Dr. Jed Diamond shares some surprising findings from the new science of love.
Though I come from a long line of angry and depressed men, I never thought it would happen to me. My father tried to take his own life when I was five years old. Growing up I vowed that I would do everything I could to learn about mental health so I wouldn’t end up like him. I went to medical school, graduate school in social work, and finally went on to get a PhD in International Health. But becoming a highly trained and sought-after therapist didn’t save me from irritability, anger, stress, or depression.
Like many health writers, I tried to deal with my own demons by writing books about them. You can follow my struggles by simply reading the titles:
Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions
Surviving Male Menopause
The Irritable Male Syndrome: Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression
Male vs. Female Depression: Why Men Act Out and Women Act In
Everything I learned in the years I researched and wrote was helpful. I also practiced what I wrote about. I sought and received excellent psychotherapy. I took medications to deal with my irritability and depression. I found out I was manic-depressive (Bipolar), like my father, and saw a behavior-oriented psychiatrist. I learned to meditate and found that walking, running, and Zumba classes helped relieve the chronic stress I was experiencing.
Though learning about these issues helped me, there was still something missing. My love life continued to have serious ups and downs, with way too many downs. When things were good between my wife and me, life was generally pretty positive. But when there was distance between us, nothing I did seemed to keep my emotions from going downhill. It took me a long time before I began to understand the connection between emotions like anger and depression, and loss of love.
Irritability, Anger, Stress, and Depression: What’s Love Got to Do With It?
When I was learning to treat my depression, it never occurred to me that my love life may be a contributing factor. The first clue that I was wrong came from a popular book. In The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon says, “Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair.” Solomon goes on to share his own experiences with depression. “When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.”
I realized, too, that I was ashamed to be so irritable, angry, and depressed. “I’m a psychotherapist. I should be able to figure this stuff out,” I kept telling myself. I got help from one of the world’s experts on depression and bipolar disease. In her biography, The Unquiet Mind: Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison describes her own struggles with mental illness. I figured if she could struggle with these issues, heal, and write about them; maybe there was hope for me.
These words from her book resonated deeply from my own experiences in my marriage:
“You’re irritable and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding, and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you’re frightening, and ‘you’re not at all like yourself but will be soon,’ but you know you won’t.”
Looking back on the most difficult times in our marriage I realize I was chronically stressed trying to be a successful writer and therapist and make a decent living to support my family. I desperately needed the praise and support of my wife, but I didn’t know how to ask for it without coming across as whiny or angry. It seemed the more I needed love, the more irritated and angry I would become and the more my wife would pull away. Feeling the loss of connection, I’d become panicked and afraid and would try harder to get her to care and support me.
If you asked me what was going on, I would say the reason I would get so irritable and angry was because my wife wasn’t giving me the love I needed. I also felt guilty and ashamed for being so “needy.” If you asked my wife, she would say the reason she would withdraw was to protect herself from my hurtful anger. “When you get that beady-eyed look,” you would tell me, “you’re scary.” We were caught in a destructive downward spiral.
Attachment Needs and the New Science of Love
The latest research, from the new science of love, demonstrates that adults have the same needs for connection, nurturing, and support that children have. According to one of the leaders in the field, Dr. Sue Johnson, author of Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships:
“We have a wired-in need for emotional contact and responsiveness from significant others. It’s a survival response, the driving force of the bond of security a baby seeks with its mother. A great deal of evidence indicates that the need for secure attachment never disappears.”
Too many of us, particularly men, have grown up believing that the key to a healthy relationship was emotional independence. “Dependence” was a dirty word for me, something to be avoided at all costs. It was a revelation that being dependent on my wife, and she on me, was not only normal, it was necessary.
Research by Dr. Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, demonstrates that our attachment needs are built into our brains and panic and paralysis occurs when our attachment needs are threatened. In research he has conducted over the last 35 years he demonstrates that there are at least 7 emotional systems that are present in all mammals:
Think of a puppy that has lost its mother. He whimpers, howls, and searches for her. If his mother still doesn’t return he becomes withdrawn and grief stricken. We know a similar thing occurs with small children. New research by Sue Johnson and John Gottman shows that adults also suffer when their attachment needs aren’t met. “The first and foremost instinct of humans is neither sex nor aggression,” says Johnson. “It is to connect. Our need to depend on one precious other—to know that when we ‘call,’ he or she will be there for us—never dissolves. In fact, it endures from the cradle to the grave.”
Once we learn that irritability, anger, chronic stress, and depression often arise when our attachment needs aren’t met, we can begin to heal our relationships, develop more secure bonds, and improve our health. “We need emotional connection not only to survive, but to thrive,” says Johnson. “We are actually healthier and happier when we are close and connected. Consistent emotional support lowers blood pressure and bolsters the immune system. It appears to reduce the death rate from cancer and the incidence of heart and infectious disease.”
I found that the key for healing my anger and depression was accepting my needs for attachment, getting help from a good therapist, and learning to reconnect with my wife. When we’re irritable and angry, we push people away, usually the very people we so desperately need and love. Love is the answer, but it isn’t easy finding it and keeping it alive and well.
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