They say attachment is all about safety. What matters in life is how you are connected. Throughout history, we have come together for protection, to procreate and to eat. We see survival collaboration in animals and even insects. Separation almost always leads to efforts to recover contact. The mere perception of possible impending loss of relationship may give rise to feelings of anger, sadness and fear. Our emotional biochemistry is changed by human connection. Prolonged separation may result in despair, and perhaps depression. You can get through a lot if you know someone is going to be there for you.
Throughout life our relationships are the primary way that we optimize continued positive emotional experience and minimize negative states. Positive ongoing connection promotes the possibility for self-reliance and security. Paradoxically, safe attachment sets us up for independence. Having people around us who are a reliable source of comfort and reassurance permits us to use our talents to expand and venture into the possibilities of our lives. Feeling securely loved mitigates against an unhappy sense of isolation and disconnection. Most of us can tolerate separation well as long as we know that there is a stable base of caring from our inner core of confidants.
A toddler who is secure in relationship to the mother will venture out to explore a new setting. We are profoundly impacted by how we are treated, what we are told and what we see as developing children. Early life repetitive relationship experiences are unwittingly internalized to become our own incorporated habits of human affiliation. Some have recently suggested that even in uterus the infant senses that the mother is safe and reliable. A gentle consistent mother renders a youngster with a secure attachment, knowing that there is parental protection, nurture and reliability. In contrast, an infant with a destructive or unreliable parent senses and is affected by this predicament even in the womb. One whose maternal attachment is insecure tends to cling to the mother in new surroundings. There are many maladaptive patterns of association that may surface in adulthood depending on the unlucky child's misadventure with unloving parents.
Adults who had unreliable parents tend to react in several rather predictable relationship patterns. If parents were untrustworthy, or there was an experience of loss or abandonment in childhood, it is harder to trust others later in life. These grown up children may be more preoccupied with their partner's responsiveness. There may be more trouble with emotional communication and fear of rejection and jealousy may be more intensified. They are often vigilant for signs of betrayal, slights and partner flaws. They may leave a relationship more readily than those who had more positive, trustworthy parenting role models.
Disrupted attachment early in life may also lead to indiscriminate attachment or avoidance of intimacy altogether. It is very compelling to see young, poorly parented preteen girls transition into adolescence, frequently rushing into romantic and sexual relationships with little discretion. This often proves disastrous as these not well loved hardly adult children find themselves pushed pell mell into adulthood responsibilities and too often early parenthood-for which they are sadly ill prepared. Another wounded generation carries their unfortunate legacy.
Dysfunctional childhood patterns of human connection or abandonment may end in adulthood anxiety and ambivalence towards intimacy. Sometimes these adults cope by idealizing others, initially only seeing them positively. They quickly move to devaluation at the first sign of human flaw. When there is a history of painful primary relationships, self protection becomes the foremost concern for future intimate encounters. Unfortunately this self protective focus promotes narcissism and confounds empathy. It is hard to be reciprocal and empathic if you are afraid. There is the terrible emotional dilemma between the longing for the security and well being of partnership and the fear of abandonment and rejection. Many suffering with this fear of relying on others find themselves chronically checking on the loyalty and responsiveness of their partner. They may be exquisitely sensitive to any nuance of rejection, distrust or loss.
When parenting has been meager or harsh, children may grow to be compulsively self reliant and sometimes emotionally detached from affection and support. Addicted or narcissistic parents frequently coax or coerce their children to cater to their adult needs. These children often learn to cope by denying their own needs in favor of prioritizing the needs of others.
Some may survive abusive parents by blocking the hurtful episodes. Unfortunately they may later find themselves selecting an abusive mate because they have unwittingly subsumed this defensive pattern. Throughout childhood experience they have learned to block out threatening information. They are no longer able to see the signs of abuse that another with a happier childhood might have quickly assessed so as to avoid the potential attachment and further abuse.
For a person to feel safe in relationship they must feel that their partner is responsive and reliable. People need to feel loved and to be in relationships where love and caring are consistently communicated. Happy relationships cannot bear many episodes of betrayal, deceit or rage. These behaviors are toxic to love. Couples provide closeness, comfort and sexual partnership. But sexuality is normally suppressed when people feel unsafe. In fact, romantic attraction is less stable than secure attachment. To some extent passion inevitably decreases. The raison d'etre becomes the reliability and consistent caring that we can count on in ongoing intimacy which is consolidated and enhanced by happy love making.
When intimate connection to others is not a part of daily life, there is a significant deficit. Remember that attachment tends to regulate feeling states, i.e., it positively impacts our emotional neurochemistry. People who avoid intimacy may have deactivated their normal tendencies to connect to others. Often this reverberates from past traumatic experience of rejection or loss. However, it is a pattern sometimes incorporated in role modeling from parents who have also detached from intimate communication. By staying on a communication level that avoids any depth of feeling, self protection becomes the first relationship priority. Emotional detachment can lead to a selfish life based on acquisition and achievement. In the end it doesn't work. The happiness research basically says that camaraderie, not money is the causal factor.
A period of personal reinvention is necessary when significant relationship is lost. We organize our lives around people we love. Significant others are the focus of our love, happiness, sadness and anger. We spend time doing things for one another. It takes a very long time to disentangle the many tendrils that have become interwoven together. Family, friends, therapy, support groups and even pets can be essential in these times of grief transition. All of these things have to do with being connected to someone or something in order to let go of another.
All people want and need validation and comfort from others. It is healthy to recognize and habitually address this integral facet of ourselves. Like children, we develop intimacy over a period of time. Consistent visits together promote familiarity. As with an infant, we must nurture the good times and minimize the bad ones so as to build a memory structure of happy associations. In our American culture there has been an historic emphasis on independence. Our society is a driven one, with less time and tolerance for developing relationship. Even in Europe the coffee shops are disappearing as we become a hurried, task-focused world that leaves little for camaraderie.
Someone recently suggested making a circle that included the people that you can't imagine living without. Then make an outer circle including those that are really important in your life but not in the inner circle. Finally make an outer circle of those significant people in your life that are not in the other two circles. Typically the ones in the inner circle number no more than a very few.
We have the good fortune to be able to use our powerful thought system to change (therapy is all about change) poor habits of relationship communication into more adaptive, updated strategies that will foster security. Fortunately as children grow and develop they may become more discerning and able to filter out maladaptive relationship strategies, proceeding to update and modify them for better gain.
The comfort and reliability of a happy relationship is a trust that takes dynamic effort but one that ironically promotes the fullest expression of our independent life talents. They say that love heals. The experience of restorative, trustworthy relationship is frequently the cure that remakes old habits of affiliation into ones that promote experiences of contentment and life fulfillment. Sometimes psychotherapy can help by facilitating the scrutiny of relationship patterns that may have evolved by role modeling or to survive troubled people of the past.
- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist