All the Faith and Family Findings of the last few months drive home the most basic fact about human nature: 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, the 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 seem to reject that affection even as they cry for it.  

So much can be unpacked from the data of our recent findings. Chiefly, there is the mother’s need for a husband (and extended family) who take special care of her as these huge new demands are put on her; and that assumes 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, and these shape our dominant relationship style for the rest of our lives. They are:

* Secure attachment, making a person easy to get along with linked to a capacity to  accept people as they are;

* Anxious attachment, which leaves the person wanting and seeking attachment but never feeling fulfilled, because of a fear of not being lovable enough;

* Avoidant attachment style, characterised by keeping a distance, reaching out but with reservations, pulling back or with-holding commitment;

* Anxious-avoidant attachment, which is a heightened form of the avoidant style.

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

We are made to belong, and the good life depends on belonging 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 – who 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.” 

Behavioural 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 (despite her feelings) in an attached way towards her infant child.  It works. John of the Cross and behavioural psychologists acting in tandem!

Given the breakdown in family and the experience of parental rejection that so many children have in our era, there is an epidemic of detachment. We can see this, for instance, in the desperate escapism of the opioid epidemic, or in the behaviour of Japanese millennials who are no longer interested in the opposite sex, let alone romance or marriage. Further, new developments making the digital world more like reality and games more absorbing are shaping “detachment patterns” among adolescents through addiction to the digital, non-relational life. 

This and much more calls on parents across the globe to learn how to stem detachment in their children and help them relate to human beings.  Neurobiological insights will help and motivate. Cognitive behavioural discoveries in therapeutics will help, and stories from those who overcome isolating 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.

Pat Fagan is the director of the Marriage and Religion Research Initiative at The Catholic University of America. He is the publisher and editor of Marripedia.org. Republished from the MARRI blog.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...