Have you ever connected with someone quite easily? You could even connect with a stranger. As an example, you might observe a cute child at the grocery store, smile at him, and then meet the parents’ eyes with a smile. Often you can feel a bit of connection there; you have some sense of what the parent is feeling, the parent has some sense of what you are feeling, and there is connection.
That connection, which is a bit like empathy, probably comes from the action of your mirror neurons. You and the parent are probably actually experiencing something similar, as you both reference the cuteness of that baby. This can happen without words, and in fact, is not a verbal process.
So we can connect, albeit briefly and not deeply, with strangers, in a moment of interaction. But that is not attachment.
An attachment relationship has particular qualities. Specifically, when we are attached to someone, we seek connection with them (proximity seeking). We notice and often miss them when we are separated from them (separation distress). And we can use the other person for support when we are stressed or distressed (safe base or safe haven). If you have all of these things going on in your relationship, then you are attached.
Attachment is abiding. Attachment goes deep; usually it goes so deep that you cannot feel the whole of it, no matter how you sit with the experience. Attachments, though, are not always optimal. Secure attachments help us to function with peers, in school or the workplace, and to step out and take risks that help us to grow. However, some attachments take different qualities. For example, you can be attached to someone who mistreats you. We all know of the phenomenon of children crying for the parents who abused them. This is a dramatic example, but a less dramatic form, it is very common. Attachments are not always warm and fuzzy; they can be ambivalent. They can be downright challenging on every level. They can be anxious in form. They can be so disorganized that you don’t know how you feel about a person, or you don’t know how to act with that person, but you know that you are attached. You know that from deep inside of you, and also because you have emotional connections to him or her.
When children have an anxious attachment to a parent, they will often protest loud and long upon separation. They will often appear ambivalent when the parent returns, clinging and sometimes hitting or pinching the parent.
When children have an avoidant attachment, they appear not to notice when the parent leaves, and markedly turn away from the parent upon his or her return, focusing on toys. However, this child may make good contact with a stranger while avoiding the parent. So it is clear that the child is attached. It is also clear that the child isn’t deriving a lot of comfort from that attachment.
Children with disorganized attachments may freeze or still upon the parent’s approach, or may be alternately clingy or angry.
When you think about the people in your life, you can think in terms of your attachments. If you are still caught up in thinking, for example, about your ex, having internal conversations where you explain and s/he finally GETS it, you are not unattached. You are still attached but your attachment isn’t working. If you have a family member whom you actively avoid, that is a kind of attachment, too. People to whom we have no attachment….well, nothing is attached to them. We don’t have thoughts, feelings, memories, reactions, desires, disappointments…..none of that it attached to those people.
Attachments – our powerful, enduring, transforming, deep and abiding relationships – are what make our individual worlds go around, at least for most people. There is not much that is more important than our attachments, even if we don’t see or talk to those people regularly. Our attachment history predicts a lot about our adult relationship history. You might ask if we can rewrite history? That’s a topic for another post!