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Man’s Most Basic Need: The Need to Belong

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All our Faith and Family Findings of the last few months drive home the most basic fact about man: We are made to belong. And, cannot belong just to ourselves. 

 Our capacity to be attached appropriately to the important people in our lives (spouses, children, friends and our colleagues at work) determines our happiness. Yet, our capacity to be attached to others is primarily a product of how attached to us our mother was, which in turn is largely a product of her experiences of attachment in her earliest years.  Granted, biological hardwiring of the child has a big effect on how a mother responds to her infant’s need for attachment. Some infants are easier to hold and enjoy. But it is those who are not so easy to enjoy who that affection they seem to reject even as they cry for it.  

So much can be unpacked from the data of our recent Findings: the mothers need for a husband (and extended family) who take special care of her as these huge new demands are put on her and the husband’s capacity to take second place to a newborn in his wife’s new life of “distributing affection”. (The first birth is the occasion that triggers more divorces than any other life event – or so the data showed about 15 years ago.  I have not seen any contrary data since).  

From the mix of our early attachment experiences, combined with our neurological make-up, four main styles of attachment influence arise that shape our relationship dominant style for the rest of our lives: secure attachment (easy to get along with plus a capacity to  accept people as they are); anxious attachment (wanting and seeking attachment but never feeling fulfilled because of a fear of not being lovable enough); avoidant attachment style (keeping a distance, reaching out but with reservations, pulling back or with- holding commitment) and then anxious-avoidant (a mixture of anxiously reaching out and then pulling back).  

It is amazing to see in the data how pervasive these styles are in our relationships:  in romance and marriage; in the “ordinary” settings of work; biologically on the immune system, longevity, capacity to handle stress and even on the capacity to deal with psychosis!  

We are made to belong, and the good life is to belong securely with those who are most important to us in life.   The growing concern is “How to get there?” One of the greatest mystics in human history (recognized so across all religions) is John of the Cross …so named for his penetration of the meaning of suffering (and he experienced many severe rejections from those most important to his life).  His guidance: “Where there is no love, put love and you will find love.” 

Behavioral psychologists already know how to help anxious or avoidant mothers break the intergenerational cycle of insecure attachment —not by eliminating the insecurity in the mother, but by teaching her how to act in an attached way towards her infant child (despite her feelings).  It works! John of the Cross and behavioral psychologists acting in tandem!

Given the breakdown in family and the almost culturally-normed experience of parental rejection that so many children have in our era,  we have an epidemic of detachment, evidenced, for instance, in the opioid epidemic, or in manifestations such as the sexual behavior the Japanese cohort of millennials no longer interested in marriage or romance or even in the opposite sex. Further, new discoveries in making the digital more reality like, and in the games derived, are adding quickly shaping  “detachment patterns” of adolescent addiction to the digital, non-relational life. 

Much beckons for all parents across the globe in learning how to stem detachment in their children and, instead, to help them be attached human beings.  Neurobiological insights will help and motivate. Cognitive behavioral discoveries in therapeutics will help, and stories from those who overcome these habits will help.  

We are entering a very new phase in human history: even as we conquer space and the atom and everything in between we are eroding our capacities for attachment.  But everything most human depends on attachment. The world will soon be starving for a solution. The data of Mapping America   indicates the way.

For the good of the child, the future of America,

Pat Fagan, Ph.D.

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