Relationships: Attachment, Separation, Intimacy

Have you ever watched a school playground full of children playing, running about apparently lost in the sheer joy of physical movement and the fantasies that engage the mind of the growing child. When you look closer you notice that while the mass of children seem to be rushing around completely immersed in the fun of the chase or the excitement of the game there are others who are not so engaged with their peers. There are those who huddle in groups of two or three, those who seem to stand or sit alone.

Some children are exuberant, full of energy and drawn to others in an uncomplicated way. Others seem introvert, more drawn to the company of one or two others or even to being solitary. Perhaps the majority fall somewhere in between. So what is the big deal? We are after all very individual; we have different interests, energies and social appetites. Life is so enriched by opportunities that individuals are afforded to express their creative individuality. Yet, the question is how much choice does any one individual have to be free, to relate to others in a way that is fun and fulfilling? How often do we have a desire to join in with the laughter, the warmth, the conversation of others but something inhibits us. We feel awkward and withdraw without really knowing why. So, what is that about?

How true is the poet William Larkin’s observation that ”They f*** you up your mum and dad”? If that is true our own parents were cared for by “f***ed up parents”.

We are all familiar with the cliché ”I blame the parents”. Indeed, as therapists one of the most important areas that can be explored is a client's relationship with their parents. All our experiences from the womb to adulthood are significant and demand attention when we are seeking explanations for our difficulties as well as our joys. There is a strong argument that the foundation for what happens in our internal world, in our adult minds, was laid down in our infancy. We internalise all our relationships, we take them into our minds and they become a part of us, they make us.

Psychologists, particularly those who study human relationships, have been researching and exploring the nature of human development since Freud introduced the world to Psychoanalysis. Many people seem fascinated by explanations for human behaviour and in “excavating” life histories. Perhaps we are all interested in why and how we got here. We are interested in our relationships with others, particularly with our intimate others. Two areas of research that I have found particularly fruitful in helping to understand relationships at all stages in life are ‘attachment and separation’ and  the intimate relationship between mother and infant/child.

Attachment and Separation
Attachment may be thought of as attaining or retaining proximity to some other differentiated and preferred individual who is usually conceived as stronger and /or wiser. It is instinctual, it is not learned and it does not depend on the mother’s capacity to relate.

The Psychologist John Bowlby (1907 – 1990) was an outstanding pioneer into issues of attachment and separation. His research had a huge effect on the way infants and children are treated. He showed that there was a clear link between the quality of bonding and attachment and the degree of separation during infancy and  the sense of our self security and self confidence in our childhood and adult lives.

Bowlby declared: The infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother, or permanent mother substitute, in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment”.

This is a very succinct statement of his views. The care should be mutually satisfying and loving for both parent and child. The baby needs to feel that they matter to the mother, that he can make her smile and want to be with him. The care should be continuous and permanent.

His view that the infant has a biological need for a primary caregiver is now supported by neuro science. The brain and body simply do not develop without both psychological and physical care. The baby is hard wired to evoke care, concern. If the main carer does not respond the infant/child is left in a vacuum not knowing if anybody is out there.

Unfortunately the young are not always cared for by psychologically healthy parents. The caregiver may have been profoundly damaged by their own experience of childhood. A mother who has not had the experience of consistent, continuous loving care may not have developed her own inner model of care. Never having had the experience of loving care she may not have the emotional capacity to care for her young. There is a huge risk of that damage being continued into the next generation.

Bowlby and other Psychologists have carried out many experiments and observations of children in their families to establish what the impact of separation from their main carer has on their lives.

One particular type of experiment consisted in the observation of children when they had been temporarily separated from their carers in a play situation. In the experiment the child is  left alone in a room by the carer. A person unknown to the child visits the play room while they are playing alone. Needless to say the children responded differently to the situation, some were better able to deal with being separated than others. It might be expected that the responses of the children were profoundly influenced by their ongoing relationship with their main carer.

It was found that some children were very secure and so they could manage separation very well. They got upset with their carer on their return and clung to them but then recovered quite quickly and were able to continue with their game. They ignored the unknown person. These children tended to have been cared for by a mother figure who was consistently appropriately responsive to the child’s needs leaving the child feeling confident that their carer would  be there for them when they were in need of comfort.  

The less secure children responded with varying degrees of disturbed behaviour to the experimental situation. Some of the children adjusted to their insecurity at seperation by a kind of ‘close down’. They withdrew from both carer and stranger. Some children were very confused and did not know how to respond. Others were so disturbed that they ‘froze’ or became out of control.

These psychologists who study the impact of separation on children make a link between the insecurity they express in this type of experimental situation and their relationship with their main carer. Further they argue that this relationship lays the foundation for the adult sense of safety, security and sense of self.

Our Internal Relationships
Our drive to form relationships with those who care for our infant/child self is greater than sex. It is a basic part of our survival equipment. We internalise the most significant people in our lives, we take them into our minds and they become a part of the self. So we not only have relationships in our external world but we create relationships, part phantasy part real with our carers, in our internal world. These relationships are partly unconscious partly conscious. They are the figures/objects that we talk to all our lives without necessarily being aware. They are what influences our relationships, our sense of who we are and what we think about ourselves.

We are hard wired to seek relationships with others - our survival depends on it. It is hardly surprising to see the infant clinging to its mother and perhaps not surprising to find adults trying unconsciously to recreate the fantasied image of that  relationships with their partners and being frustrated and enraged when it does not happen.  

The human infant/child seems capable of adjusting to what ever quality of relationship he is afforded. It is however this adjustment that can create serious difficulties in adult relationships. It would seem that when the infant/child is either seriously neglected, rejected, abandoned or alternatively overpowered by the demanding attention of an over needy carer the infant/child adjusts but then finds that he has serious difficulty in forming and sustaining relationships in adult life.

The Neglected Child
“All the times I cried for you,
you never came…………..
You were never there for me…”         J. M. Smith

When the infant/child is denied the necessary love it adjusts to this denial by learning how to withdraw and not expect that another can love and comfort them. The need to be comforted does not however go away nor does the need for the parent figure. Both remain. The need for the carer is so great that even when the carer is abusive the child/adult longs for the hoped for comfort and reassurance of the parent figure. So often it does not seem possible to face the reality of the neglect/abuse. The child may blame himself for the neglect, rather than admit that they were not loved, and so anger at the carer may be replaced by self loathing and self abuse. This in turn leads to huge difficulties with relationships in adult life, relationships with self and with others.

The adult may find himself desperately searching for a love object that will fill the void left by the neglect/abuse but is not always able to trust enough to embrace another’s gift of love. The rage that should have been directed at the neglectful parent is in part directed at the self and in part directed at the partner in the intimate adult relationship. The hostility, anger, hatred that is visited on these relationships is often experienced with shocked bewilderment. There may be little understanding about where it has come from.

The neglected child may attempt to repeat his childhood relationship in adult life in the hope of getting it right this time and is attracted to and so chooses a partner who has the same qualities as the abusive parent. Unfortunately both people often carry the same profound wounds, the same desperate yearning for the unconditional love that they were denied and so do not have the capacity to heal the other. The result is too often mutual damage and much unhappiness.

The Overwhelmed Child
“I am crushed by your love,
Confused, how to think or feel
I cannot breathe………”  Anonymous

Rather than neglect or reject her child the mother may focus all her attention on the baby in the hope that the child will compensate for the inadequacies and wants in her own life. She smothers the child with ‘love’, she anticipates his every want. The child becomes the hope of realising her own frustrated ambitions. The infant/child desperately needs the love and attention of his parents and so responds to meet their needs but is then left feeling frustrated because he feels engulfed, overcome. He learns to please but loses his own sense of agency. Caught between finding out who he is and what he wants and the ambitions of his parents, the child is likely to experience confusion, powerful feelings of rebellion as well as the desire to please his parents. These contradictory urges may continue into adult life and the inner conflict, guilt, resentment and anger may visit intimate adult relationships.

The smothered child in his adult relationships may fear engulfment, be suspicious that the offer of love is conditional and very expensive making the offer of an intimate relationship fraught with danger. The adult may have little idea as to why he has these feeling of distrust, why he wants to run away, he just does.

The Therapist
The therapist’s role is to create a safe space where the client(s) can explore without threat of judgment the issues that are making relationships with themselves and with others difficult. For this to happen there needs to be a warm regard, there must be mutual trust and respect between therapist and client(s). If these qualities inform the relationship it becomes possible to begin to explore, to excavate the past and search for the source of the difficulties. As indicated above,the source of so many of our difficulties are lost in our unconscious minds. This process may be brief or it may take some time.

When the process begins the first task is is to explore what the difficulties are and how they manifest in the way that we live our lives and conduct our relationships in the present. There often is a pattern to the way in which we express our unhappiness; this pattern is frequently unknown. When the behaviour pattern is acknowledged and owned the process of understanding the underlying causes of the pain can begin. The actual process often brings its own relief. It is a relief to talk about what has been hidden, perhaps feared or has been a source of shame or guilt.

The healing process may be aided by different counselling techniques, of which there are a number. I feel that the underlying principle of all healing, what ever the technique is, the quality of the relationship between therapist and client.

We are born with the need for a parent figure to attach and bond with. We are born helpless with an instinctive drive to survive using the closest object (person) to help us. Our dependency leads us to engage in the most intimate and dependent way. We cling desperately to this relationship, we have a longing for the reassurance of loving physical contact
Through loving, consistent care the infant develops an internal model, a blueprint of how to relate, what to expect from others, his loveability,his potency and entitlement to the good things in life, his capacity to give.

Before human beings can be intimate with another there has to be sufficient trust to allow themselves to be sufficiently vulnerable to accept the offer of the gift of friendship and to offer it to another. To trust that they will not be overpowered, engulfed by the demands of the other, alternatively that they will not be abandoned, rejected, lost in a void. The internal  mechanisms necessary to this state of trust are laid down during the first years of life in the relationship between carer and infant/child. It is apparent that those who care for our young need our generous support particularly when the carer is experiencing difficulties.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

Share this article with a friend
Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Relationship problems

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals

Related Articles

More articles

Real Stories

More stories