LOUPS Conference 2014: Relationships


We perhaps, Meg John Barker suggests, live in a time of a potential rewriting of the rules of relationships. In such times, we have a choice. We can grasp old rules, grasp new rules, or, learn somehow to live with uncertainty. Although it is a time of uncertainty, romantic love has perhaps a presence in our society as a kind of quasi-religion, providing a sense of meaning, context and importance.

Despite this almost religious focus on romantic relationships, there also arises an existential tension between freedom and belonging. Meg John Barker suggests that this tension is 'writ large' in our current experience of intimate relationships. On the one hand, close intimate relationships give us security; on the other, they can become burdensome, and limit the very freedom we need to relate well.

Meg John pointed out that many of the most popular self-help books in the relationship sphere focus on a 'rule'- or 'game'-based approach, and are both hereto-normative and mono-normative. She explored some ways in which such approaches may ultimately be unsatisfying, including the privileging of gender inequality, and the promotion of perhaps unrealistic ideas of 'the one' who will fulfil all needs.

She then explored alternative approaches - for example, polyamory, which can serve to challenge normative power dynamics, and redefine older understandings of concepts such as jealousy. She pointed out that, in a fight against uncertainty, even alternative communities grasp for complex rules and ideals of their own.

If the normative approach is the thesis, and the alternatives are an antithesis, then Meg John offers a kind of synthesis in the idea of embracing uncertainty between the monogamy/non-monogamy binary. There is such a multiplicity of approaches, that it is worth, perhaps, each individual exploring all these things for themselves. Psychologically, the creative conceptualising of multiple continua might enable individuals to identify themselves more appropriately than they could by following pre-made rules. Meg John also suggested that departure from contractual norms need not mean departure from an ethical approach.

Questions afterwards included appeals to consider diversities such as culture and age, and how they might affect the revisiting of relationships; subtleties of the mind-body relationship; communication between different social groups with different approaches; the impact of religious rules; and handling the tensions that different standpoints within relationships can engender.


Gillian defines attachment as wanting to be close to another, and feeling the stress of separation. With this in mind, she introduced us to Watson's early behaviourist approach, advocating a physical stand-offishness that would seem strange to us now. She explored Bowlby's later fascination with the nature of a child's tie to its mother, and took us through to Harry Harlow's controversial experiments using monkeys, creating 'motherless mothers' in order to understand nurture in more depth.

Gillian moved on to Mary Ainsworth's 'strange situation' explorations of attachment styles, and Hazan and Shaver's later look at how adult attachment styles are distributed. Citing some interesting studies (e.g. Bolvin et al., 2008) she suggested that a difficult childhood environment can almost entirely override any genetic component of a stress response.

She introduced us to the biochemistry of the stress response, illustrating experimental work with animals that demonstrates how early tactile licking and grooming can actually change the way in which stress-related genes (involving the methylation of glucocorticoid receptors) are expressed. She drew some links to recent experimental work on human stress responses.

To everyone's amusement (though acknowledging sinister implications), she explored the commercial marketing of Oxytocin as a promoter of social bonding. Going back to animal studies, she showed evidence to suggest that oxytocin production is also linked to childhood maternal grooming, and that oxytocin can regulate monogamy in some animals.

Pulling it together, she drew a link between childhood neglect, stress reactivity, and a more anxious adult attachment style. Looking wider, she also suggested that socioeconomic stress may influence the epigenetic regulation of stress and attachment.

Given the implication of methylation in the above system, she finished by looking at possible therapies. Some foods (e.g. folic acid, green tea, vitamin B12) seems to have potential for a positive effect; some psychiatric drugs (such as Prozac) also seem to have an epigenetic effect via methylation. Furthermore, behaviours such as exercise, and exposure to novelty, can have positive epigenetic effects. In addition, psychotherapy might be considered, in terms of its action, an epigenetic drug.


Andreas asked an interesting question: complete the sentence 'infidelity is like...' In answering that question privately for ourselves, he suggested, we are offering ourselves a metaphorical framework for the understanding of infidelity. Andreas reviewed, via feedback from studies, some of the metaphors commonly used. These included infidelity as a medical disease; infidelity as a crime; infidelity as a natural disaster. Such images are perhaps more value-laden than appreciated in a therapeutic context.

Moving on from the metaphors used, Andreas explored what we might include in, and exclude from, our definitions of infidelity. He cited exploratory work with counsellors, which found complex interactions between behavioural and contextual definition. Complexities include, for instance, a blurring of public/

private definitions brought about by the telecommunications revolution; and a number of cultural and religious complexities. Among counsellors consulted, a number spoke of infidelity in terms of emotional connection, and not necessarily involving sexual behaviour.

A definitional approach raises the possibility of examining where individuals' cut-off points might lie for judging when infidelity has occurred. If definitions are broad enough, then infidelity may include non-sexual relationships, and activities that negatively affect the primary relationship. Widening the theme to implicit theories underlying counselling approaches, some counsellors view infidelity as a response to unmet need, as a symptom rather than a cause. In general, working with tensions between definitions may be a significant part of therapeutic work with couples.

Further work Andreas highlighted has isolated some key challenges in working with couples. Given the tension involved in a disclosure, therapists need to provide a containing space in which raw emotions can be worked through. Furthermore, the different needs of each partner need to be attended to: for instance, the unfaithful partner may wish to restore peace and move on, whereas the disclosed-to partner may wish to hear much detail, and understand what has happened. Part of reconciliation, if it is possible, can be establishing a sense of joint accountability. Equally, if the past cannot be the future, then complex outcomes need to be attended to: perhaps separation; perhaps lop- sidedness in terms of who benefits; perhaps re-negotiation of boundaries.

Looking at the internet and infidelity, Andreas pointed to two surveys currently set up to examine the perceptions and experiences of internet infidelity. He noted that definitions are flexible, and pointed to the need to track perceptions as they evolve.

A lively and long question-and-answer session was wide ranging and stimulating, and included discussion of the methodological and linguistic difficulties of conducting research and therapy in such a value-laden area. There was a sense that the potential to widen and develop research parameters, in the light of different views of relationship, is huge.


Fred began by likening the brain to an old house, or an old system perhaps, made modern. Organisms have for a long time shown the characteristics of self-sustaining systems, which form the foundations of behaviour. Fred took his audience through the story of the development of a behavioural model of his own, from his first 'wanting-and-liking' model, to a model revised by others which heavily differentiates between

wanting and liking. Fred explained that he had eventually had to admit the distinction, given findings that identified wanting with the dopaminergic system, and liking with the operation of opioids.

Fred then argued that belonging, or affiliation, is subject to the above systematic approach, and to explanation in evolutionary terms. In other words, finding comfort in, or closeness with, others, can be understood as a functionally-evolved driver in humans. This system might also be understood as a tend-and-befriend system (as distinguishable from a fight-or-flight system), with clear advantages in evolutionary terms. Fred looked widely at evidence confirming the idea of belonging as a fundamental, necessary human trait, including an urge towards group formation, and the existence of a seemingly natural appetite for relationship.

The importance of opioids to functioning was illustrated with reference to animal studies, and Fred asserted his own strong view that drug addiction was heavily influenced by alienation from social bonds, or social exclusion. Other behaviours linked to belonging may include self-harm, in which causing physical harm to the self seems to increase the level of opioids in the system. Oxytocin seems to bear a relation to degrees of empathy and concern; simply observing altruism can increase oxytocin levels; and oxytocin may well be implicated in ingroup consolidation. Oxytocin is implicated in two relationship-based systems, sexual motivation and attachment motivation (Fred cited work by Lisa Diamond). These can work with each other, or in divergent fashion.

Social attachment, and substance dependence, seem to reflect one another, Fred argued, citing such symptoms as loss of control, withdrawal, and failure of rational insight. There seems to him to be a deep-seated connection between drug-attachment and person-attachment. There was quite an audience reaction when Fred shared his view that women show a lower reliance than men on a wanting urge, but have a high reliance on a liking urge more comparable with men.

The behavioural effect of uncertainty via the dopaminergic system was explored, and a link made to the sometimes gut- churning effect of early relationship uncertainty. Fred pointed to uncertainty stimulating 'pathway 2' in the dopaminergic system, related to novel sensory impressions in an unpredictable environment. All this, Fred argues, leads to a human dilemma between the reliability we like, and the novelty we seek. Fetishism, adultery, and the inclusion of further sexual relationships, are well-known ways of adding novelty.

Fred explored aspects of sexual addiction, pointing out that the internet gives such an addiction high potency, with the high levels of control, novelty,

uncertainty and arousal necessary to make addiction potent. Looking at a range of addictions, Fred cited work suggesting that early selective exposure to one addiction, means that the particular addiction concerned becomes key, but not other addictions. In other words, addiction is object-selective.

His conclusion was that belonging is more of a fundamental human urge, defining how we behave in relationships, than may have been acknowledged in other hierarchical approaches to human need.

Questions were wide-ranging, and covered a wide gamut of social and biological concerns.

Overall, the day offered a very varied selection of perspectives, and a range of speakers all showing the lively balance of humour, knowledge and flexibility characteristic of the very best of OU lecturers.