Neuroscience has been putting out all sorts of findings on how we attach or bond when we are very young homo sapiens. So, looking at attachment histories and styles has become a very powerful way to move undesirable patterns or traits that someone might bring to an otherwise healthy adult relationship. I love working with couples through the attachment lens because it can be so effective. But if you’re not a therapist does understanding human attachment dynamics and styles even matter?
Well, let me give you a little overview and then you can get back to me and let me know if it helped, enriched, changed your relating to others, or not. Deal?
When we are born our human nervous systems are not fully developed yet. We are dependent upon another’s mature, fully developed nervous system to help us feel secure enough so that our little systems can feel relaxed, peaceful and calm. This way of using a mature nervous system to help inform, shape and maintain a juvenile nervous system is often called co-regulation. As social mammals this phenomena of nervous system co-regulation happens throughout our lives, but never is it as necessary as the period from birth to about two years old.
When humans are in the infant or toddler stage, language capacities are not developed yet, so facial cues, direct eye contact and neural mirroring are the visible means a mature system communicates safety and well being to a less mature one. However, this process of co-regulation is not immutable. It can become impaired and when it does, it sculpts that dependent, juvenile nervous system away from full nervous system health and creates an early, embedded neurological imprint of self protection (and often shame) to compensate for what it is lacking.
Keep in mind, short, isolated incidents of a caretaker’s absence or sadness will not be too damaging. The human nervous system, even in its developing, is more resilient than that, but the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience have proven that our developing human nervous systems are far more mutable than we ever imagined.
Explained differently, this young person’s system can learn the “emptiness” or absence of being in relation to another, rather than the “connection” of two co-regulating systems. As the person continues to develop, strong pathways can be laid down by the system toward premature self-regulation and the person’s system can continue throughout his or her lifetime to rely upon these self-regulating pathways even in the face of situations that “ought” to be shared.
For example, when this toddler, at 40 yrs old, loses his or her parent, the person responds not by reaching out to others, but by retreating into their work, or physical space where he or she can be alone, or perhaps when faced with connection, the person finds sympathetic hugs from funeral goers overwhelming or even unpleasant.
This is a clear example of how early neurobiology sculpts not only the neural pathways of the person, but also the psychological, emotional, physical, mental and belief systems over time until the behavior just seems characteristic of this person. It’s just how I am becomes the common refrain. For these people the coping imprints remain in place and are maintained unless challenged in relationship of one form or another. In fact, this patterningI have described is very common. It could easily be you, your partner, parent, sibling, boss, friend, etc.
But, it is not hard to see the dilemma here. This form of “defended” self-regulation, though outdated, remains in place and is defended by the person at all costs in an attempt to maintain a basic level of overall safety in the face of everyday life. It is even possible that the dilemma can create an intense inner conflict as the person’s shifting beliefs about connection with others come into collision with their very embodied conditioning and neurophysiology. The good news is once a person sees his or her behavior for what it is, the ground for change can be laid. The kind of behavior I just described refers to an avoidant attachment style because the person feels safest when they avoid people. Does this describe you? If so, what’s that been like as you’ve experienced relationship over the years? Are you able to feel fulfilled in relationships? Waiting to hear…