The prevailing attitude in western society is that we need to be independent and not reliant upon the support and comfort of others. In spite of this, our need for one another is an inescapable, marvelous and biological feature of the human species.
“Contact comfort” is a basic human need heard in the old song, “We all need somebody to lean on…”
“Contact comfort” can be seen in the true story of a–less-than- a-year-old hippopotamus, traumatized after losing its mother in the tsunami waves on the Kenyan coast. Rescued by wildlife rangers and taken to a wildlife park, the baby hippo weighing about 650 pounds, needed to find someone to be a surrogate mother. It discovered a century old male tortoise and established a strong bond, with the tortoise as its “mother”. To the amazement of the ecologists in the wildlife park, the male tortoise seemed to be very happy with being a mother.”
This story demonstrates how much we need the comfort of another. It demonstrates the need for connection that is wired into us, a need that is both a biological and an emotional need. It illustrates how secure attachment is a survival mechanism, in that in times of danger and threat we need a reliable closeness to someone who cares for us.
This is a moving picture of what British psychiatrist John Bowlby called “contact comfort”. It illustrates what he showed to be essential to normal development in infants and what current day research validates is also the defining feature of adult love relationships. Knowing that we have caring loved ones whom we can reach in times of distress, calms and soothes us. [This hippo and tortoise story has been published as a children’s book “Owen and Mzee,” and is available on Amazon]
Sue Johnson in her book Hold me tight, and its accompanying self-help dvd provides an indepth guide for couples in the kinds of conversations that build relationship security even in the midst of disagreements and distress.
My greatest teachers are my clients and my children. The greatest lessons which they continually have to teach me are the unlimited variations on the theme of the universal need to be deeply understood and cared for by significant others. Classic research conducted in the 1950s by Harry Harlow at the U of Wisconsin found that baby rhesus monkeys, separated from their mothers showed a definite preference for a terrycloth “mother” over a wire contraption that offered them food, but could offer no physical comfort. Material things pale in comparison to the comforts of care giving, support, understanding and confidence in one another.
The primary defining feature of your love-relationship is the basic human need to be safe, and comfortably connected with each other. It is not whether couples agree or disagree that predicts whether their relationships will last: it is how they handle differences and conflict. How do you and your significant other “dance” when disagreements and differences arise? Can you stay connected or at least re-connect after conflict? Reconnecting after a fight is the most healing event for a relationship.
Tom and Bridgette tend to slip into a feisty tango step, for several energetic moments. Suddenly things go awry and Bridgette disappears off the dance floor, to escape the hurtful memories of her father’s criticism that arise when Tom raises his voice. Tom is left standing alone feeling lonely and rejected and very confused.
Paula and Ricki can be seen promenading joyfully together, in spite of their differences. “We argue and disagree at times, but what keeps us together, is that we don’t lose the connection between us, ‘says Paula. “I see the glimmer of a smile on his face, even while he disagrees with me. I can see he still cares.” Ricki adds, “I hear a hint of tenderness in her voice, and know she still accepts me even in the midst of our argument.”
Conflict and distance between loved ones is rooted in repeated mis-attempts to be safe, secure and accepted by each other. If you are stuck in negative ruts of distress, step back and listen for faint echoes of fears, unmet needs and buried treasures:
- Have I just poked my partner or teenager with yet another criticism in attempt to manage my own fear that they are growing apart from me?
- Did I just walk away and retreat into my safety of silence to manage my sinking despair that I can never seem to be able please him or her?
- Am I unwilling to take the risk of telling him or her about my fears, or my love for him or her?
- Can I imagine letting him or her know how important they really are to me?
- Could I risk taking my hopes and dreams off the shelf, dusting them off and showing them to my loved one?
- Can I re-discover the hidden treasure that my loved one is to me and then find the courage to share it with him or her?
Responding to these themes, will help you to resonate with the heartstrings of those you love.
* * * * *
Remember, seek professional help at the early warning signs of relationship difficulties. Waiting too long is never worth it, because you get stuck in negative patterns of interaction that become increasingly automatic, rigidly entrenched, and more and more difficult to change.