A Valentine’s Day card from John Bowlby

A message for the 14th February, coinciding with the release of part 3 of the Introduction to Psychotherapy course with the Idler Academy, focusing on the work of John Bowlby.

It’s Valentine’s Day. It’s time to think about love. But rather than getting romantic, which nowadays is mostly a capitalist ploy to separate you from your cash and burn up more carbon flying roses across continents, how about getting psychological?

The invitation is to imagine you are receiving a Valentine’s card. But before you open it, and read its ideals of love – “you’re my one and only”, “with you I touch the sky”, “I hope you’re the one I die with” – you pause. You give yourself a moment to touch what love really means to you, in the sense of what it makes you feel, fear, wish you could embrace, or maybe forget.

The psychotherapist, John Bowlby – who, incidentally, features in the third part of the Introduction to Psychotherapy course – is your agony uncle, your love guide here. He developed the relationship model known as Attachment Theory. It’s one of the most important developments in British psychotherapy in the last 50 years. It underpins much of the advice you might find with a relationship counsellor or in a self-help book.

His research suggested that people’s intimate relationships tend to be structured in patterns. They’re like blueprints that have been internalised. They’re based upon the first intimate relationship we witnessed, that between our parents, and they tend to shape how we feel our own intimate relationships might go.

It’s not that we will always make the same mistakes they did. Or that we’re condemned to know nothing else in love. Rather, it’s likely that we will enter our partnerships drawing on our interpretation of what they did and didn’t achieve. Our attachment to them, and their attachment to each other, will inevitably inform our attempts to make attachments ourselves.

So the Valentine’s card arrives. Pat. It drops on the mat. What is the surge of feeling that rises?

Bowlby suggested that a first group of people secretly feel that love is basically tyrannical. It’s not to be trusted because it’s vaguely abusive, will require submission or acquiescence, or will make too many demands. This kind of expectation can be called an ambivalent attachment style. The person who feels love is like this may be a little clingy in relationships, a little manipulative, a little unsure. Their card is from their lover, but they can’t help but feel that it’s from their ruler, boss or master.

Perhaps that’s not right, that’s not you. So how about the second relationship pattern Bowlby identified? He called it an avoidant attachment style. In this case, the card will feel as if it’s going to say love is fragile. It’s easily broken, easily bruised, easily cut.

There’s an irony, though, in this kind of attachment. The person who fears it may pretend they don’t. Instead, they’ll approach love with an air of cool detachment. They’d say to themselves that they don’t mind whether they receive a Valentine’s card or not – until they don’t, when it hurts. They act as if relationships don’t matter because, actually, they really do – terribly. The fear is they readily crash and burn. In this case, the card is from a lover, but the individual can’t help but feel that it’s from someone who doesn’t quite mean it or can never quite love enough.

Again, that may not be you. There’s the third style. This one is the most troublesome. It’s a relationship pattern that Bowlby called insecure and disorganized. Love, in this case, is experienced as swinging about all over the place. One moment it is total. The next it is a total mess. One day it can be blissful. The next like a nuclear blast.

According to this imagining, love is a hostile force that must be controlled. The Valentine’s card lands on the mat and gives rise to stabs of fear, of dread, of collapse. The warm romantic image of lovers staring into each other’s eyes is experienced as a threat, an attack. When relationships are formed within this worldview, they are unhealthy, and perhaps covertly or overtly abusive. It’s not a good place to be.

With ambivalent, avoidant and insecure attachment, experience may iron out the edges, or some psychotherapy may help to loosen the grip of the internalised patterns and make a different future possible. In time, a Valentine’s card may come to mean something else – the fourth attachment style that Bowlby described.

In a word, it’s secure. The card lands on the mat, and the feeling is realistic. There’s gladness rather than ecstasy. There’s gratitude tinged with wisdom. There’s hope unsoiled by a need for perfectionism. For this person, love is basically trustworthy. It’s welcomed. Knocks can be taken. Mistakes don’t mean the end. Problems are problems but they can be worked through.

It’s the card John Bowlby would wish we could all receive this Valentine’s day. Whether you do get one or not, it’s the sense of love that is the best to have inside.

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