We all know our upbringing and life experiences shape how we interact with the world – from how we deal with adversity to how we forge relationships (and everything in between) – so it’s no surprise psychologists are on a mission to understand this behaviour. In 1969, John Bowlby’s pioneering work constructed the theory of an Internal Working Model. The theory claims the attachment a child has with their primary caregiver forms a cognitive framework for the child’s understanding of themselves, others and the world. A year later, Mary Ainsworth’s Attachment Theory went one step further and characterised different types of attachment: Secure, Insecure-Avoidant and Insecure-Ambivalent/Resistant.
In their most rudimentary forms, the two theories suggest the type of attachment an infant forms with their primary caregiver helps define their future relationships. If a child is securely attached to their primary caregiver, they will show distress at separation from them and joy at the reunion. In the presence of strangers or novel surroundings, the securely-attached child uses their primary caregiver as a secure base from which to explore. Children who are not securely attached are reluctant to explore new surroundings and are either fearful of strangers or as ambivalent towards the stranger as they are their mother. It is this emotional regulation at separation and reunion that is essential in understanding how these early relationships impact our adult relationships.
If you’ve developed a secure attachment in early life, you’re likely to have faith in others and see people as supportive and helpful. You’ll be adept at seeing something from another’s perspective, helping you to develop positive relationships. You’ll believe in your abilities and trust you’re worthy of respect. You won’t shy away from a challenge, but when things don’t go to plan, you’ll demonstrate resilience and won’t fear challenges in the future.
For those with an insecure-avoidant attachment style: you might find it hard to manage stressful situations. When life gets tough, you’ll withdraw; shying away from seeking help which can lead to feelings of isolation. By doing so, you may feel like you’re minimising your emotional stress, but this self-distancing from others can result in increased loneliness. You may also show more antisocial behaviour (including lying and aggression) than securely attached individuals.
When your relationship map sits on the insecure-ambivalent/resistant model, you’ll probably lack self-confidence and maintain proximity to your primary caregiver. You’ll struggle with emotional regulation, displaying exaggerated reactions to events. You may feel socially isolated, often as a result of keeping a distance from others.
Perhaps you see yourself in one of the attachment styles above, or maybe part of one style and part of another resonate with you but remember these theories are just that: theories. Whilst early studies have their critiques, plenty of subsequent social experiments replicated the findings (I should know, I studied Psychology at uni and had to learn countless research scenarios). To make a theory that applies to everyone is a challenge, so don’t take the generalisations verbatim. However, having a clearer understanding of ourselves improves the quality of our lives. If negative childhood experiences left a void, we might realise this contributes to our pursuit of poor relationships. Whilst we’re not all fortunate enough to have access to professional help, there is a wealth of reliable advice online (as well as tonnes of rubbish – choose carefully) we can use to minimise collateral damage.
The early psychological studies of Bowlby, Ainsworth and many more help explain the unconscious behavioural patterns we adopt in relationships. But what about the conscious behaviour we elicit in our interpersonal lives, such as showing others we love them?
One such modern attempt to theorise the ways people communicate love comes from Gary Chapman. In 1992, he devised a set of five Love Languages to show how romantic partners express, identify and receive love. Many people still use the theory today because it can be a helpful tool to know yourself, communicate your romantic needs to your partner and resolve conflict. (There’s a free online quiz so you can determine your Love Language.)
Chapman’s Five Love Languages:
- Acts of Service
- Physical Touch
- Quality Time
- Receiving Gifts
- Words of Affirmation
More recently, Chapman’s theory has received heavy criticism because it prioritised cis, heteronormative relationships. Based on Chapman’s research on heterosexual married couples, his theory (and related quiz) adopts a narrow view of global relationships. And so, dissatisfied with this ‘Christian, patriarchal perspective’, Sex and Relationships Educator, Anne Hodder-Shipp, has updated the Love Languages to reflect all types of relationships. (The development of the 18 Modern Love Languages came from six years of Hodder-Shipp observing herself and hundreds of others, as well as 12 years of experience as a Sex and Relationships Educator.)
Hodder-Shipp’s 18 Modern Love Languages:
- Active Listening
- Active Empathy
- Affirming Communication
- Emotional Labour
- Engaged Experiences
- Intentional Time
- Personal Growth
- Platonic Touch
- Shared Beliefs
- Thoughtful Service
- Undivided attention
You may feel (like I did) that these 18 languages could all fit in the original five languages, although Hodder-Shipp’s expansion of the original theory allows all individuals to identify the myriad ways they show love. A defining feature of the Modern Love Languages is that we don’t just have one love language. How we communicate love may be very different to how we receive love. Similarly, how we communicate and receive platonic love may be vastly different to our expression of romantic love. Hodder-Shipp is eager to point out that the Modern Love Languages intentionally centre on platonic, non-romantic and non-sexual love. She believes this focus helps illuminate how these relationships are equally important as romantic, sexual love to an individual. Relationships such as those we have with our best friends, the hairdresser and our postman are essential in our lives. By identifying other ways of experiencing love, Hodder-Shipp believes we can take some of the pressure off our romantic relationships to also offer platonic love.
Naturally, we’re not defined by our love language – like we’re not defined by our sun signs, our birthday or our attachment styles. And neither do the traditional or modern love language theories assume the most successful relationships are those between people who have identical ways of giving, receiving and experiencing love. Rather, by understanding and respecting our partner’s love language (and they ours), we can build stronger relationships – of all kinds – through learning what one another wants and needs.
Yet when we look at our romantic and sexual relationships, there is usually also the added complication of understanding how we experience pleasure. In relationships, it’s possible to simultaneously feel an absence of pleasure within the presence of love as even couples with a strong, loving bond can report their sex lives are lacking. This is because our love language isn’t the same as our sex language or, rather, love and sex do not equate to the same experience and therefore the reception and expression of love and sex are likely to differ.
Somatic sexologist Jaiya has devised five Erotic Blueprints to categorise how people experience arousal (as seen on Netflix’s recent show “Sex, Love and goop”. (Here’s a quiz to learn yours – there’s a free one as well as a paid, deeper assessment.) Knowing your arousal archetype can help you have better sex with your partner and identify the Blueprints in people when you’re in a new relationship. And this knowledge develops confidence in our sexual offerings as well as more fulfilling sex lives. (It’s worth watching the first two episodes of Sex, Love and goop to learn more.)
Jaiya’s Five Erotic Blueprints:
- Shapeshifter (all of the above)
Not only does knowing our, and our partner’s, Erotic Blueprint provide new pathways to pleasure but, like understanding our love languages, it helps us resolve conflict. One partner might feel there isn’t “enough” sex in the relationship whilst the other partner feels there isn’t the “right” kind of sex. Discovering how you experience arousal can ensure you’re both feeling satisfied in your sex lives and alleviates emotions of entitlement, rejection and misunderstanding.
Never should these tools be used to criticise a loved one or initiate an unjust break-up. We should use them as educational resources to deepen and strengthen all relationships in our lives. We might also notice our Love Language(s) or Erotic Blueprint change over time or with different partners – embrace this and enjoy the variety, you lucky thing!