Although we have an instinct to connect with other people, we sometimes have experiences where connecting has caused us pain. This life experience can lead us to hesitate when we have motives to connect. Emotional pain can can mean we isolate ourselves even within relationships because it is less risky, and we can convince ourselves that we do not need deep involvements with other people. We have been hurt in the past when we have made ourselves vulnerable to another person, and our response was, “I don’t want to feel that kind of pain again. It is easier to be alone.” Then, even when we make connections with friends, colleagues, or lovers, we are hedging our bets: keeping our most vulnerable selves protected. We function in the relationship with one foot out the door in our minds, telling ourselves we are self-sufficient and can always leave. As a culture, we idealize autonomy and differentiation: what we call, “growing up,” and we disparage the need for connection and reassurance. We worry about people who are “dependent,” “needy,” or “overly emotional.”
In fact, however, human beings, primates as we are, are social animals, and our relationships impact us even when we believe we have kept ourselves completely separate. Brain studies in neurobiology increasingly show us the fundamental necessity of close connection and the brain structuring that follows from it. Just as we are hurt in the context of relationships, we are also healed in the context of relationships. All of the longing for connection, the trial and error movement toward closeness with other people, the sappy idealism around love and friendship are, it turns out, absolutely real and important parts of what it means to be human.
Our growth as persons requires that we take those risks. Because we are imprisoned in our own limited consciousness, we need other people to challenge us, push us out of our comfort zones and help us see where we are distorting or misunderstanding our experience. We now have attachment studies that span generations; they show us that every human being, in order to operate at optimal functioning, needs at least one attachment relationship that can serve as a secure base and a safe haven at times of distress.
This is incredibly good news. It turns out that that very experience we seek: that deep connection, that commitment to each other, that wish to be deeply understood, and to deeply understand another person, is part of our hard-wired biology and part of our adaptive psychological motivational system. So we were right all along. We really do need each other. It is not weakness or neediness, it is a built-in system to help us move toward each other even when it feels dangerous and uncertain. Because, after all, we do better together.