Wired for Connection
Human beings are social by nature. Our brain is designed for connection and from the moment we are born we seek proximity to others. Babies have several behaviors geared to attract others. As they send connection cues to those around them, people respond to those cues and engage with them. The interaction between them and their caretakers develops their brains and stimulates growth.
Psychologist and psychiatrist John Bowlby postulated that human beings never grow out of this need to connect. He stated that “from the cradle to the grave” we depend on others to feel secure and protected. We seek someone special to connect to and we become attached to that person. Love is the glue that binds us to others so that we feel safe in the world.
As much as we seek proximity to others, we suffer when we feel disconnected from them or lose them completely. In the test named Life Change Index Scale developed by T. H. Homes and T. H. Rahe, the five top stressors that affect us most are related to loss or separation from others. This explains why wars cause so much misery and suffering. Each person killed leaves behind several people who will be forever changed by their loss. It not only affects them but also their offspring.
After World War 2, John Bowlby was invited by the World Health Organization to study the impact of the war on children. The war had shown in graphic terms how separation affects children. In many places throughout Europe, parents in big cities such as London sent their children to their relatives who lived in the countryside to protect them from the relentless bombing. Thinking that they would be better away from the war, they found out that it was not the case. It was intriguing to see that the children who stayed behind with their parents amidst the bombing were both psychologically and physically better. The war was the stage for one of the greatest love experiments of all time. It showed that the biggest tragedy for children is not what happens to them outside of the home but separation from their caretakers. From this study conducted by John Bowlby was born attachment theory. In its inception, it focused on studying children’s need to attach to an attachment figure who provided protection and comfort. Later it was extended to adults and their need to connect to a significant other.
Edward Tronick, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston designed an experiment with babies named The Still Face Experiment. In this experiment, a mother interacts with her baby as she usually does until she stops the interaction and becomes static. We can see the experiment in a YouTube video. As soon as the mother stops interacting, the baby notices the difference and tries several ways to bring her back to engaging. As the mother is not responsive, the baby becomes increasingly upset until she starts crying. When the mother resumes interaction, the baby stops crying and restarts engaging with her.
Adults are also distressed when they feel disconnected from a loved one. I have witnessed in my office the traumatic experience of many individuals who felt disconnected or abandoned by their partners. Some of them lived with their partners but felt neglected by them. Others had found out that their partner had an affair. Still, others had been abandoned by their partner who had left home. Their symptoms were very similar. They had difficulty sleeping, they could not focus on work, they were not motivated to do anything, and they were extremely sad and anxious. They were as desperate as the baby in the Still Face Experiment.
Any couple, no matter their level of connection has its moments of disconnection. One of them might be worried about their work and become serious for a while. The other notices the difference and feels insecure. Unable to engage with their partner, they become increasingly distressed. They make questions to know what is happening to their partner and they want to know if they did anything that upset them. If this persists for too long, they might protest the separation and create a cycle in which one attacks and the other defends or one pursues connection and the other withdraws to avoid conflict.
Anyone who has had a child has noticed how they tend to explore the surroundings and come back to the parent. There is a rhythm in which the child explores their environment, comes to the parent, explores again, and returns to the parent again in a never-ending ebb and flow. The child is at the same time testing their connection with the attachment figure and refilling their love tank. Their exploration is dependent on the safety brought by the presence of the caretaker. If they notice that the parent is self-absorbed or distracted, they try to get their attention back. If the parent disappears, they stop exploration and become preoccupied with finding the parent.
As adults, we have the same kind of dependence from our main attachment figure. Connection with a loved one makes us feel strong and secure. Our brain works at an optimal level, and we become curious and creative. We are more courageous, and the challenges of life seem less threatening. Like a child who explores the world certain that their parents are there for them, we tackle our duties with the confidence that our soul mate has our back.
Nevertheless, everything goes south when we feel disconnected. Feeling disconnected from a loved one is traumatic and triggers primal panic. It affects our quality of life and makes us unhappy. Our self-esteem goes down and we feel insecure. Any problem might seem like an insurmountable task, and we lose the motivation to pursue our dreams. Instead of having our minds free to be curious, to dream, and to make plans, we obsess about our partner and the relationship. We only think about what we can do to gain their attention back.