Bridges of love

By Min Zan

“You’re beautiful. Yes, yes, you are. You’re beautiful, aren’t you?” The words are spoken in a singsong, accompanied by head nods and the broadest of smiles.
It’s a recording of a mother’s first words to her newborn baby. She is holding the tiny little boy on her lap, looking intently down into his face, her own expression wide with wonder. The baby is staring up at her, his eyes rolling a bit as they are still not under his control. It is a picture of the first forming of the bonds that make us human: mother and child.
The word we use to describe these links is peculiarly apt: bond. Both a joining together and, in the plural, sometimes a constriction and constraint. The bonds that join us to parents, spouses, family, friends, colleagues, and the wider society set us in contexts that give our lives shape, substance, and wider meaning. There is evidence that even at the very earliest stage in life, when a baby is less than a day old, it will preferentially look at a human face rather than a similar-sized object but without the normal layout of eyes, nose, and mouth. A baby is predisposed to look at faces, searching among those clustering around it for the signs that mark out its mother. Among those signs is the ‘baby language’ new mothers adopt with their infant: the content tends to feature repeated words and phrases, but even more important is its unusual tonal quality, a singsong rhythm that sets it apart from ordinary human communication as ‘baby talk’.
The pioneering work in the study of human affections and bonds was done by the British psychologist John Bowlby (1907-1990). Working with children orphaned during World War II, Bowlby realized they mourned their lost parents and that this sense of loss was enduring and caused them considerable difficulties. Well, naturally, you might say. It wouldn’t take a Freud to work that out. But the problem was, according to the prevailing psychological theories of the time (the decade or two after the end of World War II), children bonded emotionally to their parents because the parents supplied the food and shelter that satisfied the child’s ‘primary drive’ for sustenance and shelter. The emotional bond was secondary to this primary drive. So, according to theory, these _ orphaned children should have formed emotional bonds with the people who now supplied them with food and shelter: foster parents, orphanage caretakers, and so on. But they did not. They carried the original loss with them, and despite the general kindness of the people taking care of them and their satisfying primary drive for food and shelter, the children did not form anything like the same emotional bonds with their new caregivers as they had enjoyed with their parents.
Bowlby’s genius was that he was able to remove the blinkers placed over his eyes by his training and look at what he was seeing in the children and adolescents he was treating. To formulate his work, Bowlby made use of the studies by Harry Harlow with baby rhesus monkeys. Harlow raised the baby monkeys with two artificial mothers: a wire ‘mother’ who provided milk and a terry-cloth ‘mother’ who gave no sustenance but could be cuddled. The little baby rhesus monkeys preferred the terry-cloth ‘mother’, only visiting the wire ‘mother’ to feed. When coupled with Konrad Lorenz’s work on imprinting in animals such as ducks, Bowlby had the elements for a new and revolutionary theory of attachment.
Bowlby argued that the attachment between children and parents in human beings was specific to us as a species and resulted from the unusual dependency and helplessness of human babies and children. Babies and children exhibit particular attachment behaviours: proximity/contact maintenance and separation protest. In other words, babies and young children try to stay close to their parents and cry when they are separated from them. By keeping in contact with a parent who provides protection (other work cited by Bowlby showed that babies and children formed attachments to figures who provided security but did not necessarily provide them with food: that is, fathers), a baby is ensuring its own survival.
In evolutionary terms, the only protection a human infant could find was from its parents: other species might leave an infant in safety in a den or leave it camouflaged by its own markings, but none of these options are available for a human baby. Safety lies in the arms of mum or dad. Thus, natural selection ensured that human babies would exhibit a suite of behaviours to maintain contact with their parents and to prevent separation from them: think of a baby’s protests when it is handed off to a visiting relative to attempt to coo over and how often the baby has to be handed back to its mother before it will settle. This safety and security-seeking behaviour continues as babies grow into children. As Bowlby drily remarked, a child is like a missile when trying to make contact with an attachment figure: it won’t stop until it hits the target.
While infants become attached to their parents or caregivers, the quality of that attachment varies depending on how secure the child is about whether his or her parents will be available and respond when needed. A baby and child who grows up confident that their parents will be there when they need them and do what is needed will, not surprisingly, tend to grow up secure in other areas of life and character, although the jury remains undecided on just how widely spread this influence is through aspects of later life and character. But while the parents set the foundations and the ground floor of what we will become, it is in interacting with our peers, as children, adolescents, and adults, that the superstructure of our lives is formed. Going back to that study with infant monkeys raised with wire and terry cloth ‘mothers’, it is perhaps not surprising that, when introduced into the company of other monkeys after this upbringing, they proved woefully inadequate in their social relations, either abnormally fearful or aggressive. Among the females, those who did manage to mate and produce young successfully proved to be poor mothers, forgetful, and inattentive to their babies.
Human children learn a great deal by imitation and play when interacting with their fellows and typically go through three stages: solitary play, mutually aware playing, and socially interactive playing. While all three types of play persist through childhood, there is normally a shift towards a greater proportion of socially interactive playing as a child gets older. Rough-and-tumble play among boys first serves to teach boys limits and then, in adolescence, helps to create and maintain social hierarchies among peers.
In adults, the search for new bonds begins with a view toward love, marriage, partnership, and, from the evolutionary point of view, reproduction. The pair bond between spouses is both social and sexual: a bond that is stronger psychologically, behaviorally, and sexually than other bonds. Such powerful bonding occurs in conjunction with some of the most powerful neurotransmitters in the brain firing off in abundance: oxytocin, dopamine, corticosterone, and vasopressin are among the cocktail of chemicals that produce that heady, breathy, heart-stopping sense of being in love. In this, it contrasts powerfully with the other significantly different relationships that form adult life: the relatively weak bonds of acquaintanceship.
While the strong bonds of spousal and parent-child relationships act to cement the family unit and its wider kin group, acquaintanceships allow the people engaging with them to gain access to very different sources of information and social networks. Social studies have shown that people with strong social bonds tend to share many social features and have broadly similar expectations and ideas. However, acquaintances, from work colleagues through to informal social contacts in contexts as different as sports clubs and church groups, provide access to a much wider range of social and cultural information and ideas and are therefore important in providing avenues towards improving the social and economic status of the individual and his or her strongly bonded kin.
Human beings are social animals. Raised in isolation, children will not even learn language, let alone social skills. Although some among us might seek out solitude, we are all born of the flesh of relationships and form our first and foundational attachments with the people who raise us. The old adage, first proposed by Aristotle, proves largely true: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” The corollary of that, in the bleak Biblical verse, is that the iniquity of the parents will play out in their children, even to the third or fourth generation. Numerous studies suggest that this is all too accurate.

Reference: Understanding Relationships Feb 2024

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