Each of us is so unique—every temperament, every brain, every pace and style of learning. Combine just these few factors with our unique histories and varying degrees of having been loved, neglected, cherished or abused, and then mix in the developmental stages that were well-tended or horribly overlooked, and it’s a miracle that we don’t all kill each other in fits of ongoing reactivity.
On the whole, I am just so proud of us. I think it is a testament to our innate sense of connection that we can share the freeway lanes with each other, stand in movie lines together, and talk to each other over coffee without anarchy prevailing. It’s also a testament to the scientifically corroborated view that we need each other on biochemical and neurobiological levels. In other words, being dependent on each other may not warrant the shame and embarrassment that has been lopped on it for so long. Whether man or woman, we come by this tender yearning and essential need for connection honestly.
We have so many kinds of relationships and each of those allow moments of connection or moments of disconnection. Committed friendship, romantic partnership, marriage, being a parent, a sibling, colleagueship, relationships with our divorced parents, our aging parents—depending upon their level of commitment and intimacy, they are ALL hotbeds for the sharing of love and/or respect and appreciation, as well as hotbeds for profound healing.
If, when we’re growing up, we don’t have significant experiences of connection, even briefly with a grandmother or an aunt or a well-placed teacher or coach, then we don’t always have that point of reference to serve as a North Star for us—that memory (albeit often glimpse-esque) of what it is to be held, seen, nurtured, gotten, soothed—connected. Some of us begin the journey of our lives without the light and warmth of this cellular and soulful recollection of love, and it can make the creating of it in our adult relationships seem almost impossible.
If that sense of connection or secure attachment was not available to us because of our upbringing, or cultural or circumstantial context, the relationship lenses we look through may not be oriented to creating something we don’t know. However, sometimes this natural yearning for bonding can prevail in those of us who KNOW without having a reference, in the deepest part of our souls, that experiences of safe connection ARE possible. And so we continue to seek, often on a wing and a hope and a prayer.
When there is some unfinished business, some unmet needs, some traumas that warrant careful attention, we often find ourselves “compelled to repeat” those similar dynamics from our past. And we often find ourselves attracted to people who trigger those memories in us, both positive and negative. These people—those with whom we sign contracts, start businesses, date, marry, and hang out with—somehow feel “familiar.” Adorably so, or excruciatingly so.
Why do we feel so compelled to repeat? Most often developing unconsciously, the attraction to these familiar relationships is life’s way of offering opportunities for us to complete that which was not completed in childhood. In so many ways, this is also a big part of trauma recovery work—completing the incomplete and discharging the energy that needed to be discharged then but wasn’t. This agenda—this unconscious yearning to return to the wholeness from whence we began—is at the heart of so many leading-edge healing modalities and therapies. My two favorite modalities are Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt’s Imago Therapy and Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing—both offering a return to connection, to bondedness, to wholeness, to safety, to warmth, to HOME … as we would define it now.
The most important aspect to engaging in this type of relationship is to know that whomever you are embarking upon it with is aware of this possibility, this opportunity—this social, emotional, spiritual, existential PROMISE of healing in the context of commitment and intimacy.
I have tried to do this work with people who thought it was a joke, who laughed at me and this idea. It never worked. And needless to say, those relationships were doomed to failure … certainly not until I had done my best, of course, to evidence what was available in this kind of soulful commitment. But if someone is not up for what is described here and you are—best to move on to the familiar people you are attracted to who ARE up for it. Then the relationship has a fighting chance to create the healing and high fives that this kind of commitment and willingness and responsibility promises to yield.
MOVING TOWARD SECURITY
Having been obsessed with connection, healing, and wholeness almost my whole life, and having deeply examined what happened during the crucial developmental stages of my own life (and where connection with my caregivers had both suffered and thrived), I became ever-more obsessed with the idea of understanding and attempting to do a “good enough” version of creating secure attachment with my son when he was born. If I could, I knew that I wanted to breastfeed him and give him, from day one, the felt sense of connection in this world (although attachment can be “nailed,” as such, without breastfeeding or the perfect birthing experience, to be sure).
Over the years, I have deeply studied the styles of attachment: secure, ambivalent, and avoidant. There are many words used to describe styles of attachment in psychotherapeutic literature and methodology. My favorite is described by Mary Ainsworth through her studies of what she named the “strange situation classification”—a method through which she could clarify types of attachment byseeing how kids fared when separated from their mom or their primary caregiver(s).
I became enthralled with how we can move from ambivalent and avoidant—and I was both depending upon whom I was interacting with—toward secure attachment in every relationship we care about. I became especially absorbed in how this applied to my marriage—where the greater share of my heavy-and-sweet lifting was occurring. It applied to my friendships as well, and most all relationships that would be appropriate for me to put this kind of time and energy and care into.
COMMITMENT, INTIMACY, AND MUTUAL HEALING
Beyond the awareness that the degree of commitment and intimacy in a relationship is commensurate to the degree of healing that is available there, I also noticed something else. I could see that we are as ready for healing as the commitments we make, and specifically with whom we are making those commitments.
If I were to have committed to certain exes of mine, that would have indicated that I was not ready for wholeness or for healing or for correction or repair in the way that I know I am. There are certain people who are not up for that kind of heavy-lifting. Finding someone like my husband—someone who is up for the journey, big time—opened up a whole realm of possibility for me to move beyond just growth … because lord knows I have been in a million relationships where I was growing like a weed, but it was because I had to. I call these relationships “growth relationships.” The dynamics of these relationship certainly “grew me up” in many ways. They pushed me to set better boundaries. To stand up for myself. To define what worked for me and what didn’t. They clarified my mission and my value system. Moved me to investigate my relationship with my own needs and wants, my own esteem issues. Propelled me to develop my own healthy narcissism. All GROWTH stuff.
But my heart YEARNED for healing. Mutual healing. And I knew I had to have a REAL partner to get into that juicy realm—a deeply committed partner. I had been taught and had experienced that “the blueprint for your growth lies in the requests of your partner.” So I had stretched and stretched into new behaviors (well outside the survival strategies that kept me alive when I was younger, which felt like mini-deaths, but I persevered)—all at the requests of the people I dated. I melted and knocked down walls that kept me from showing up. But I had yet to have someone be willing to do that FOR ME. Their resistance often showed up as their saying, “I don’t like that you’re trying to change me.” To which I would reply:
“I am not trying to change WHO YOU ARE innately. But rather, I am asking you to look at those behaviors that keep your heart closed, away from me. That keep you defended. That keep us locked apart from each other. It is these behaviors I am shining the light on, not WHO YOU ESSENTIALLY ARE.”
As you can imagine, most people were not up for this kind of responsibility-taking. This kind of stepping outside of their comfort zone. This kind of new behavior tryings-on. It all seemed too dangerous to them. Too risky. Too stupid. Not “fun” enough.” Too hard. Too daunting. Too much. I was repeatedly crestfallen.
It was only when I met my husband that we realized together that this level of commitment to wholeness and stretching out of old behaviors, while in fact daunting, is so much more than that. It is leaning into (rather than running or jumping ship) the conflict that is inevitable in life and discovering even more love. We realized that tolerating the conflicts that are ripe with unmet needs for connection—and moving toward quick repair—yields such soothing. And aliveness. Expressedness. It yields a big outbreath. It yields a sense of safety. Consistency. Warmth. Predictability (of the best variety). Resilience. Fortitude. Humor. Tenderness.
It yields no less than the promise of god and love itself. I am so happy I persevered beyond how much fun was made of me for wanting this. And for staying the course. (The guys that left cuz they only wanted fun…I picture them arguing with their current spouses and wonder if they are both winking and cursing me right about now :).)
RECONNECTING TO PEACE
Relationship for me is about merging, feeling god, and then pulling away, even if it is ever so slightly or subtly. Individuating, merging. Individuating, merging. Individuating, merging. Ideally, my goal is to be connected with self and other and god, relatively consistently, at the same time. I am not sophisticated enough yet to be there entirely, but that is the prize my eye is on. Although with every year that goes by my tenacity for perfection lessens, and I am left with a “perfectly imperfect” relaxation at the epicenter of my life. Which leaves room for a general sense of connection. And when I feel that “hell-on-earth coldness of disconnection,” as I call it, I have tools now that can bring me back to the warm waters of regulation, peace, and mutual intimacy in my relationships with self, god, my body, others and the earth.
Part 2 of this series on connection touches on how at the root of most addiction lies a hunger for connection, an “attachment hunger” as I call it. The natural and existential need we have for connection, if it is not met, shows up as a chronic yearning that can be addressed by hungrily chasing it (as in the ambivalently attached person’s case) or by convincing ourselves that we don’t need it at all (as in the avoidantly attached person’s case). To delve further together, and to speak to how this natural need can be functionally met, I invite you to stay tuned for Part 2.