“You can’t get close to somebody without going through pain.”
This is the first thing Geoff MacDonald, Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Toronto, laid bare when he joined BTRtoday for an interview. He went on to point out that each person is deeply complicated, and when you attempt to bring together two “complex universes,” vulnerable sensitivities and conflicts are bound to arise. Otherwise, you’re just not doing it right.
But how should we go about approaching and understanding this pain? Should we ignore it–suck it up, and move forward? Should we devote the entirety of our being to addressing the cause of this pain? Is it a necessary and useful mechanism, or a pesky byproduct that we should work towards disposing of? One thing is for sure: Love pains are both incredibly personal, and profoundly universal.
During his career, MacDonald has focused his research primarily on romantic relationships, and specifically on how attachment theory plays out in our adult iterations of personal connection. Despite the largely theoretical perspective from which MacDonald approaches the subject, he tells BTRtoday that his students have repeatedly expressed that his relationship course is the most practical class they’ve taken.
Perhaps most people don’t have Ph.D.’s, but it’s not a stretch to say that a large portion of adults have experienced their fair share of heartache. BTRtoday staffers Taia Handlin and Zach Schepis weighed in with their own insights on the subject.
Handlin says that, for her, being in love has hurt most when she reckons with the creeping realization that it’s not necessarily built to last. The difficulty of that, she says, is “finding yourself feeling lonely, even before it’s over. That’s been a very common experience for me.” It doesn’t just hurt when love ends, but even the thought of losing it can trigger a sense of disconnection.
For Schepis, the hardest part is navigating where he ends and his partners begin. “Obviously when you get close to somebody and you love them, you’re going to get attached to them.” He says anybody who denies that is lying, and goes on to ask whether there is any way to experience this feeling in a productive way. “Is there such a thing as healthy attachment in love?” he asks. “If so, what is it? And if not, where do you draw the line for attachment that’s going to do more harm to you than good? Does that balance exist?”
The answer, quite simply, is yes. But that doesn’t mean that’s always how things play out.
MacDonald uses attachment theory to examine the experiences that people have had as children, and how this echoes into their adult relationships. He explains, “We have this inherent system in us that starts off from the day that we’re born. Where if we feel upset or distressed, this attachment system kicks in.” He elaborates, “the goal of the attachment system is to get the attention of a caregiver who can help you and soothe you and make you feel better.”
He breaks down how this can affect our romantic relationships. “You’ve got a need for infants to develop an emotional attachment to their caregivers, and as adults we have a need to develop an emotional attachment to our romantic partner.”
In evolution, species used a tool called “preadaptation,” in which, rather than developing completely new protocols to address new threats, they activate pre-existing mechanisms if they can be effectively employed. MacDonald says that this is why our attachment systems are activated during our adult relationships. “It makes sense that, if that kid system was already laying around for evolution to work with, why wouldn’t it just get co-opted into the job of bonding you to your romantic partner?” he asks.
People who experience something called anxious attachment have been taught to exploit this system. Most anxiously attached individuals develop in an environment where their caregiver is absent or depressed, so the only way that they can get the care they need is to display themselves in an extremely weak and helpless way.
When this pattern plays out in adult relationships, MacDonald says, “That person feels that they need to adopt this weak and helpless persona in order to get love and attention.” Needless to say, this can be unhealthy for both parties.
Attachment isn’t inherently bad: It is responsible for our very survival. But there are certainly ways that it can become complicated.
Evidently, there are some very specific evolutionary roots which explain why it is so important for human beings to feel connected to one another–and, furthermore, why it can feel so dramatic when this closeness is threatened. The life-or-death attitude with which many of us approach love isn’t just melodrama, explains MacDonald, it’s encoded in our evolutionary systems.
Pain is an integral part of an attachment; it is pain which sparks our need for support, both because it can trigger a necessity for care, and because feeling as if we don’t belong can bring us pain. It can be painful to be rejected, painful to feel misunderstood by somebody you’re incredibly close to, painful to fall in love with somebody and then discover things in their being which challenge pre-conceived notions of love. God, there’s so much pain!
And, yet, we stick with it. Schepis says that it’s because romantic love is a feeling which you “can’t recreate any other way.” Handlin believes it’s crucial to humans. “I think it’s something that people fundamentally need. I don’t think it’s superfluous,” she shares.
“There’s all kinds of rewards,” says MacDonald, “but closeness inherently involves dealing with all kinds of vulnerabilities and the feelings that are around them.”