To see a birth is to witness a miracle. No mother can resist wanting to hold, cuddle with, and tend to her newborn. And this is where the story of every person’s life of relationships and love begins.

Infants quite literally need their caregivers for survival. So, thanks to Mother Nature, infants are hardwired with a need to connect with others, and the wherewithal to do it. For instance, they like to look at people’s faces, can get others to care for them by crying, and are usually comforted by being held or rocked. And, of course, babies just look so darned cute that people want to care for them. All of this keeps their primary caregivers (usually their mothers, and secondarily their fathers) interested in protecting and nurturing them. As children become mobile, their continued need for help to survive motivates them to stay close to their mothers. A little one who ventures out will look back to Mommy for reassurance. It’s in these early years, beginning with infancy, that people first learn how relationships can help them feel safe and can calm them when they are upset.

Anyone who’s had experience with babies and young children has observed these behaviors, but psychoanalyst John Bowlby began publishing ideas in the late 1950s about them as signs of an attachment system. He explained that they are designed to keep a “stronger and/or wiser” person—an
attachment figure—close so that the child can survive and feel safe. He also offered the revolutionary notion that in order for children to thrive, their attachment figures should be warm and emotionally available (Bowlby, 1961, 1989). This idea was in direct conflict with what mothers were taught at that time. The prevailing wisdom was that a sensitive, nurturing approach to childrearing would make children clingy and too dependent. Instead, mothers were encouraged to keep an objective, rational distance, even when their children were upset or ill (Johnson, 2008).

Bowlby’s ideas were generally rejected until researcher Mary Ainsworth helped him prove the truth of his theories through her work in the 1970s, as Wallin (2007) and Mikulincer and Shaver (2007)
note. Ainsworth’s studies helped show that through innumerable interactions with their parents—subtle or not so subtle—children develop a way of bonding that seeps into their very being. This way of bonding becomes a working model that sets their expectations for how others will respond to them, as well as for how they feel about themselves.

Some time later, researchers showed that the attachment process was active in romantic love (Hazan and Shaver, 1987; Feeney, 2008). While nature provides the attachment system as a way to ensure
the child’s survival, attachment bonds developed within that system are felt as love—in
both childhood and adulthood. So it’s no surprise that children seek the love of their parents as if their lives depend on it (which they do). Adults experience similar intense anxiety and painful sadness when the existence of their primary relationships (and the love those relationships offer) feels threatened. It’s also no surprise that children who tend to get upset easily and have trouble being
soothed by their parents also tend to struggle with being upset easily as adults, and are unable to find a consistent, reliable sense of soothing and safety in their romantic relationships.

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