Human beings are hard wired to need love and connection. From birth to death, love is not just the focus of human lives; rather it is the life force of humans. It regulates our moods, regulates our bodily rhythms, and changes the very structure of our brains.
Most people presume that the body they inhabit is self-regulating all on its own, that there is some sort of internal regulating system that “drives the car” so to speak. We believe that beyond needing fuel and some maintenance, the body just cruises along unaffected by others. This is not the case.
The nervous system of all mammals, including humans, depends for its stability on a system of interactive coordination where balance and regulation comes from synchronization with nearby attachment figures called limbic regulation. We are alarmed and protest when our connection to these figures is breached and if the interruption continues, without limbic regulation from others, physiologic rhythms decline and we despair.
Take a rhesus monkey away from its mother too soon, or subject him to lengthy periods of maternal absences, and you will produce a monkey with a lifelong vulnerability to despair. Without the limbic regulation of an attachment figure (such as a mother) a mammal slips into psychologic chaos whenever his attachment figure moves out of range. Human children of erratic, unpredictable mothers are clingy for the same reason.
Feed and clothe a human child but deprive her emotional contact and she will die. Infant monkeys are hardier than humans in the face of such privations. And although monkeys raised without their mothers often survive their neural pathways are permanently maimed. Monkeys raised alone cannot engage in reciprocal interactions with normal monkeys who consistently reject them. The can not mate normally, and if females raised in isolation are impregnated they are indifferent, and neglect of their offspring often violently attacking them. Self-mutilation, and prolonged food and water binges are other legacies of being raised isolated.
Like monkeys and other mammals, human physiology does not exist in isolation from others. A human baby’s body without being given the limbic regulation of an attachment figure will have its vital rhythms collapse, and the baby will die. In a sense, human infants “outsource” most of their physiologic governance to parents in the early stages of life, only bringing that control “in-house” over a period of months and years. As the nervous system matures, a baby reclaims some of its regulatory processes and performs them autonomously. However even as adults, humans remain social animals continuing to require secure attachment with others as a source of stabilization outside of themselves.
Even having had the most stable and consistent parenting experience, children never transition to a fully self-tuning physiology. Adults remain social animals: we continue to require a source of stabilization outside ourselves. In some important ways, people cannot be stable on their own – not should or shouldn’t be, but can’t be. This prospect is disconcerting to many, especially in a society that prizes individuality as ours does. Total self-sufficiency turns out to be a daydream whose bubble is burst by the sharp edge of the limbic brain. Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying near them. So, who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.
This idea goes against much of the teaching of our modern society. Our society teaches us that as an adult we are expected to be emotionally independent and self-sufficient. We are told to detach from our parents, our first loved ones, as a sign of emotional strength and maturity. We are taught to look with suspicion and derision at romantic partners that display too much togetherness. We say they are too involved with each other, too close, too dependent. We shame men seeking togetherness calling them “whipped” or “needy” or “clingy.” Women are labeled as “stalker” or “obsessed” or “desperate.” In consequence, men and women today are taught to feel ashamed of their natural need for love and comfort and reassurance – they see it as weakness.
This is a topsy-turvy interpretation of what science and experience teaches us. Far from being a sign of mental instability, strong emotional connection is a sign of mental health. It is emotional isolation that is the killer. We are born to need each other, and to feel securely attached. The human brain is wired for close connection with a few irreplaceable others. Accepting your need for this special kind of emotional connection is not a sign of weakness, but of maturity and strength.
Psychologist Sue Johnson speaks of the bonds of love as our birthright and our greatest resource. Seeking out and giving love and support is our primary source of strength and joy. Learning to love and be loved as adults is in many ways about learning to tune into our own emotions and needs so we know what it is we want and need from our partners, expressing those needs openly in a way that evokes sympathy and support from him or her. We can then tune in to and sensitively respond to our partners as well. In those moments when we do this we call to others and respond to their call in a way that makes us, and our connection to them stronger. And, nothing makes us stronger, happier, and healthier than loving, stable, long-term bonds to others. Long-standing togetherness writes permanent changes into a brain’s open book. In a relationship, one mind revises another; one heart changes its partner.
“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh