Anthropologist Helen Fisher speaks at a TED conference about several interesting observations regarding love and brain chemistry. She jumps around a bit, but I really like the idea that there are three main "drives" involved in the idea of love and relationship. Sex drive, Attachment related drive, and Romantic Love drive. Each of these intuitively represent different areas of relationship dynamic and conflict, and can easily get out of alignment. In my experience helping couples through relationship difficulties, these areas are frequently lumped together as "being married." It helps a great deal to be able to talk about the different needs each represents and how each person can support the other in accessing the underlying drive and all it is designed to do. Misunderstood emotions can be really fracturing in relationships, especially marriage where there are social "norms" that have been constructed over centuries of human existence. These "shoulds" and "should nots" permeate our lives and contribute to all sorts of internal conflict. Add difficulty having open communication about vulnerable areas of our lives and we have the recipe for much relational strife. Assumptions about why a person did such-and-such a thing get mixed into the total experience and sometimes become major sticking points. As a therapist, I work with my clients to find mutual goals that we will reach for. As we unpack the behavior, I find it useful to wonder about what is driving the particular hurtful feeling and what the intention might have been for a certain behavior or interaction or comment. Many times we discover that there are underlying fears that get triggered by the interaction. These fears can then be explored together in the context of the mutual goals.
Attachment related fears are frequently a source of conflict when couples have lost a connected feeling. Romantic love related fears come in all varieties in that the absence of "that feeling" within the relationship or the addition of confusing feelings toward others brings questions about the meaning or our own lives and how things have gotten to where they are. Sexual/sexuality fears tend to feed the other two in that we as humans have been conditioned to attend to the socially constructed views held about marriage and sex in general. These can be difficult to work with. Massive amount of emotional weight is placed on the significance of the sexual relationship and what it is supposed to be/not be and whom it is supposed to be focused on at all times within committed relationships. Helen Fisher talks about the underlying chemistry associated with sex and the impetus for sexual drives from the anthropological lens of mating, mate selection and species proliferation. These are embedded in our nature as biological beings. The complexities involved when you mix assumptions, norms, emotions, fear, control, possession, expectation and entitlement with natural drives, biochemical reaction, physical and visual stimulation, and being socially connected as humans are can be very explosive and damaging to interpersonal connection. The speaker does not advocate for indiscriminate sexual expression, but in the context of couples therapy, it makes sense to understand the underlying biology of the drive as a way to stay focused on the mutual goal committed to by the couple.
Tom Kelley, MA, LMFT. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.