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Love, Sex, and…"Affect-Regulation?”

A few weeks ago, I spent the better part of a three-day weekend at the 12th annual UCLA Extension/Lifespan Learning Institute’s Interpersonal Neurobiology Conference. I’ve attended every one despite the achy back I can count on during a 7-hour, butt glued to a folding chair, day. 

I wouldn’t miss it. I go for the intellectual stimulation—for how the speakers fill in the attachment connection to my own work on loving relationships and sexual aliveness. I also go for the deeper insights I continue to gain about how my own attachment history has influenced my emotional life and relationships. I appreciate the neuroscience perspective on what has enabled me to overcome a painful childhood.

This year's event was especially poignant as the entire conference was dedicated as a tribute to the work of UCLA professor Dr. Allan Schore. Schore’s work over the past 20 years has been seminal in drawing the connection between early parent-child bonding and how the brain and nervous system become programmed for emotional security or insecurity. His research also clarifies what makes this early programming so resistant to change and, without effective therapy, likely to persist throughout a person’s lifetime.

Dr. Allan Schore
Dr. Allan Schore

Schore’s fundamental insight he calls “affect-regulation.” He's shown that how well the mother (or primary caretaker) can soothe the child’s fear or discomfort during the first days, months and years of life, programs the nonverbal right hemisphere of the brain to feel safe and confident or anxious, needy or avoidant. The right hemisphere is where memories, emotions, and motivations get laid down. As adults, old neural associations can be triggered by body language in any exchange between people. Depending on the attachment style, these subtle cues can evoke feelings of self-worth and affection for the other or self-doubt, resentment, and shame, without any awareness of being triggered. This is especially the case in an intimate relationship.

The weekend was a testament to Schore’s widespread interdisciplinary influence as 16 speakers applied affect-regulation to child-rearing and moral development, mitigating risk in infants of divorce, healing emotional trauma and PTSD, understanding and treating addiction, couple therapy, aging, and other issues.

Here are a few snippets from a wealth of interesting observations:

UCLA Professor Dan Siegel described Schore’s concept of "interpersonal neurobiology" as a milestone in the history of the development of psychological understanding. Studies show that the right brains of two people in close proximity are in a constant non-conscious state of nonverbal communication, automatically triggering brain activity and emotional reactivity. A secure attachment style enables an individual to effectively self-regulate stress, which, the data show, nurtures healthy regulatory circuits in the brain that enhance executive functions like memory, reasoning, and problem-solving. To Siegel, a parent’s most important skill for encouraging a child’s secure attachment was to honor their parent-child differences through “compassionate communication.” What a great phrase for also encouraging a secure attachment, stress-regulation, and healthy brains for intimate adults!

Couple therapist Stan Tatkin reminded us that secure individuals are collaborative, not fearful of engulfment or abandonment, and can create win-win situations. His work focuses on helping couples repair their emotional injuries so they can be “unafraid of each other.” I liked hearing how he creates experiments in a session so couples can learn to repair. In my body-based Gestalt work we also devise present-centered experiments for couples to play with new ways of doing things, during therapy and at home.

Therapist Alex Katehakis works within a sex addiction model to treat individuals preoccupied with sexual fantasy who engage in risky behaviors despite negative consequences. She was clear that people who self-identify as sex addicts don’t get much pleasure out of sex. Rather they are driven to seek novelty and motivated by shame; her work involves helping these individuals to better understand themselves and to learn to regulate their emotional states. I enjoyed her presentation but it was clear that I work with a different population. The individuals and couples who seek me out primarily want to be fulfilled in a committed relationship; they want to resolve the issues limiting intimacy and to better nurture loving connection and sexual pleasure.

I enjoyed somatic therapist Pat Ogden’s important contributions on working with the body in therapy and how the right brain represents a non-conscious part of the self that is manifested in the body. She urged therapists to be attuned to a client’s “somatic narrative,” visible in the client’s facial expressions, gestures and bodily reactions. This is very much in line with my own focus on the body. I incorporate breath work and felt-sense awareness to help people tune into present-moment experience, mental imagery, and where they hold emotions in the body.

At the end of the conference therapist Judith Schore and Allan Schore looked back on their personal and professional journey together and forward into what lays ahead in this work. I was moved by how Judith was a contributing partner in her support of her husband’s twenty years of dedicated study and writing. I appreciated hearing about how Allan’s father was such a powerful model influencing him to become knowledgeable about a wide variety of sciences in order to shed light on psychological development.

In his studies, Allan said, “I saw regulation to be at the connection between all the different sciences I was researching.” He added, “I learned to play piano because I wanted to create music and think in images as well as in thoughts.” He noted that regulation of nonverbal mind-body states by the right brain is fast processing versus the slow processing of the language and logic focus of the left brain. The right brain he reminded us is the source of creativity.

And so ended another intellectually exciting Attachment Conference. It was a weekend well spent, my left brain was spinning with ideas and my butt was sore—but my right brain couldn’t be happier. 

For more information about the Attachment Conferences see the Lifespan Learning Institute

For more information about how I've integrated love, attachment, and sexuality, see my latest book, The Heart of Desire: Keys to the Pleasures of Love.

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