How Do We Learn to Love?
WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 21, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Children who find a secure safe haven in their parents are well on their way to becoming secure, mentally healthy adults with the skills needed to form their own strong relationships, says Dr. Andrew J. Sodergren, a psychologist who seeks to integrate psychological sciences with a Catholic understanding of the human person.
Though a healthy parent-child relationship is key for the future, as many as 40% of adults are grappling with a history of insecure relationships with parents.
ZENIT spoke with Sodergren about the psychology of “attachment” and what to do when an attachment has been lacking.
ZENIT: Attachment is a popular term in parenting publications, but what exactly does it mean?
Sodergren: “Attachment” refers to a specific kind of emotional bond that we form towards another person who acts as a “secure base” and a “safe haven.” John Bowlby, the father of modern attachment theory, wrote about attachment as a basic, relational instinct. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bowlby argued that human beings have a basic instinct toward relatedness. In other words, we are relational beings and are impelled at an instinctive level to form persistent relationships with those who care for us when we are young.
Sometimes the term “attachment” is used to imply that the parent has an attachment to the child. Bowlby was adamant that the child forms an attachment to the parent, not the other way around. Just as the child is equipped to form an attachment to his caregivers, adults are equipped with a caregiving instinct to respond to the child and nurture him. This is why we all cringe when we hear a baby cry. However, in a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent does not form an attachment to the child, which would entail the parent gratifying his or her needs through the child. This role reversal negatively affects the child’s development. When it comes to relating to children, adults are the caregivers, and children are the ones who form attachments to us. We adults should be meeting our needs for security and support through our adult relationships and our relationship with God.
Another important point is that we never outgrow attachment. Bowlby was fond of saying that it remains an important part of our life from the “cradle to the grave.” When we become adolescents and young adults, we begin to form reciprocal attachments. These are relationships in which both parties may at various times serve as an attachment figure for the other. This reciprocal caregiving and care-receiving takes place in close friendships and in romantic relationships and continues throughout our adult life. Furthermore, as we progress in the spiritual life, God becomes more and more our central attachment figure, and needs that may have been previously directed to others may be directed to Him. However, we never completely outgrow our need for other human beings.