Many of the difficulties we experience in our adult relationships are the result of reproducing patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour that we developed in our very first human relationship, the one with the most important adult for our survival as infants and newborns – usually being our mother. The experience of this first relationship taught us what life is and how to seek it – sometimes by associating it with expressions of healthy love and sometimes by associating it with situations of anxiety, fear, frustration and sadness.
Daniel Goleman, a psychologist himself and now an expert author on emotional and social skills, defines human love in terms of three emotions that co-exist in every loving relationship:
- Attachment – it is this emotion that, indicatively, in times of vulnerability will lead us to seek out those with whom we have developed this emotional bond. In short, it is those people with whom our companionship reassures and rejoices us – just what maternal warmth does for the infant.
- Desire – this is the emotion that most instinctively drives us towards survival, first of all our own and then of our species. It is no coincidence that patterns of physical behavior and emotional attunement observed in infants, who try to attract their mother to them, are also observed between lovers. We might call this profound desire a desire for life – and not merely sexual desire, as we casually interpret it in everyday terms.
- Caring – this is the emotion that drives us to empathize, feel deeply and care for our people. Our caring is our response to our people’s attachment to us and vice versa. We experience it first as observers – we observe our caregivers caring for us, and then we imitate them ourselves. And so, while attachment and desire are already observed in the earliest social interactions of our lives, caring begins to emerge a little later, when we have started to become self-sufficient in an environment that provides freedom and security.
What may seem paradoxical from the outset is the “self-centered” character of attachment and desire, as opposed to care, which directs our attention to the Other, resulting in attitudes of altruism, solidarity, even self-sacrifice. Yet the paradox recedes when we consider that caring is similarly a prerequisite for our survival as individuals (not just vaguely so as species).
We humans identify our species with other pack animals in nature; indeed, we now know that a life-threatening injury and rejection by “our own people” trigger similar painful emotions in the same way and by involving the same neuronal circuits in our brains. The experience of danger to our life from physical injury is not any different from that of rejection, isolation and loneliness (not solitude).
Evidently therefore by taking care of others, on whom our lives depend, we are also taking care of ourselves. And by loving ourselves, we are also able to love others. But things become complicated when our early bonds, our first experience of attachment, did not provide us with the security we needed at the peak of our vulnerability as newborns and infants.
Attachment, desire and caring are interdependent and interrelated, so that disturbed attachment patterns have a direct impact on both the desire that drives our search for a partner and our ability to effectively care for the people we love. More on secure attachment and its insecure variants will be said, however, in our next article on human relationships.