“We are obsessed with love and relationships. But what do we really know about love?”
These are the opening words of Dr. Sue Johnson’s 2013 book Love Sense: The revolutionary science of romantic love. Ever since that book was published, I have made it my mission to explore how this search for love pertains as relevantly to individuals not in romantic relationships as to those who are.
We know that love, as defined by attachment science, means that we are bonding mammals needing a safe connection with at least 1 or 2 others in order to survive and thrive. There are no options. Without human connection we die. The search for secure interpersonal connection calls us to answer the key question that Dr. Sue Johnson, emphasizes, “A.R.E. you there for me?” Are you Accessible, Responsive and Engaged? Can I reply on you to be in relationship with me in an accessible, responsive and engaged manner?”
As a psychotherapist, my key job is to create a safe, loving context where I attune carefully to my clients and listen intently to what they say and to the messages they have difficulty putting into words, and then help them expand on the core messages they are just beginning to find the words to capture. For a focused hour or 90 minutes I narrow my focus and tune in fully to the world of the couple, individual or family in front of me.
It can be a bigger challenge to consider how I, as a mother, a sister, a wife, an author, a teacher, a world citizen, truly listen in the rest of my life where things are not so neatly focused and circumscribed? Am I a loving listener or do I become indifferent? Do I tune in, beyond the individual, to larger cultural implications and contextual influences?
The look on Derek Chauvin’s face as he knelt with lethal force upon George Floyd’s neck, one year ago, is an image of indifference indelibly and painfully burnt into our memories. But indifference may also subtly appear in ourselves more than we like to acknowledge.
Indifference, painting everyone with the same brush, failing to listen to unique nuances and granularity in everyone’s story can be extremely hurtful. Indifference is as hurtful and as toxic as hatred. Disregarding other’ calls to be heard and to be seen, is a hateful, hurtful act. I do not hate you – but do I know you? Do I assume I know you because you look like me or because you do not look like me? I know you are a bonding mammal like me – with fears and needs and longings and strengths. But until I listen to you and engage in responding to you and experience myself in relationship with you, I do not know your unique nuances of these universal elements of human experience.
At times withdrawal or lack of response masks as indifference and is experienced as painfully as hated and disregard. If I fail to respond to your call, to hear what you are saying to me, or to assume dominance over you, you may well experience disregard and indifference as painfully as blatant hatred.
Same culture – but differences in style
In my own experience as a more anxious person, anger is typically code for fear, however anger from a more avoidant person may well be code for, “Listen to me. I have something important to say.” As I stepped in, hovering over my husband, attempting to take over every task after he injured his shoulder, I heard him say with annoyance in his voice, “So I’ll just be an invalid.” I stopped in my tracks, pleased he was speaking up. I recognized the code for an important message, “See me. Hear me. Don’t take over everything and do it yourself!”
Anger can be code for, “I have a very important message – listen to me!”
Stepping back while my colleagues of Color take center stage and reshape a training experience
At the Carolina Center for EFT, we just completed our 2021 30-hour training for mental health professionals in emotionally focused therapy – a model used across modalities of couples, individuals and families! 40 out of the 70 participants joined at various levels of equity rates. This means that our training cohort was more than half of people from under-represented groups! The 16 assistants represented a diversity of cultures as well.
Intentional listening and loving for me as trainer came when I heard a call to pivot and revamp the direction to balance teaching the model with activities to support finding one’s own voice in the model, as a person, and as a person of a particular culture.
Journey towards Love
I think about how indifference is worse than racism, is worse than homophobia, is worse than neuro-typical arrogance. I am on the path to learn more about minority stress, more about the unique lived experiences of persons of culture, more about experiences of neuro-diversity, more about living in the world as LGBTQ+. Being uninformed is close to indifference. As a citizen of this multicultural, diverse world it is my ethical and moral obligation to be fascinated, curious and welcoming of differences – to listen – to learn – to grow beyond every frame of reference I know.
Please join me on this journey!