Think it’s only the little tykes who seek security by clinging to their tattered blanket, like sweet Linus from the Peanuts gang dragging his security blanket everywhere? Think it’s only kids who get deeply attached to something — or someone — and look to it for absolute comfort?
Research from neuroscience in the past two decades has turned our understanding upside down when it comes to human attachment.
We now have evidence that healthy adult attachment to a spouse or partner can be every bit as strong as the attachment of a toddler to a parent.* Experts once believed that attachment dependency was something we outgrow by the time we reach late adolescence; now we believe the secure attachment need remains strong throughout the lifespan. Evolutionary psychologists trace this essential need for secure attachment back to caveman days, when being attached to others meant the difference between life and death; without attachment to the tribe (and the security that came with it), one was unlikely to survive.
Moreover, when our need for secure attachment is threatened, our neurological hard-wiring kicks in, triggering the same automatic fight or flight responses as when our other essential human needs — for air, water, and food — are threatened. It’s how we’re designed as a species.
This explains a lot. It explains why we can feel hurt and angry when we’re conversing with a partner who suddenly turns away to look at her computer screen, as if we’re not important anymore (threatening secure attachment — a threat emanating not from the logical brain but from the emotional brain). It explains why we can feel hurt when across the room at a party we notice our partner flirting with an attractive stranger (threatening our secure attachment). It explains why we can feel afraid and vulnerable when our partner spends long hours at the office working on projects with co-workers whom we don’t know or trust. And of course it explains the powerful insecurity that typically results from the discovery that a partner is having an affair. At moments like these, our emotional brain does what evolution has designed it to do: sounds an alarm by triggering hurt and fear, signaling that our secure attachment need is threatened. That’s when fight or flight automatically kicks in and we raise our voice in panicky anger (fight) or turn and withdraw into a hurt silence (flight).
What neuroscience has revealed can help us make sense of our big (sometimes too big) reactions to certain dicey moments in our relationship. Next month, we’ll address the question of what to do when that alarm goes off.
To learn more about The Family Institute and read more tips of the month, please visit us at http://www.family-institute.org/about-us/tip-of-the-month.
* Johnson, Sue. Hold Me Tight. (Little, Brown & Co: New York) 2008.