In past articles, we’ve discussed the importance of personal relationships to your well-being. The psychological need for support from and connection with others is thought to have its roots in our small-tribe hunter-gatherer heritage. Communal living, with its implicit sharing of resources and safety in numbers, afforded a survival advantage to those who participated in it. Over time, connection with others became as vital to human growth as water, sun, and nutrients are to a flower’s.
Since then, several decades of scientific research into attachment theory have taught us about what good interpersonal connection looks like. For instance, we know that the healthiest relationships are with others who help you feel competent and able to meet your own needs, while still being available to be your safe and familiar home base when you need one.*
When you lack consistent nurturing and attunement in your earliest childhood experiences, it can negatively influence the way you tend to interact with others in your adulthood—but all is not lost.
Your brain remains capable of change and learning throughout your lifespan, and that includes the ability to form new attachment styles through corrective, healthy relationships with others.
Over time, underlying, even if unconscious, fears that others won’t be there for you (or that they will be, but then suddenly leave) can be replaced with increased confidence, openness, and security with others.
When attachment is discussed in this way, it’s easy to come away with the impression that meeting your social connection needs is simply a matter of receiving the right things from others. But let’s think about this: if only receiving genuine support and affection from others were rewarding to us, then who would be inclined to give it?
In order for humans to have evolved to our current state with such a fundamental need for attunement, we must be darned good at satisfying it too. And for us to have gotten that good at satisfying it, it must have been very rewarding itself. We wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble if the giving wasn’t as good as the getting.
Some of the earliest research in this area was conducted by Harry Harlow in the 1970s, using monkeys that he’d separated and isolated at birth. I’ve discussed elsewhere the severe developmental trauma that his isolated monkeys experienced without a caretaking mother.
However, he discovered something interesting: if a previously isolated, motherless monkey was introduced to a well-adjusted mother, the baby could shed most of its dysfunction over time and become well-adjusted (i.e., develop a "secure attachment style").
What I find even more interesting, though, is that he conducted the same experiment in reverse: female adult monkeys who had been isolated and uncared-for as infants, and displaying all the signs of insecure attachment, were introduced to secure, well-adjusted baby monkeys—ones who had been reared with an attentive mother.
He found that the insecure monkey mothers gradually became better adjusted as they interacted with the babies, and became more attentive and caring mothers with their future offspring. The healing power of attunement works both ways.
Flourishing through joining
These findings are consistent with what you may already know from your personal experience: it feels good to be connected with people. When you are in attentive and attuned relationship with another person, sharing positive regard, do you feel more whole and alive? More you, in some way?
If so, it's because you're simultaneously meeting your needs to be witnessed and cared for, and to witness and care. As with the other aspects of relationships that are healthy for us, the mutual satisfaction of each other's attunement needs is key to our satisfaction as humans and therefore, to achieving our full potential. As social animals, we survive through self-interest, but thrive through mutual exchange.
Even with his monkeys, Harlow saw that the benefits of healthy connection with others transcend just developing a secure attachment style. After he paired his female “therapist” (i.e., securely attached) monkeys with formerly isolated and emotionally scarred male babies, not only did the babies become more trusting and secure as they interacted with their new mothers, but they also began to exhibit male play behaviors for the first time. Despite the fact that the only monkey they had ever seen was female!
In other words, the male baby monkeys couldn’t have learned their play behavior through imitation. They were exhibiting the innate behavior with which they were hardwired, but which had previously been suppressed because of their attachment trauma.
It’s an example of the ease with which you can naturally flourish—whether you’re a human or monkey—by bringing your external circumstances into alignment with the nature of your deepest, core self.
* Modern evolutionary attachment researchers like Darcia Narvaez highlight additional factors like skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding, play with multi-age partners, a feeling of embeddedness in a group, and “alloparenting” (care being provided by adults other than the biological parents) as being important to a child's healthy development, and that they've been in decline since the 20th century.