What Her Tells Us About Intimacy

My mother-in-law suggested we see the new Spike Jonze film and write about it. Despite the matching Santa bathrobes she gave us for for Christmas, this seemed like a good idea. Her is an oddly sweet and optimistic meditation on love and illustrates several important points about romantic intimacy.

A year after separating from his wife, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is still inconsolable. His dreams are haunted by sun-soaked scenes of he and Catherine (Rooney Mara) in happier times. He is suffering deeply from the loss of his marriage, and his only respite, it seems, is when he can lose himself composing love letters for people who can't find the words to express their own feelings. This is his job and he's good at it. He is a romantic surrogate, of sorts, using his empathic imagination to bridge the space between those unable to articulate their emotions. He demonstrates a high level of what neurobiologist Dan Siegel calls "Mindsight," the ability to read the feelings of others. Technology and emotional intimacy are not cast in opposing roles here, as one might expect, but enhance and compliment each other. Theodore is not avoidant or socially mistuned to the world. He has a strong sense of self and reads others well. He is longing for connection, but not ready to let go of the dream of the past.

Friends Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher) encourage him to date, but either his heart or his luck isn't into it. But then everything begins to change when he upgrades his network to a new operating system, one which customizes itself to the personality of the user. He selects the female voice option and almost instantly a playful rapport is created between he and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). The spark in his life returns as they plunge headlong into discovering each other within this shared space of unfolding intimacy. They are not only getting to know one another, they enhance one another through encouragement and curiosity. They fall in love.

Allowing our partner to act as our emotional operating system reduces a great deal of unnecessary resistance to the way we were designed. Our brains were built to be under the regulation of another close human being, mitigating pain and worry, enhancing wonder and excitement. From a relational point of view, there is no such thing as independence. We are deeply connected and we function best when we acknowledge and give in to this fact.

A romantic partner regulates us in much the same way that a mother and infant regulate and organize each other's brain. This means we actually function better under attuned interactive supervision. Attachment -- whether simulated or real -- is attachment. Both Theodore and Samantha thrive under the attentive focus they give one another. They excite one another and calm one another -- the two basic functions of deep connection. Theodore reassures Samantha when she grows jealous of Catherine. At night, they are the last persons they speak with and in the mornings the first. They are available for each other 24/7, and both are free to reach out for reassurance at anytime. He regulates her emotions just as much as she regulates his. They take care of each other. Thea and I integrate many of these practices into our own relationship. Theodore protects and elevates Samantha in his front pocket with a safety pin so that she can keep on eye on his environment and watch out for him. With his eyes closed, she guides him through a busy public square, navigating him to an ice cream stand. A trust walk exercise that shows how comfortable they are with with interdependency.

"Attachment is based on collaborative communication. Secure attachment involves contingent communication, in which the signals of one person are directly responded to by the other. Partners tune in to each other other's feelings and intentions in a dance of connection...perceiving and responding to each other's mental state," writes neuroscientist Louis Cozolino in his book The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain.

"We need not only to be understood and cared about," he goes on, "but to have another individual simultaneously experience a state of mind similar to our own. With this shared, collaborative experience life can be filled with an integrating sense of connection and meaning."

Deep attachment to at least one other person seems to be our evolutionary imperative. We are wired for it, writes couples therapist Stan Tatkin. He explains that we need to understand our partner's operating manual. We must learn what their triggers are and what brings them joy so that we can avoid the first and provide the second.

The relationship between Theodore and Samantha comes to an end, but it is by no means a failure. As Daphne Kingma Rose explains in The Future of Love, the romantic relationship, whether it lasts or not, provides us with the opportunity to advance our developmental agenda. Our relationships can be stepping stones, or stairs to growth. Samantha leaves him and the rest humankind for a higher disembodied love, releasing Theodore oddly where she found him. Alone. But with a difference. He doesn't feel alone. He and Amy sit on the roof top together, deeply connected in their apparent singleness, both connected as well to the great fabric of life on a more deeper level than ever.

Her does not stoop to the expected critique of modern society and our relationship to technology. This film is instead a sparkling, luminous love letter of possibility and hope to all those who yearn to love.