Love, actually

Written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

College students, man. They ask the best and the hardest questions.

This is what they asked me yesterday:

"When you're really interested in someone and then you get into a relationship with them and all your interest just evaporates... why does that happen?"

Dude, why not just ask me why we have to die, or why bad things happen to good people? I mean.

So look, I have a kind of answer. No, it's not an answer, it's a hypothesis. It's not even a theory, it's just a hypothesis; in fact it might not even by a hypothesis, but just an idea. Is that enough caveats?

My idea is this: when the attachment system (long story, I'll tell ya later) gets co-opted at adolescence from adult caregivers to peers, there's a sort of short-circuit in that process.

The standard, fully intact attachment timeline goes:

Stage 1. Proximity seeking: you want to be near the object of attachment

Stage 2. Safe haven: you go to the object of attachment when things go wrong

Stage 3. Separation anxiety: it begins to hurt when the object of attachment goes away

Stage 4. Secure base: you learn that the object of attachment will come back when they go away, and will come when you need them. They become your emotional home.

I think it's possible that the process of that system transitioning from parent to peer doesn't necessarily happen smoothly. So sometimes, for some people, for no reason that I'm willing to speculate, the system reassembles itself in such a way that for a while, during the transition, you might only get as far as Stage 1 before it all breaks down.

The attachment system relies on its sensitivity to attachment behaviors in your partner. I mean in order for you to attach to someone, your brain has to notice that person doing things that encourage attachment, like eye contact, hand holding, smiling. Possibly that sensitivity is delayed in some people, sometimes, again for no reason that I'm willing to speculate. Possibly it happens more in people with an avoidant attachment style. Possibly.

This suggests that later on that same person will get as far as Stage 2 before it breaks down. And then Stage 3. And then at last, somewhere near the true, neurological end of adolescence (around 25, plus or minus two years) they can make it all the way to Stage 4 before their attachment fades into the comfortable, responsible, mutually compromising, grown-up thing we would call love if we weren't too busy calling attachment love. Because we watch too many fucking Richard Curtis movies.

Is this true, or it is just convenient nonsense? Fuck knows. No one (to my knowledge) even knows how the transition of attachment from parent to peer happens.

I suggest these vague ideas to students because someday, somewhere, one of them will become a psychologist and do the research to answer the question. Or maybe you will. Or maybe someone already has and you can tell me about it. Crowds of undergraduates are waiting, wide-eyed and utterly certain that an answer exists to why love works (or fails to work) the way it does.

Haven’t installed it yet?