So here’s a story, and it’s a true one, the very best kind. It’s about monkeys, baby monkeys no less, adorable and playful…and very intelligent. This makes them a good study for human babies. In the fifties, a study was done using these monkeys. First, the scientists rigged a chicken-wire “mother” with feeding apparatus. The monkeys went wild! Fed to their hearts’ content. Then they removed her, and in her place, another “mother,” this time warm, fuzzy, making soothing noises and with many nooks and crannies to crawl up into and sleep. The babies loved her, too. Then they reintroduced the feeding “mother.” And sat back with their notepads and observed, begging the question, which would the baby monkeys prefer?
Time’s up. If you guessed the feeder mother….buzzzz. Wrong. Even when the monkeys lost weight through their preference, most chose the loving, comforting mother. And while it’s not conclusive, it does point to attachment as essential, arguably more so than food. Here’s a ten-point synopsis of attachment, used by Dr. Sue Johnson and others to explain succinctly this crucial element of life.
The Power of Tuning Into Each Other
More than holding, attachment in its healthiest form is expressed through what’s called “attunement.” Now for a trip back in time. When was the last time you felt truly seen, heard, and understood by the person sitting across from you? When was the first? Did you have a loving mother or father, or teacher or grandparent, who made room for you, noted your sadness, your anger, your joy, and reflected it back to you kindly and without judgment, then invited you to say more?
There is a kind of listening I call resonant, and it springs from the experience we have when we speak in an empty or near empty room. Our voices are louder, the tones rounder, unmuffled by debris. When we speak with a resonant listener, with someone pushing their inner debris aside to make room for what we say and show, we notice our own voices differently. More. It might frighten us. It might ease our throats as we find ourselves communicating more openly, vulnerably. And when we speak feelingly, not just about our emotions but through them, and receive a response that is both receptive and compassionate, those emotions are allowed movement, and if needed, release.
In a relationship of close friends, intimate partners, long cherished and cherishing family members, a bridge is formed. At one end, both your personal truth and your resonance and at the other, your beloveds. In between, not only a two-way exchange of energy but something more, a third vibrating entity that takes on a life of its own. Next time you sit across from someone you hold dear, check in with yourself. Are you aware of both your mind and the sensations in your body? At what point are you then also aware in your senses of what she or he is experiencing? And then, are you dimly aware of the energy between you? Is it warm and soft, bright and lively, dark and careful?
Attachment Styles: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant & Disorganized
Over fifty years ago, another study was conducted. Mothers with toddlers were to leave the observation room for a few minutes, and researchers then observed how the child reacted to her temporary disappearance. The mothers were also assessed for their approach: attentive, distracted, over-attentive/smothering, and disinterested. Of course, our update in the 21st century acknowledges also parents of all genders, and that socioeconomic conditions have a significant part to play.
It was found that the children of those who were appropriately attentive became mildly distressed but recovered quickly, returning to play happily, and when the mother returned, greeted her with open arms. This is essentially what is now known as “secure attachment.” Those who were children of distracted parents became more distressed, showed anxiousness during the interim, and, when she returned, protested their need to her to connect with them: “anxious attachment.” And those with either smothering or disinterested parents showed no outer distress at all to her leaving, and scarcely acknowledged her return. This last one leads either to a disorganized or otherwise poor ability to attach. If this leads you to curiosity about your own style, I encourage you to visit the site of a leading voice in attachment therapies, Diane Poole Heller, who provides this free quiz.
While attachment is not always pleasurable, it is always nurturing. When we practice this new way of communicating, it can feel at first like juggling four or five kitchen implements! And yet, from this bridge we create, in mutual attunement, come foundations for the new: ideas, relationships, ventures.
And I wish for you a veritable Venice of bridges, and a surfeit of love.