Love Through the Lens of Science and Faith

Dallas Willard often said that love is simply acting on what is good for another. And, he reminds, “the first act of love is always the giving of attention.” 

We asked one of our senior fellows of the Martin Institute to reflect on the importance of love and relationship. Andrea Gurney, a psychologist and professor at Westmont College has recently written a book on love and relationship, Reimagining Your Love Story: Biblical and Psychological Practices for Healthy Relationships.

 We hope you will read her reflections and that they point you to her book which crescendos with descriptions of the work needed for love to permeate our relationships.
Andrea Gurney

§

Table of contents

§

Love through the Lens of Science and Faith

As a clinical psychologist, I liken my line of work to the art of listening and the science of relationships. I spend many hours behind closed doors listening to my clients. Countless stories are told about family members, friends, and lovers; stories of joy, pain, hope and hurt. I watch beautiful and redemptive moments unfold as couples and families resolve simple conflicts to deeper hurts. Although the word “love” might never be spoken in our time together, at the end of the day, I am left with an overwhelming sense that love lies at the heart of each story.

Inspired by the greatest love story of all time—the one between God and humanity—and the stories told within the walls of my clinical office, I wrote Reimagining Your Love Story in hopes of realigning our own loves.

Although we are connected today in ways our grandparents couldn’t fathom, we are lonelier as a society than ever before. We grapple with higher rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety, with more single parent homes and fewer marriages. It seems we are missing the mark on the very thing for which we were created—namely loving, intimate connections.

If the art of listening points me toward love, what does the science of relationships indicate? Relationship science indicates that love challenges us to move from self-absorption to attunement with another. Love enables us to enter in to another’s story, truly seeing others with compassion and care. There is mutuality in our relationships when we are able to holistically embrace and connect with the other. This science of love is based on attachment theory.

Love 1.0: Attached at the Heart

Attachment theory was pioneered by John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist who worked with children in post-war Europe. Bowlby asserted that all babies and young children innately display “proximity-seeking behavior,” or a desire to be physically and emotionally close to their caregiver. In contrast with the dominant psychoanalytic wisdom of the time, Bowlby claimed that loving relationships are key to mental health and survival—an ingenious survival technique wired in by evolution.

Research since the time of Bowlby confirms that we are dependent on one another from “the cradle to the grave.” Perhaps the most striking results come from mortality studies conducted in industrialized nations that consistently find that individuals who are emotionally and socially connected live longer, healthier lives. Loving connections reduce illness and relapse in individuals with pre-existing medical and psychological conditions.

Whether it’s depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, or cancer, we do better when we are in supportive relationships. And then there’s married folks; people who are in a satisfying marriage live longer, have less psychiatric problems, have a decreased risk of infection, quicker recovery from an injury, and a lower rate of mortality following a life-threatening illness than those who are unmarried. Secure attachments are a natural buffer and antidote for helplessness and meaninglessness. In other words, a deep sense of belonging results in the taming of fear.

Consider the words Jesus left with his disciples before he prepared to return to the Father: “And Jesus said: I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). In the same way, God tenderly reassures the nation of Israel in the Old Testament: “Fear not, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). And God offers the same reassurance to us. He is here. Present. Always. Thousands of years later, scientific studies affirm the truth of God’s promise: we are made for deep relationship and it is within these relationships that love is born.

Both scientific research and Biblical truths speak to the protective power of intimate relationships. We are designed to love a few precious others who will protect us through the trials and tribulations of life. As researcher and psychologist Sue Johnson writes, “Sex may impel us to mate, but it is love that assures our existence.”  We cannot survive without it. History repeatedly shows us this. From the children Bowlby worked with in post-war Europe to the infamous case of Genie who was bound in a crib and locked alone in a room for the first 13 years of her life, we have learned that emotional isolation not only has the potential to make us sick, but the power to kill us. Because we are inexorably social beings, the most catastrophic event involves the shattering of human connections. As W. H. Auden put it, “We must love one another or die.” This is, after all, the message we have heard from the beginning (1 John 3:11).

Love Reclaimed

Love—that deep, emotional bond between two people—does indeed lie at the heart of every one of our stories. Whether it’s a love between friends, family members, or a romantic partner, we are all engaged in a call-and-response system, a dyadic synchrony; I liken it to a dance, full of emotional dialogue and interaction.

At our best, we hold each other close and seamlessly engage with one another, mutually taking turns, gently leading and following, respectful of each other’s space but also not afraid to become one.

But like the best professional dancers, we occasionally fall and trip and step on each other’s toes. We get hurt. Maybe crushed at times. And then we get up and start over again—at least that is the hope. The dance continues. Partners might change, we learn new steps and moves, and we perfect old ones. We draw close and we step back; we move together in harmony and we go out on our own, proud to do our own thing occasionally. The dance continues, weaving through time and space, yet grounding us in the here-and-now.

For Christians who put their faith in a Triune God, the author of all love, we have assurance that our ultimate dance partner will always protect, always trust, always hope, and always persevere. Christ modeled the greatest act of love, through His sacrifice on our behalf, while God the Father shows us mercy and grace, and the Holy Spirit indwells to infuse our hearts with God’s presence and comfort.

Now cue the music—and get out on the dance floor.

Dr. Andrea Gurney is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and beloved golden doodle! She has spent the past two decades working with children, adolescents, individuals, couples and families in her private practice. She is a champion for relationships.