Introduction to the Series
In my retreats and workshops, I often times talk about the biology of our relationships. What’s happening biologically that’s helping us establish healthy, good relationships and also what’s not working at times. Due to that, I decided to develop a 4-part blog series, on the biology of our relationships and what’s happening in our connections. So this is the first of the four.
The information I am presenting is based on research in human development in general and specifically it’s work that was done by Dr. Sue Johnson. She is the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy. She also developed the protocol that I use for my workshops, the “Hold Me Tight Workshops®”. So if, after this video, you are curious to learn more and have a little bit more in-depth understanding of the information I am presenting, then definitely, I encourage you to read Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson.
**A written transcription of the video can be read below.
This first video is just about the bare-bones basics: where we come from and how we are become attached biologically.
So many times, as couples, we meet someone and we become entranced by them and then we eventually get into a relationship. We don’t really know what happened that actually caused that to happen. But, it’s not like it’s magic. It may feel that way, but it’s not. There’s actually a science behind it, and that’s what I am going to discuss right now.
It All Comes Down to Biology
It all comes down to the facts of biology. From day one, we are hard-wired, as social beings, to actual biologically attach to someone else. We are born helpless, we are not able to defend ourselves; we are not able to take care of ourselves. So, as social mammals, we are hardwired in that we are doing things as infants to encourage an attachment. Also, we are doing things as adults, as caregivers, to potentially attach to our offspring.
This attachment, that happens between adults and infants, that is something that there’s been a lot of research about. We get it. Again, obviously, we are social beings. We understand that we can’t take care of ourselves.
Attaching: It’s Not Just With Our Kids
The interesting thing though, is that research has shown that as much as the attachment that we know occurs between caregivers and their offspring, that THAT is actually very similar to the attachment that happens in our romantic relationships, our love relationships! I think that’s great news because it makes it much easier for us to understand, right? Definitely.
I’m going to talk a little bit about the attachment that we have between a caregiver or a parent and an infant. I will compare that to what happens in our adult love relationships so you can make more sense of it.
Being Alone is Interpreted as “Danger!”
So again, from day one, when an infant is born, they are helpless. Their mind is responding to that environment. As the infant, if they are alone, their brain is saying, “Oh my goodness, this is dangerous! Because I can’t take care of myself; I can’t defend myself. Danger, danger, danger! I might die!” It’s not thinking that consciously, obviously, but things are being triggered. In the end, the brain is saying, “This is not OK.”
Being Connected is Interpreted as “Safe”
Likewise, when the baby is connecting with an adult, with a caregiver, the brain is saying “OK, this feels safe; this feels good.” That’s how attachment starts!
There are actually four components for an attachment, for a loving bond. Again, I’m going to use the paradigm of the caregiver and the child, compared with two adults.
First Component for a Secure Attachment Between Parent and Child:
The first component that needs to happen between a parent or caregiver and a child is: there needs to be positive interactions. What does that look like? That is, the caregiver (just so you know, I am talking mothers, fathers, caregivers…I am going to use the words interchangeably, so please don’t get defensive or reactive because I am going to be using all those words).
The caregiver experiences a positive interaction when they are picking up the infant. Maybe they are inhaling that wonderful baby smell; that’s a positive interaction. When they tickle the infant and the infant looks up at them and smiles (even if maybe it’s gas, we don’t know) but still that’s a positive interaction. When the caregiver gives their finger to the infant and the infant wraps their little hand around it; that’s a positive interaction.
Likewise, for the infant, when they first see this adult; they see this big breast and they get fed. That’s a positive interaction. That feels good! Also, that skin to skin contact, that warmth; once again positive interaction. So all that is good stuff. That is one of the first components that happens that encourages a loving bond or secure attachment between a parent and a child.
Between Two Adults Helps Create a Loving Bond (Secure Attachment)
Between two adults, what does a positive interaction look like? Guess! OK I can’t hear you so I’m going to give you some answers. Positive interactions are like those date nights. It’s going out, having fun. It’s having a stimulating conversation or possibly walking quietly, without any conversation, but being together. It could be watching a movie or rollerblading together. It could be singing to one another; even just looking at each other. Those are positive interactions and that is one of the components that we do, as adults, to work on creating that loving bond. It’s essential for a secure attachment within our love relationships.
Second Component for a Secure Attachment Between a Parent and Child
So again, going back to the caregiver and the infant, the second component that is necessary for a loving relationship or secure attachment is oxytocin. You may have heard of that word as it’s often called ‘the cuddle hormone’. It’s released when a mother is nursing. It’s actually released when a child is first born, especially with a vaginal birth.
What Does Oxytocin Do?
It’s nature’s way of giving a little ‘feel good’ drug to us and encourages that biological attachment to happen. So when the mother is nursing the infant, she gets this wonderful release of hormones that slows down her heart beat and slows down the stress hormones. It feels good and it’s soothing. That is reinforcing her nursing the child.
Likewise, even the father or the other caregivers get this biological reinforcement. If there’s a consistent person that is connecting with that infant, such as picking them up, with that skin to skin contact, that person will also be experiencing that oxytocin release as well. Again, that oxytocin is encouraging that connection, that positive interaction with the infant, which builds a secure bond.
Infants Release Oxytocin as Well
For the infant, they also get that oxytocin release. When they are being nursed and they get that breast milk, oxytocin is being released. Also, when they are having that skin to skin contact with a caregiver, oxytocin is being released. It’s encouraging the infant also to bond with the adult.
Nurtures The Secure Bond Between Two Adults
In our romantic love relationships, what does that oxytocin release look like? You MAY have guessed it. The one way that we get a big dose of oxytocin is when we are sexually intimate with our partner. That is why our sexual relationship is really a significant thing in our maintaining our relationships.
That being said, we also release oxytocin when we do other things with our partner. It could be when we hold hands or when a partner is putting their hand on our back or on our knee. It can even be when we are just looking at our partner. Even if our partner is not physically around but maybe we are reading an email or text from them and “sigh…” Oxytocin—still released.
That is why we want those different kinds of connections with our partner, because it keeps nourishing that loving bond and it keeps just reinforcing that attachment that we are having with our partner.
Third Component for a Secure Attachment Between a Parent and Child
The third component that we need between a parent and an infant is consistency. That means “if this happens, then that happens”. It’s just those “if’s/thens” and that happening consistently. That could be like, as a parent, I know if my infant is crying and I pick him up, and hold him a certain way; then the infant stops crying. Maybe it means I’m trying to figure out how to feed this kid and the kid is not latching onto my breast. What do I do? Oh, I know, if I hold my infant this certain way, then kid can eat. Awesome, yay! That’s consistency; it’s a win.
Likewise, for the infant, it’s like knowing, “Oh, every time I see this nipple or I see this bottle, I am going to feel good. I’m going to be satiated with food.” Another example of consistency is, “If I get this sensation of wetness and I scream this way, I get that response. Things are changed. All the sudden, I don’t feel that irritation anymore (because my diaper’s changed). OK so that’s with parents and infants.
Between Two Adults Strengthens a Loving Bond
As far as between two adults, as they are developing a secure attachment, a loving bond, what does that consistently look like? Again it’s that “If this happens then that happens”.
So looking at my own relationship, I know that when I come home if I say, “Hey..hello!” I know I’m going to get a response. That is very consistent; I can count on that. I also know if I say, “Hey, I really need some help”, I know I’m going to get that help. That is very consistent. So it’s those “if/then” things that I know I can count on. That’s consistency and that is what we need in our relationships.
We need to be able to know, “If this happens, then that’s going to happen.” Because knowing that helps give us comfort; it helps us have security and helps that loving bond.
Fourth Component for a Secure Attachment Between Parent and Child
The fourth thing that we need to develop and maintain a secure attachment between a parent and infant (and for our own romantic relationships) is predictability. Predictability happens when we have that consistency. When we have enough consistently happening in our relationships, we get that predictability.
So for the parent and the infant, they cannot know every single thing that’s going to happen. There’s going to be all kinds of interactions. But the parent knows, “Gosh, I have enough consistent success and positive interactions with this infant. I know I can do this and I feel really good about this relationship. I can predict that things will come up but I’m going to be able to take care of this baby.”
Likewise, for the infant, nothing can be predicted per se; it isn’t magical. But the infant knows, “Gosh, there have been enough situations where I felt safe; I felt secure and I felt satiated. So I can look at that being and feel that things are going to be OK.” So again, that helps develop and maintain a secure relationship.
Essential for a Loving Bond Between Two Adults
Between two adults, what does ‘predictability’ look like? Same thing! When you have enough consistency going on, you can predict. That means that you know relationships are unpredictable in the specifics. But maybe you know enough consistent things have happened in your relationship so that you’re feeling safe enough; you’re feeling secure enough.
You can predict, “Gosh, we may have some hard times, at times, but we’re going to be OK. Or, “I know that my partner is going to be there for me, no matter what. I can predict that because I have that history of things consistently happening.”
Those Four Components One More Time
Again, a very quick review. For a secure relationship, for a loving bond, it doesn’t matter whether it’s between caregivers and a baby or if it’s a relationship between two adults, what you need are:
- positive interactions
As an activity, I would love for you to think about your own relationship. Think about what are you doing that is helping to either develop a loving relationship (a secure bond) or maybe maintaining that right now. So think about those four components and what are you doing that is helpful. If you want to be really wild, discuss this with your partner and get his or her feedback from that, as well.
So again, this is the first of four videos that I’m creating on the science of our relationships. My next video is going to be focused on what happens in our relationships when we’re not feeling so confident–not feeling so secure. Maybe we had a loving attachment, but then things were happening and we’re getting disconnected and things are not looking so good. OK? How that impacts us personally, emotionally, and physically. We’re just going to check that out.
This is free information, so please share it with others. The more that we understand about human relationships and have good connections, it’s only a win for all of us. So if you do Facebook or Pinterest, then look at those buttons below this video or at the bottom of the page, then definitely push that ‘Share’ button. That helps others, doesn’t cost you a thing, and it only does good. And hey, sharing more positive stuff and more connections is a win for all of us.
Thank you for your time. I look forward to seeing you next time and talking more about the science behind our connections. OK, take care for now. Bye-bye
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