“The New Science of Romantic Love”

For many of us, marriage feels hard and communication is confusing. We’re mystified and distressed by the messages coming from our spouse.

Do People Really Fall in Love in Mysterious Ways?

For generations, we have been perplexed, befuddled, and stumped by what it is that makes people fall into and out of love. In Western culture, we are all too fond of the idea that love is a whimsical, unpredictable force that comes and goes as it pleases. Ed Sheeran helpfully summarizes our confusion in his lyrics,

“I’m thinking ’bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways…Maybe just the touch of a hand”.

And if Ed Sheeran doesn’t get it, you can bet the rest of us are pretty clueless too.

Enter Dr. Sue Johnson. She is a lovely middle-aged Brit with the gall to propose that there is a science behind staying in love with your spouse. Imagine that!

Dr. Johnson wants to turn on its head our belief that love is nothing more than a powerful feeling that seizes you or departs at its leisure. She suggests that deep, passionate, intimate love can be developed and maintained in a marriage in a predictable, even scientific way.

Drawing from the findings of another proper Englishmen, John Bowlby, Dr. Johnson incorporated the theory of attachment into her “science of adult love”, and developed a powerful breed of couples therapy called Emotionally Focused Therapy.

It is my opinion that Dr. Johnson’s couples therapy is brilliant and revolutionary. And when it is examined through a Christian worldview, I think it may be the very best form of marital therapy yet in existence.

Bargain vs. Bond

In contrast to the idea that adult love has to do with building a secure attachment, there is another way couples (and their therapists) have viewed marriage: as a contract. Quid Pro Quo is Latin for “something for something”, and that’s basically the way a contractual view of marriage works. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

Even though it’s somewhat intuitive to assume marriage is based on an agreement and each partner should be dutifully contributing their 50%, the reality is that the Quid Pro Quo variety of marriage is generally seen with very unhappy couples.1 It appears that keeping careful tally of our spouse’s successes and failures does little for creating joy in a marriage. Interestingly, happy marriages rarely hold to this form of bargaining.

Conversely, there is much evidence that an attachment perspective of marriage is much more biblical.

1 Corinthians 13 paints a picture of a soft, bonding sort of love, a love which is “patient and kind”; a love which “does not insist on its own way” and “is not irritable or resentful” (v. 4-5). Later Paul reiterates, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph 4:32). If our relationships are to be characterized by tenderness and forgiveness, there is little room for score-keeping.

Contract vs. Covenant

Some Christians have already rejected the Quid Pro Quo style of marriage. They see marriage as a sacred covenant before God, a covenant not to be broken, even if one’s spouse fails to provide the happiness they expected. The problem in Christian circles is often that, in an effort to live out unconditional love, they suffer through angry, cold, and loveless marriages. It becomes an endurance test rather than a source of joy.

While any marriage certainly has trying moments, I’m not sure God designed marriage to be one long tribulation. I’m going to use EFT to propose a different version of covenantal marriage, a version in which unconditional love is used to create safety, trust, and passion.

Novelty vs. Intimacy

John Mark McMillan, one of my favorite worship leaders, has this to say about marriage:

“My favorite love song these days is called Tougher Than the Rest…It seems like a really odd love song at first, you know, but when you start to think about songs in the world, you realize that 99% of all songs ever written are written about the novelty of love. I like novelty as much as anybody else does. It’s fun to see the mountains and go to Brazil and see the big Jesus statue, and it’s fun to explore and new things are really exciting, but there’s something that some people never really understand, and that’s that intimacy is way better than novelty. The problem with intimacy is that it’s hard, and it takes work, and sometimes it’s a little painful, and sometimes to get from novelty to intimacy you’ve got to be tougher than the rest…” (from his album Live at the Knight)

Emotionally Focused Therapy is about intimacy. It’s about falling in love with your spouse again, perhaps deeper than you’ve ever fallen before. Once the novelty has worn off, what do you have left? I’d like to suggest that intimacy can create a depth of feeling in a marriage that novelty is incapable of.

If you would like go on this journey, I am available to walk by your side. For more information or to set up an initial appointment, please call (626) 351-9616 X143 or email me at jennifer.camareno@laviecounseling.org.


1 Johnson, S. (1986.) Bonds or bargains: Relationship paradigms and their significance for marital therapy. Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, 12(3). 

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