions sexuality. Porn is a lesson in how to be a really bad lover.”
Monogamy yields the best sex
“The people who have the best sex, enjoy it the most and have sex most often are people in long-term committed relationships,” says the author, citing the survey research of University of Chicago sociologist Edward Laumann, who found that monogamous couples were the cohort having the most sex, and so also the happiest with their sex lives.
Technology erodes our relationships
“Look at couples courting on dates: They’re on their little screens almost half of the time,” says Johnson. She argues that technology should be used as a tool, not a replacement for more intentional relationships. “What you don’t use you lose. Face-to-face conversation is an essential in human life. It’s not an incidental.”