A descriptive look at my theory on the Spiral of Love
The Spiral of Love
Marshall L. Shearer, MD
Marguerite R. Shearer, MD
The following is excerpted from the authors’ relationship book Maximizing Happiness Through Intimate Communication:
How you can nurture the love in a relationship; how love grows or declines.
Love and intimate friendships can grow or decline. The change in love occurs in a cycle. Each cycle is visualized as one turn on the vertical dimension; hence, “spiral” is a more apt analogy.
Movement in either vertical direction is possible. A cycle of increasing love would be one turn upward on the spiral. Decrease in love is represented by a downward turn. These changes along the vertical are incremental changes, which means that the spiral continually adds to or subtracts from the quantity of love between the couple.
We will describe the spiral with clearly delineated steps, which are most easily recognized at the beginning of a relationship, as most romance novels demonstrate. In relationships of longer duration the steps are not as discrete, though they are still easily recognizable. We will describe a negative spiral later. Below is the outline of a positive spiral:
The Spiral Of Love
Each of the seven elements of the spiral leads to the next element of the spiral. In a long-term stable relationship, the incremental change is often imperceptible.
Description of the Steps of a “Spiral”
Self-Esteem: Self-esteem is one’s feeling of self-worth, a general overall feeling of confidence. Two of the chief components of self-esteem are one’s sense of skills and competence, and one’s sense of lovability. The latter is the result of experiences of parents’ love or love from parent surrogates, as well as past sweethearts and lovers. Self-esteem also is a function of one’s appraisal of how others view you on multiple dimensions—your reputation. If yours is favorable, and if you think it is genuine rather than a façade, your self-esteem will be enhanced. Self-respect is a part of self-esteem.
Role in the spiral: People with high self-esteem feel they deserve loving-caring relationships with elements of respect, protection of vulnerability, and trust. People with low self-esteem usually fear rejection, so they won’t risk meaningful encounters like asking for a date, especially if they feel the other person is too good for them. People with high self-esteem have the confidence to create an encounter with a stranger whom they admire or find attractive, even at the risk of rejection.
An Encounter: Whether on first meeting or in an established relationship, an encounter is any interaction: a glance across a crowded room, a meeting, a request for a date, a gift, an expression of a preference for an evening’s activities, a request for sex. It may also be any expression of an opinion, an offer of a favor, an act of consideration, or a conversation. Sometimes an encounter is not intentional, such as being assigned to work together or some other coincidental circumstance.
Role in the spiral: Without an encounter, there is no spiral, no movement in the relationship. In an encounter, one or both individuals want to impress the other in some way and to gain or augment his/her respect.
Mutual Respect: Respect must be mutual or quasi-mutual. The respect a fan has for an entertainment superstar doesn’t constitute a relationship. Respect generated by an adversarial relationship can turn to friendship or love. The respect or admiration each has need not be based on the same trait(s). Sometimes a relationship begins with banter and repartee that often ends in a “draw.” People work together for extended periods of time without any special interest; then a relationship begins when something occurs that creates significant respect between them.
From a beginning relationship to one that has existed for years, the role of respect is the same. The traits admired by a partner may shift, e.g., from valuing dare-devilish actions and beauty, drive, and ambition in a new relationship to valuing reliability, stability, and competence as a parent.
Role in the spiral: The depth of respect is a major indication of the importance of the relationship to the individual. One of the individual’s attitudes, perhaps outside of full awareness is: “If I want the other’s respect, I need to say or do something impressive, which means being vulnerable.” This accounts for much of the klutziness of some people who have recently fallen in love.
Vulnerability: Vulnerability is being open to being hurt. Vulnerability is the inevitable result of psychological intimacy, which in turn is the sharing of one’s inner thoughts and feelings; it is sharing secrets, hopes, fears, embarrassments, expectations, both physical and psychological handicaps, and self-felt weaknesses, e.g., “I have had cancer and had a breast (or testicle) removed. I accept this, and most of the time it doesn’t bother me, but there are times I don’t feel like a whole woman (or man).” An “I need ________” statement, whether expressed in words or behavior, is a vulnerable statement. Not every request, desire, or complaint needs to be agreed with; rather, each statement needs to be accepted and given serious consideration, weighing it with or against your own desires or complaints.
Intimacy is allowing the other person access to parts of the self that can be hurt. Vulnerability is the result of letting the other person inside your usual defenses. Usually when two people recognize that the relationship is becoming serious, they share background information, including how each has been hurt before.
In the beginning of a relationship, vulnerability may be one-sided. But for the relationship to bloom, the vulnerability must be mutual. One-sided vulnerability breeds suspicion and resentment. A refusal to be vulnerable can doom a relationship. There are times that being honest will require being vulnerable. In an ongoing relationship, the scope and depth of vulnerability will be greater, and the partner will feel more secure that nothing of importance is being withheld. Increases in vulnerability flow from an increase in the sense of being loved. (For a more comprehensive discussion of vulnerability, see Chapter 4)
Role in the spiral: Vulnerability is directly proportional to psychological intimacy. Inherent in the decision to reveal personal information to another is the expectation that it will be kept confidential—that is, be protected.
Vulnerability Protected: Because confidentiality is already expected, protecting the other’s vulnerability does not further enhance the other’s respect or trust of you. However, to reveal that information would be a major hurt and result in a decrease of the other’s respect and trust. The hurt can be experienced as a betrayal. Failure to protect the other’s vulnerability turns a spiral negative. Some people are not sensitive about who knows of their sexual activity, or prior marriages, or criminal record; others are very sensitive about that information. You are free to ask if the other person wants that information kept confidential. If there is any doubt in your mind about your partner’s attitude, don’t reveal the information. In an argument, never throw up a vulnerability of your partner in an effort to hurt him/her. Each individual needs to feel secure that his/her vulnerabilities are and will be protected by the other, even in an argument.
Another category of protection is being ready to protect your partner from others. This can be someone who has knowledge of a vulnerability, e.g., a parent, sibling, or former lover, or perhaps someone without knowledge who nevertheless happens to be causing a hurt in some way that your partner is vulnerable. Don’t move in so fast as to usurp your partner making his/her own stand. Rather, take your cue from some signal from your partner.
Role in the spiral: Failing to protect your partner’s vulnerability will change the direction of the spiral, making it one of declining love or a withdrawal from the relationship. When vulnerabilities are not protected, further disclosure of vulnerabilities will likely cease, at least for a while—perhaps until there is a sincere apology and a realistic expectation that in the future one’s vulnerabilities will be protected. Your protection of your partner’s vulnerability is assumed, and has resulted in an increase of respect and trust.
Trust: Trust means counting on your partner not to hurt you deliberately or carelessly, either physically or, more importantly, psychologically. “You have protected my vulnerability. I can trust you. It is safe to love you.”
Role in the spiral: The incremental change in trust, increase or decrease, is one of the payoffs of the prior steps of the spiral. It affects the amount of residual good will and expectations for the future.
Feeling Loved: The spiral has moved upward. There is an increased sense of loving and being loved. This is the payoff. It generates a growing sense of closeness, and of being valued for who you are. When the physical intimacy of sexual intercourse is combined with psychological intimacy, the resulting closeness is an even greater sense of loving and being loved. Each wants even more, and each understands that the other has the same needs for psychological intimacy. The result is usually more psychological disclosures that increase vulnerability.
Role in the spiral: Couples who together achieve a sense of being loved want to meet each other’s needs, constantly demonstrating their love and their worthiness to be loved. This results in mutually increased self-esteem, respect, protection, and trust, plus more vulnerable disclosures and an even greater sense of being loved.
Self-Esteem: In an ongoing relationship, the level of self-esteem is a reflection of the accumulation of all the spirals of love that have transpired between them during their time together. If the relationship has been good, both partners’ self-esteem is high and they are willing to make requests of each other easily. They expect their partner will want to fulfill the request and will be willing to go out of the way to do so. If the relationship has been continuous bickering, they half expect the partner to remind them of one of their shortcomings, or to receive a put-down of some sort. They expect an emotional rejection, even if the partner fulfills the request. When a relationship is so good that it enhances both partners’ self-esteem, it leads to greater intimacy, vulnerability, trust, and momentum upward in the Spiral of Love.
The Spiral Repeats Again and Again
The incremental changes of love from a given spiral vary depending on the emotional importance of that spiral. This incremental change is represented by the vertical distance covered as a relationship moves up or down the spiral. If the change is minimal, the spiral can be pictured as tight, covering minimal distance. If the change is substantial, the spiral is spread out on the vertical dimension. Large incremental changes are more common in courtship and new partnerships. With every request and every expression of a desire, with every complaint and every hurt, a new vulnerability is presented and the love will grow or shrink.
Love can grow or decline. A growth Spiral of Love results in an increase not only in love and a sense of lovability, but also in trust, self-esteem, respect, and willingness to be vulnerable with the realistic belief that vulnerability will be protected.
©Copyright 2004 by Marshall L. Shearer, MD and Marguerite R. Shearer, MD.