THE ROYAL EXCHANGE: For your book Love Factually you interviewed hundreds of people around the world about love. What are the most common thoughts and sentiments that prevailed?
LAURA MUCHA: Kindness came up a lot in the interviews. One lady who had been in a relationship for 17 years said her girlfriend had been kinder to their cat than she was to her. After they broke up she realised that all she wanted, above anything else, was kindness. The International Mate Selection Project – a survey that studied 10,047 people across six continents – cited kindness and understanding as the most important things in a romantic partner. It gives me faith in humanity to know that these are the prevailing things we all value.
TRE: What made you decide to write the book?
LM: I was raised by my mum and grandparents until my grandfather (who I called Dad) died when I was 11. My mum and grandma were amazing, but without the dynamic of a romantic relationship to observe, growing up, I found myself interrogating everyone that I met about their relationships to try and understand them better.
One day, while I was travelling in Argentina, I met a farmer who had been married for 75 years. He told me that you should treat your relationships as you would your crops – you need to cultivate them. I’d never heard anyone compare a relationship to a crop before and I thought other people might be interested to hear these stories too, so I started to document them.
TRE: And what did you discover? Is love something that can be learned?
LM: I don’t think that lust or the initial excitement of romantic love can necessarily be learned but I think the sort of love that makes long-term relationships last can be. Not everyone has grown up in circumstances that have enabled them to understand how it works.
TRE: So how and where do we start to educate ourselves better about how to love?
LM: Learning how to love involves understanding your own individual patterns of behaviour and how they might be unhelpful in relationships. Learning what those patterns might be, or why they might come about, is really helpful but intellectual learning alone isn’t necessarily going to create the change that might be needed. It’s easy to learn academic theories, without ever really looking at what you’re doing in your own life. I think one of the most useful ways to explore these patterns is attachment theory, which is one of the most important theories of human development of the last century. I explore this in Love Factually and am now doing a project with Audible on the subject.
TRE: So it’s about putting what we learn into practice?
LM: And paying attention, sometimes to things that might be quite painful. If your parents divorced when you were young, or you were bereaved, or you grew up with domestic violence or were abused, then that’s likely to have impacted you and the way you relate to others in some way. Sometimes understanding how it’s impacted you requires a lot of introspection, and possibly the help of an appropriate therapist.
TRE: We need to start by looking inwards and being honest with ourselves first then?
LM: Yes, but it’s a combination of being prepared to look inwards and choosing to surround yourself with kind people who are capable of the sort of relationship you would like to have. For example, it’s going to be quite hard to try and develop love and compassion for yourself if you’re living with someone abusive.
There is some research in attachment theory that suggests that if you have an anxious or avoidant attachment pattern (which can be unhelpful in relationships) and you get together with someone who has a secure pattern, then over time, that will change you and you will become secure. It would be oversimplifying things to say that you need to magically become secure and love yourself before you can have a successful relationship, because I think ‘self-love’ is an ongoing process – something you have to continually work on.
TRE: We often think of love in the romantic sense, but it extends to our relationships with family and friends too. Fundamentally, do the same rules apply in all relationship dynamics, or is it different?
LM: Yes and no. Some values – such as kindness, compassion, self-reflectiveness and being non-judgemental – are useful to all relationships but there’s something about intimate relationships that can bring about behaviours that may not be seen in less intimate ones. For example, if you have an avoidant attachment pattern you are likely to disconnect from your emotions and overvalue independence. This is likely to be more pronounced in your intimate relationships than with a friend who you see twice a year, because your independence is more at threat in a romantic relationship.
TRE: So extra self-awareness is needed in our intimate relationships?
LM: Yes, but it’s also about recognising that it is interactive – it’s not just about you.
TRE: For a lot of people, after their romantic partners, the people they spend the most time with are their work colleagues.
LM: That’s true. I used to work in the City as a lawyer and for years I worked very long hours with a small group of people on one case. But the amount of time you spend with people is just one factor. Your intimate relationships – with your partner, your parents, your children, possibly your closest friends – they are what you would call an attachment bond. I’ve looked into research on attachment theory in the workplace and it’s in its infancy; there is some debate among attachment researchers as to whether a work relationship can be an attachment bond. But if you spend a lot of time together, become very close and talk to each other about what’s going on in your personal life then some researchers would argue it could become an attachment bond.
Attachment bonds aside though, if your attachment pattern impacts how you regulate your emotions that will likely affect your behaviour in the workplace. For example, if you are avoidant then you’re unlikely to connect with your emotions particularly well, so you might be better at practically solving a crisis, but you might not be as good at responding to your colleagues’ emotional needs.
TRE: Love extends beyond relationships, to our careers and hobbies. What principals of love can we apply to help us find more fulfilment across all areas of our lives?
LM: I think it’s really important to think about what you value in life and who you want to be as a person. The same can be applied to work, lifestyle and who you want to be in a relationship with. For example, if you decide that kindness is important to you and then you find yourself in an environment where kindness isn’t valued, it may not be the right environment for you, even if it ticks lots of other boxes like high salary, status, or intellectual stimulation.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a branch of psychology that tries to help clarify what you find meaningful. Some of the exercises ask you to ‘think of someone that you admire and then explore why you admire them’; or ask ‘what would you like people to say about you at your funeral?’ and ‘if you won the lottery what would you do with the money?’ In the busyness of the day-to-day, I think it’s really easy to lose a sense of the bigger picture and to overlook the importance of your values.
TRE: What advice would you give to busy people, living and working in the City, who would like to invite more love into their lives?
LM: Look at the bigger picture and think about what you are prioritising. If having intimate meaningful relationships with people is really important to you – whether that’s with a romantic partner, your parents, children or best friend – are you creating the time and space to allow those relationships to thrive? If what’s important to you is work and family then are you giving them enough space each, or are you actually giving 90% to work and 10% to family? And if you are giving 90% to your work, is that a conscious choice?
Juan the Argentinian farmer said it’s about cultivating relationships as you would your crops. It’s about the little things. Relationships aren’t made up of birthdays and anniversaries, they’re made up of tiny little moments. Those moments are really easy to overlook when you have a lot on and you’re working very hard, but it is those moments that are fundamental to the wellbeing of a relationship.
Laura Mucha is an author, poet and love expert. Her book Love Factually: Who, How and Why We Love combines insights gained from interviews with hundreds of people of all ages and demographics with science-backed research on the topic, and is published by Bloomsbury; lauramucha.com
Conversations in the Courtyard is a monthly series that invites today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas at The Royal Exchange in the City of London