A General Theory of Love (Lewis, et al. Vintage Books, 2000) is a brief, poetically written, easily understood book about attachment. I read it several years ago, and it was just as enjoyable to read it again. The reading group liked it too. We all recommend it as an introduction to attachment theory and to thinking about psychotherapy. It’s not a "how-to" book, go to Fosha’s Transforming Power of Affect for that. It’s not comprehensive, go to Allan Schore for that. It has flaws, which I’ll discuss later, but first let me sing its praises for a while.

  • The language is gorgeous. Sentences chosen at random: ". . . But insight is the popcorn of therapy. Where patient and therapist go together, the irreducible totality of their mutual journey, is the movie." (p.179) Too many therapy books are written in academese, as if the passive voice and too many clauses per sentences were required.
  • It uses easy to understand metaphors and examples to explain hard to understand concepts.
  • It’s brief, 230 double-spaced pages.
  • Wonderful quotes from fiction, poetry, and philosophy abound. (I like that kind of stuff.)
  • Lewis et al. say over and over that the relationship is the most important element of psychotherapy and then explain why.
  • It’s been around long enough that you can buy it for less than 8 bucks on Amazon.com.

Nothing is perfect, and neither is General Theory. While Lewis and company do a lovely job of explaining implicit and explicit memory, they make a (mistaken) big fuss about what they call "recovered memory". They don’t write about and probably didn’t know about traumatic memory. When an event causes high bodily and emotional arousal, it is encoded differently in a different part of the brain. (If I could remember where I know that from, I’d tell you. I think it was from Bessel van der Kolk.) It could be, "It was my 5th birthday and there was a PONY! It’s the only thing I remember about that year." Or it could be another kind of state-dependent memory: sex abuse, seeing one’s best buddy shot, or other traumatic memory. These state-dependent memories (and often, repressions) are well-documented and not worth arguing about for this trauma therapist. Lewis & friends don’t discuss trauma. "Trauma" is not in the index. And since trauma can be a huge disruptor of attachment, I think it should have been given some time and space in the book.

The second problem with AGToL is its excoriating of every therapy that isn’t the way they do it. Okay, they rip apart old-time Freudian analysis, with its emphasis on not responding. They quote Freud, "’The physician should be opaque to the patient, and, like a mirror, show nothing but what is shown to him.’. . .But since therapy is limbic relatedness, emotional neutrality drains life out of the process, leaving behind the empty husk of words." So far so good. That’s anti-attachment therapy. But they ignore all the good relational work that newer analysts are doing. Then they go after cognitive behaviorism. If practiced outside of a relational context, it can also be deadly to clients. The problem is, that they don’t look at what other therapies are supposed to do. Yes, limbic-relatedness is necessary for every good therapy. And some therapies are around to help make PTSD go away. Some help disordered thoughts become more orderly. Some enhance performance. Technique does matter, depending on what your client wants to accomplish. Use the therapy that works, as long as you do it in a relational context! So there!

Still and all, it’s a good book and a worthy read. If you do practice from a relational base, it will make you feel even better about it. If you don’t yet work that way, it tells you why you should. If I were teaching a basic therapy class, this would be the first book I’d assign.