The Need for Connection with Others through Attachment
At the end of week 9 of quarantine, I am feeling an intense need to be in the presence of other people. I have no agenda, no ideas for plans or parties, no expectations. I just need to be around others. While Zoom has kept me in close contact with friends and family, it just doesn’t quite match the experience of hugging my loved ones, laughing in person, feeling the energy
of those around me.
Now more than ever, the sense of needing to connect with human beings is being felt worldwide. We live in a time and within a culture that has become exceedingly independent, isolated, and individualistic. This has served us well during a pandemic when we’ve been forced to isolate. Long-term though, isolation from human contact is unsustainable. It would not only drive us crazy but possibly lead to our extinction.
In the late 1930’s, John Bowlby, a British psychologist realized that early connection to others was key to human development and survival. During this time, in the early twentieth century, parents often dropped their sick children off at hospitals to let the medical staff deal with them on their own. Bowlby studied and worked with orphaned children in Europe after World War II. He saw that neglected and orphaned children who were otherwise healthy often became sick or died. They were emotionally starved. In a period when parents thought excessive nurture and emotional availability created clingy, coddled children, his ideas were radical. Bowlby’s research showed the necessity of early attachment to other humans, that loving contact with others is equally as important as physical nutrition.
Today, his discoveries are commonplace. Babies, infants, and kids need their caregivers to develop and thrive. We accept that the need for connection is inextricably woven into the fabric of being human.
So how do we connect?
We connect through attachment.
And what does it mean to attach?
The dictionary says that to attach means to bind by personal ties (as of affection or sympathy).
How do we attach? We usually attach to others through emotional expression. This includes all emotions: happiness, joy and also sadness and anger. When we express our emotions, we must be willing to be vulnerable. When our emotions are received, accepted, and acknowledged, trust is built between us and the other person for whom we’re expressing our emotions. When what we share is not acknowledged or validated, shame and hurt can
arise, which can lead to distrust. These negative kinds of experiences over and over again make it difficult to be willing to express emotions and can ultimately lead us away from connection. Whether we experience mostly trustworthy or untrustworthy exchanges of emotional expression, neural pathways from in our brains.
The Brain and Attachment
As our brains are developing, neural connections begin to form so that we can categorize and organize information about the world around us through our five senses. When we see, hear, smell, touch, or taste something, a memory is created, and it is then stored and categorized in our brains. Neural pathways to that memory form so that when similar events occur, the neural pathway is reinforced. The pathway becomes deeper and deeper in the brain the more it’s reinforced. As babies and young children, the foundational framework of our neurological pathways was being created. All of the experiences occurring during these years are first time experiences and are extraordinarily impactful to the development of a person’s personality, the way they relate to others, and their perception of the world. Because of this, primary caregivers, the first human interactions that we have as infants, are hugely impactful to our early development. Children who are neglected experience lack of sensory stimulation while children who are abused experience an overwhelming amount of sensory stimulation. Some children experience a combination of both, which is utterly confusing and disorganizing for the brain.
Because we spend so many years with our primary caregivers, both positive and negative attachment experiences that are reinforced over and over become deeply embedded in our brains. This is why patterns in interpersonal relationships from childhood often mimic how we are in relationships as adults.
Because as infants, we attach to our primary caregivers one way or another, we develop different attachment styles. Mary Ainsworth, a colleague of Bowlby, identified these styles in her Strange Situation experiment. The experiment assessed the quality of infants’ attachment security to their mothers by having the mothers leave the children alone and sometimes invite strangers into the setting.
She found that the majority of the children displayed secure attachment style. Securely attached children were visibly distressed when the mother left the room and easily soothed once she returned. The mother was consistently responsive to the child so that the child developed trust and could explore their environment confidently.
Insecure/Avoidant children did not orient to their mothers and were not distressed when the mother left the room. These children likely experienced mothers who were unavailable during emotional distress and/or rejecting of the child’s needs.
Ambivalent/Resistant children were visibly distressed when the mother left the room, but could not be easily soothed when she returned. They showed a strong attachment to the mother, but could not trust her or confidently explore the environment. This was indicative of a mother who is inconsistent in their response to the child’s needs.
These attachment style formed in infancy translate into our adult relationships. If we experienced an unavailable parent, we likely learned not to rely on anyone to meet our needs so we avoid any attempt to connect. If our parent was sometimes available but oftentimes not, we likely had mixed signals about their availability to us so that we are anxious and needy. If we had a responsive and available parent, we likely are able to show empathy and maintain confidence and trust in romantic relationships.
The good news is that the brain can easily change and create new pathways because of neuroplasticity. We don’t have to be stuck in our learned attachment styles. When we interact with others in healthy ways, the patterns we’ve been trapped in before can change, but it does take a lot of work. Positive experiences over and over again in relationships can get us out of the rut of our original attachment experiences if they were negative.
For more on attachment theory and adult love, psychologist Sue Johnson is a great place to start!
When I learned about attachment theory, I hypothesized the way I likely attached to my parents as an infant. I’ve seen how that style has translated in my adult relationships, especially with those I’m most intimately connected. Having greater understanding of my interpersonal patterns alongside experiences of trust, acceptance, and vulnerability in relationships
has helped me to become more secure.
How do you think you experienced attachment in childhood? How do you attach now with those you love?
What is making you feel connected to other humans in this time of COVID- 19?
While we are missing our physical connection to others during COVID-19, please remember that our team of professional counselors at Coherence Associates, are here for you and with you! We are fully operational with our confidential Telehealth services, it’s easier than you think. Please reach out and call at 760-942-8663.
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. Little, Brown, and Company.
McLeod, S. (2018). Mary Ainsworth . Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/mary-ainsworth.html
Reese, C. (2018). Attachment: 60 trauma-informed assessment and treatment interventions across the lifespan. PESI Publishing & Media.