The Power of Love

In therapy the time when people express the most intense emotion is when love hurts. They can be caught in fluctuations of contradictory feelings, driven by impulses and needs that defy sense. They share about conflict, dramatic separations and returns, cycles of anxiously holding on, hoping beyond all odds, or defiantly letting go and splitting off. They tell of moments of exhilarating repair, share mood plummets and soaring. Sitting close to their experience is powerfully moving. Coming close to their love struggle as it emerges in the room is vivid: what is possible is potent, what could be mended is transformative, what wounds is immediate and highly charged. My clients are excruciatingly alive to what is happening. Each exchange, each response really matters. As couples and individuals wrestle with these threats to their safety and happiness within their unique love stories, they illustrate to me that how-we-love and how-we-are-loved-in-return matters the most to us and summons forth our most impassioned responses.

Emotional Bonds

As world-renown couples therapist Dr Sue Johnson says, relationships aren’t about contracts and agreements, they are dynamic emotional bonds. Her work with couples’ centres on how to create and strengthen these bonds, how to be attuned and responsive to one another, and ultimately how to transform repeating cycles that damage couple safety into key co-created moments of repair and reconnection. The need for connection and the pain of disconnection is hard-wired into humans. We are sensitive to this not only in our primary partnership but in all of our relating.

Living in my world in the world

Our nervous system, like a radar, is moment by moment scanning and tuning for resonance and connection or the lack of it. Its perceptions let us know when we are safe. We are in a continual dance of contacting our world and our world contacting us. Adjusting, tuning, reading the frequencies. In fact, we could go so far as to say our internal signals are strongest and brightest when we are in contact with others. And it starts right at the beginning. Within the first few hours of being born we are making our needs known through facial displays, vocalisation, and non-verbal communication. This process evolves over time as we develop, starting as automatic reflexive behaviours seeking proximity, nurture, nutrition, warmth, comfort and safety. In the first weeks of life our life is a total sensory immersion. This sensate embodied aliveness doesn’t stop as we grow and develop, we just add more developments to this foundational experience. We experience life in our body first, and discover our limits and desires through relating.

Our First Love

In the first months of our life, we attach to our primary caregiver and create a formed bond. Through repeated parent-baby interactions, our bonding becomes a familiar experience that we sense, feel, and imagine inside us. The person who is consistently there and responds to us builds our internal sense of safety: When they are here, I feel safe, warm, loved. Together, we have happy experiences that I like. If I express my discontent, they will sort it out. If I am upset, they comfort me. If I call out for them, they will come to me. Months of this interplay are how our attachment bonds are formed and consolidated. It is a very powerful internal organisation of what love and connection feel like to us. Our memory stores these experiences as physical sensations, as images rather than words, in emotional tones and movement patterns.

Getting your needs met (or not)

As adults we are still continually organising the sensory stream of data we receive, editing and censoring our experience to meet what needs our attention. Motivation shapes our perception: out of the common ground of the world we all share our individual needs and interests arise. Framing it momentarily here in an oversimplification: in a healthy flow of life, a need emerges, is satisfied, and then another need emerges. As a baby our needs have a survival intensity as we are totally dependent on our caregiver. If our needs are met over time, we learn to trust that our caregiver is there for us. When we are a baby if the satisfaction of our need doesn’t happen, and our protests about that not happening are not heeded, we learn that there is something wrong with our needs. We cannot understand that something is missing in our caregivers. We begin to inhibit the expression of our needs. We adapt ourselves. That is the only way to survive.

Developmental Phases

Psychotherapy, psychodynamics and psychoanalysis have all been exploring what-usually-happens-when in normal developmental stages for over a century. They also have some convincing understanding about what-usually-happens-when what-is-meant-to-happen-doesn’t-happen. We might want to scoff at it, but the formation of our self in our formative years is critical to who we are, how we feel about who we are, who we love and how we love. There are observable patterns that our species requires to become an adult. There are phases to explore and integrate into our understanding and relating, and profoundly important internal tensions to resolve in the process. When that gets messed up the results in each one of us are somewhat similar and identifiable. Each one of us needs to develop a functioning core self with the ability to respond appropriately and creatively to the stresses of life. And we all can, even if it went belly-up in the beginning.

5 Themes of Development

These vital transitions we all passage through, where we master essential contact challenges by developing significant functions of self in response, create our maturation into adulthood. To be mature means to have a wide range of creative options in any instance rather than being locked into reflexive reactions. In their beautiful book Healing Developmental Trauma, authors Heller and LaPierre state that there are five essential stages to our development. Each stage is shaped around organising principles that teach us core capacities. Each of us must meet and master the themes of Connection, Attunement, Trust, Autonomy and Love-Sexuality to form a coherent self. They also describe five adaptive coping styles that result from not having our core needs met in these formative years that contribute to repeating experiences of isolation, abandonment, hypervigilance, and distrust.

Re-parenting ourselves

Remember we adapt to our environment by adapting ourselves, finding life-saving solutions over and over to allow our life to continue. However, what once protected our survival as a child can begin to limit us as an adult. We can still be responding with habitual reactions that deny our present capability. The reconciliation of our unmet developmental needs with what is possible within us is our developmental task across our entire lifetime. Our task in maturing is to kindly and tenderly, yet accurately, reparent ourselves. As a child we needed to protect the attachment relationship. Our life depended on it. As an adult we need to create a secure attachment bond internally to allow us to wholeheartedly connect, attune, trust and differentiate from others.

Learning to tolerate intense emotions

Each of us grapples with our particular vulnerabilities within and sensitivity toward these relational themes. Each of us has our own repertoire of triggering events. There are particular feelings that each of us find almost unbearable. Activated by a particular tone of voice, a particular facial expression, a moment missed, a need overlooked. By-passing mature neo-cortex evaluation, a combination of internal sensations, images and memories is set off. It is most often a fusion of both longing and defeat. A relational yearning that is infused with terror and despair. We believe when I feel this particular state, I can’t handle the tension. We find ourselves reacting with a response that far outweighs the triggering stimuli. We mobilise fierce self-protective impulses because we feel susceptible to disintegrating, fragmenting into flooding emotions or shutting down and not letting in this wave of feelings. It is like a wound that never quite heals over. Unless we really choose to pay attention, to stay with the heat and intensity, to question our interpretations and repair the pain.

Neurobiological co-activation

When triggering happens right in front of me when I am working with a couple, or in a group process, there is an intense neurological shift that is felt in the biopsychological spheres of all people present. These states are potent and contagious. There is a shift in the atmosphere and an immediate movement response. Our internal programming is responding before any of us are even aware of it. There is a kinaesthetic movement of self-protection that is instantaneous; movements toward, away or against that get transmitted in lightning-fast energy exchanges. Reciprocal contact generates electromagnetic charges, temperature shifts, skin prickles, goose bumps, breath changes, body posture and tone, micro-movements at the extremities or the centre. It is as intense as f**k, but what if we could use this high charged biological/psychological interaction to give us vivid insight into what is going on between us? What if we could stay present? With ourselves and the other person?

The intelligence behind being triggered

My work requires a constant monitoring of these neurological shifts, both in myself and others, tuning in to the even slightest prickling of arousal in response to another. I’m willing to pay attention to that, rather than ignore it, because I know it is important data. It is a signal from my embodied intelligence that I or another feel psychologically endangered. I’m willing to sense and feel in my own body when another person’s nervous system gets activated. It is like an alarm signal resounding inside me when I witness their ignition, a warning to pay close attention here. What is it about how I am being now that brings this up for you? What is it about how you are being now that brings this up for me? This empathic resonance and neuro-affective attunement is something everyone can cultivate. This relational sensitivity is what helps us truly connect and prevents cycles of distress and sabotage.

First tremors before the quake

There is a whole continuum from being lightly activated, to being neurologically triggered, to being energised into a survival reaction. I believe it is vital to our well-being to notice the initial subtle and nuanced sensations inside us. And to report on them as they first arise to those we are in contact with. It helps our relating to cultivate sensitivity to our ANS responses. It actually prevents us going off half-cocked. It circumvents getting hijacked by our self-protection and survival strategies. Our habituated reactions can be primitive, like unconsciously saying things in retaliation, giving out retorts that have an unclaimed sting of sarcasm in them, making judgemental statements with an edge of pay-back, hiding behind contempt or building unacknowledged resentment. Sometimes we can be so oblivious to how much we are hurting inside, we find ourself acting out in behaviour without knowing where or when the source of our energetic response arose. Much wiser to return to shelter at the first tremor before the earth splits open.

Reaction or Response

If we learn to sense the seismic shifts in the undercurrent of our feelings, we can move from reaction to response.  Rather than hiding our vulnerability, we can really turn up, albeit inept, clumsy and bruised, and co-create the return to safety. Even though I am enculturated to be watchful, I don’t always master the awareness and dexterity required to be responsible for and responsive to my internal interactions. To show up gracefully in those moments when we are triggered takes everything we have.  To show up gracefully in those moments when someone else is triggered takes all of that and then a bit more. When our partner has a reaction to us, when they are responding to something we did or said, an intense self-protection process gets activated. If they don’t slow down to listen inside, if they are unable to pay close attention in that moment, and want to blame you for their reaction, the situation becomes fraught. They might be arcing up in hyperarousal or shutting down in hypoarousal. If you join them by reacting as well, reaching for your own weapons, we are in far more loaded and volatile territory. If each of us can tame our reactivity, get curious about our own responses, and truly be interested in what is happening for the other, we have a chance to complete a process that was initiated years ago in our development. Go ahead get triggered, it is what is meant to happen. Just be smart enough to have not loaded the gun.

Protect or Connect

It might be helpful to frame the choice we have in those moments simply as the choice between self-protection or connection. Essentially, in those intense episodes, we can either move toward or away from the contact. When we were children, as we developed our agency and our security, we were continually circling between the exploration of our world or returning to safety with those we trusted to look after us. We have a few magical seconds when we get triggered. There is an extraordinary potency in those moments. If we can attune to the activation and listen to our deepest longing in that moment, we have an opportunity to heal and transform a lifelong habit of denying our needs.  We can register the need for self-protection and still risk connection. In these powerful intimate and complex interactions both of us can mend one another. We can resolve the tension between those opposing forces. Before we get swept up in the habitual response. These charged nano-seconds is where it all happens, when we are activated, provoked, on guard, wary, alert, fleeing and freaking.


Love is the most complex and courageous endeavour we as humans undertake. There are no guarantees we will be understood, be loved as we love in return. The beloved has enormous power to devastate our emotional happiness. That is what makes having trust in them one of the most exquisite gifts we can ever offer another person. Within love, vulnerability is the brave truth in every contact episode. Without vulnerability everything else is a subtle form of manipulation and control. Whether of myself or the other.  Being true to our vulnerability is brave and noble. It is unguarded openness; it is accepting the other touches me at the contact boundary.  As Stan Tatkin endorses, when we face the annihilation possible in our love, we find what is lasting and indestructible within it.

Healing our wounds together

If our partners can centre themselves and not shame or judge our reactions but instead are interested in what is happening to us, we have a chance to overcome the fear awoken by our triggers. We can bring our relationship back into presence by opening up to this heated moment with mutual empathic listening and awareness. To be merely irritated by our partner’s particular vulnerability would be to miss an enormous opportunity. Instead, we could try to accept that despite our best intentions our partner is hurt and afraid of us in this moment. Rather than passively riding that out, hoping it will pass without too much friction, turn toward it. What a great gift to be able to reconcile this deep tension between the yearning and the fear that surrounds it. There will be countless times your relationship will offer both of you a moment to re-engage with curiosity and heartfelt interest in that unresolved longing and the shame it activates. No one is going to activate our patterns more than our partner. Practice how to not defend the activation immediately but to show up with your soft underbelly. To first respect then relieve the intensity that shows up. Together. I am not abandoning me in this moment and I hope you will also stay to help us repair.

This shit is hard

I feel a level of hypocrisy writing this article, when so often I fail miserably at what I am espousing. It is so much easier to find empathic resonance in my role as a therapist than it is to stay centred and aware with my partner or family members. But what a relief when I do manage to not keep repeating the same cycles over and over, what a triumph I feel when love heals co-created pain. It is so easy to turn our love stories into bitter chapters of ‘The Bickersons’. It is so hard to step out of ricocheting artillery fire, defending against how much it hurts. It is crucial to be able to navigate our own emotional states, to transition from what was once overwhelming, to a sense of self-agency and self-regulation. We need bravery. We need trust in the endeavour. Belief in the importance of it. And enough compassion and understanding to explore and experiment over and over. That starts with noticing our body’s responses and then using our meta-level cognitive processing to kindly understand ourselves and make sense of our part in co-created cycles. It requires tuning in to our beloved at the same time in order to not be left floundering in co-created autonomic nervous system self-protection. To move beyond our self-interest and our hard-wired self-preservation to truly be relational.

As the song says “The world is on fire and nobody can save me but you”. Let’s prove love is the best contribution we humans make to the world, one tiff at a time.

If you want to read more about the traumatic wounding that happens in couple’s distress, please read my piece entitled: But I told you I love you.

Aline LaPierre:

Dr Laurence Heller:

Stan Tatkin:

Dr Sue Johnson:

London Grammar cover version of Chris Issak’s Wicked Game

Emilia Jones new cover version of an old Joni Mitchell song Both Sides Now

Zjamal Xanitha

Zjamal is in private practice as a Gestalt Psychotherapist and has been working with individuals, couples, and families for the last twenty years. As a counselling clinician her work is client centred, relational, and creatively constructive.