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Early bonds and restoring love

The theme of love and secure attachments continues. This month, Lyn French (A Space, Director) again highlights some of the feeling states featured in the recently published A to Z of Emotions, exploring early bonds and the lifelong importance of being able to  restore love and repair relationships when things go wrong.

The experience of what we all call ‘falling in love’ has inspired poets, artists and philosophers through the centuries. Psychotherapists are also deeply interested in this subject as the loss of love, the inability to love or be loved, the difficulties in sustaining loving relationships, the confusingly ambivalent feelings that love can engender and, simply, ‘love gone wrong’ are some of the common triggers spurring an initial request for help.

We know from research studies, infant and mother observations and clinical practice that what is called an’ internal working model’ for relationships is laid down very early on in life.  A hard reality for many of us is that we love in the way we’ve been loved ourselves.  To love is to form an attachment to a significant other. Attachment patterns have been investigated and documented since the 1960’s with Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby leading the way.  Ainsworth identified and organised these patterns into three categories adding a fourth one later 1) secure attachment; 2) insecure attachment (anxious-avoidant); 3) insecure attachment (anxious-resistant); and 4) disorganized/ disorientated attachment.

Most infants experience their primary early attachment in their relationship with their mother. This reflects the everyday reality that it is the mother who carries the child and is usually the one who most often feeds the baby in their first few weeks and months.  Having responsibility for a baby’s survival can be anxiety provoking as well as exhilarating and mothers need the support of a partner or other adults to help her to contain the emotional ups and downs. As Winnicott noted, ‘good enough’ mothering is actually the best there is. Infants need to learn that they can survive without a primary carer responding to their every need. Also, both baby and mother benefit from finding their own way of communicating together,  comprising mother’s words and vocal tone, sounds such as mother’s ‘cooing’, mutual eye contact and shared touch before language is acquired. Mothers need to learn to ‘read’ their baby so that they are less likely to project their own wishes or anxieties onto them and babies need time to discover themselves through this relationship. Being playful and later on, playing together, is an important dimension of the mother/baby relationship, engaging in a ‘to and fro’ kind of relating that sets the scene for the rhythms and cadences of verbal conversation.

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Matthew Krishanu ‘Kept in the Dark’ Etching (2010)

Without a primary carer who is able to enter into what is described by psychotherapists as the non-verbal ‘dance of communication’, the baby may struggle through the early stage of development described by psychologist Daniel Stern in his seminal book ‘The Interpersonal world of the Infant’ as ‘the emergent self’ characterised by the baby beginning to reveal his personality. From here on the infant begins to develop a core self and then with the acquisition of language, the child enters into a new ‘domain of relatedness’.  Without a primary carer with whom to have the experience of being related to, and in time to engage meaningfully with, the child will have little understanding of his emotional core and of how to navigate relationships in general. Like Matthew Krishanu’s image illustrating ‘Kept in the Dark’, the child will be locked out of his inner world.  Of course there will be many other opportunities to learn to relate but the absence of inner security that comes from experiencing a deep early bond may leave an imprint, possibly affecting the ability to repair relationships when things go wrong.

A secure attachment depends on the baby being able to rely on the mother to consistently meet their needs in a contained and containing way and to be willing to participate in a meaningful relationship over time.  Paradoxically, we can only become independent if we have experienced fulfilling dependency.  A child whose needs are not being met may either orbit around his  mother, endlessly seeking to attract her attention, or the opposite – become too self-sufficient, repressing or denying the need for an emotional connection, and in the process, cutting off access to more tender feelings.

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Dia Batal ‘Loss’ Detail from ‘Mourning Hall’ Commemorating Syrians killed by the Syrian Regime during the uprising 2011-2012.

Breakdowns in understanding occur in every relationship, even in the earliest days of life. In later years, this can lead to conflict and the – hopefully temporary – sense that love has been lost.  The decorative pattern on Dia Batal’s image illustrating the emotional experience of ‘Loss’ is actually Arabic writing recording the names of people killed in the 2011-12 Syrian uprising.  When we fall out with someone close to us, it can feel as if we’ve experienced a death of sorts; it seems as if the ‘good person’ we’ve known and loved has been killed off and can never be resurrected.  Our own ‘good parts’ can feel under threat as well.  However, if we have a secure enough internal sense of ourselves and a belief in our capacity for reparation, we are able to tolerate this painful state and can engage in working things through without resorting to taking the moral high ground or rejecting the other person altogether.

In her book ‘Why Love Matters’ Sue Gerhardt highlights the importance of this capacity to restore mutual respect and understanding.  She refers to Alan Shore, a leading researcher in the field of neuropsychology, who calls this ‘the ‘disruption and repair’ cycle.  When stress and conflict between people occur, as it inevitably will in every relationship, it is crucial to learn that the positive relationship can be restored.   This is at the heart of the attachment between parent and child and is the core of emotional security and self-confidence.  It is a repair system that is set up in a child’s early life.  The secure child learns that the parent figures will soothe and comfort him when he is distressed; they won’t leave him to suffer for too long.  This is the parent’s job in early life as the child has no capacity to regulate himself. ‘

A parent who was not related to in this way when they themselves were a child may have to learn this skill as an adult.  Some parents experience their child’s feelings as too demanding or even ‘inconvenient’.  Or if a parent cannot soothe themselves s/he may not be able to bear a child being upset.  Replacing unhelpful early attachment behaviour with newly learned behaviour takes work however it pays dividends.  We now know that love may start with a surge of good feeling but building a resilient bond  takes emotional investment and a willingness to engage in the ‘disruption and repair’ cycle each time the relationship goes through a difficult patch.

If we can accept our vulnerabilities and own the fact that from time to time we will inevitably act on our destructive and hostile thoughts, hurting those we love or with whom we are in asocial or professional relationship, then we will feel more integrated and whole inside. Matthew Krishanu’s painting illustrates this, capturing the quality of being alone with our private thoughts and feelings.  This state of reverie and reflection is only possible if we are not too anxious. Our unconscious fear of our capacity to damage others and of our ‘bad’ parts eclipsing our ‘good’ is one of the roots of anxiety.  The more we are able to tolerate and work through our conflicts, restoring our relationships after a rupture, the less anxiety we will carry and the more securely attached we will feel.

Images referenced above come from Iniva Creative Learning’s newest publication – The A-Z of Emotions – 26 contemporary art cards created with commentary and questions to stimulate creative exploration and build an emotional vocabulary. Iniva Creative Learning also offers art therapy workshops, our spring series, taught from London is now open for booking. Read more here.

Written by Jenny Starr