According to the new bonding science, our bonding responses exist from the cradle to the grave. We bond with partners the same way (more or less) parents and children bond. That said, there are a few differences in how a 2-year-old and a 32-year-old bond. For example:
One: When you’re older, you carry that person, that relationship in your head as a constant source of happiness. Thinking of your partner is all it takes to brighten your mood.
Two: As an adult, you expect to give care and love as well as receive it. It’s not a one-way street, like it is when we’re children.
Three: And, of course, our strongest bonds as adults are often with our romantic partner. Sexuality is a major part of adult bonding.
But that’s about it.
So, let’s look at the similarities—that is, every other hallmark of personal bonding.
The bonding emotions, needs, and behaviors wired into our brains are the result of our slow (we’re talking millions of years slow) realization that sticking close to people who will respond to, cherish, and support us is the best survival mechanism of all. And bonding strategies are remarkably the same in infants and adults.
From birth to old age, we seek and struggle to maintain close emotional and physical connection with special others. This closeness gives us a safe haven where we can find comfort and achieve emotional and physiological balance. It’s a secure base from which to go confidently out into the world to learn and explore.
We know we are stronger when others have our back. When we lose the precious sense of connection with a loved one, we hurt. In our loneliness, we rage, cry, plead, sulk, and try to turn away—not to care.
Feeling truly alone, abandoned, and rejected, is traumatic no matter how old you are. But, as soon as we recover this closeness we laugh, smile, gaze at our lover, reach for them, and feel wholly new. It’s the same narrative arc every time—the same script.
When we are most confident that others will be open, tune into us, and respond to us, we tend to reach for them when we are in need. If we feel safe, it’s much easier to identify, confront, and express our emotions in a way that is intelligible to the people close to us.
When we are uncertain as to how our loved ones will respond to our vulnerability, we often try to force them to respond by becoming aggressive and/or then trying to ignore our need for acknowledgment by shutting down, or distancing ourselves from them.
Along with my great colleague and friend Dr. Ed Tronick, who has been studying infant/mother bonding for decades, I’ve made a short video that demonstrates the similarities in the responses of infants and adults to sudden disconnection from a loved one.
This feeling of disconnection can be caused by something as subtle as silence. If we stop getting connection signals, we feel cut off from that source of strength and safety. Going silent is a defense mechanism often used when relationships go off track. But, in fact, this shutdown—this silence—usually makes things worse. A relationship is a dance; If all of a sudden you find your partner standing still, it’s only natural for you to be taken aback.
We are here to make sense of love and loving. Once we understand how something works, we can shape it. Bonding science has already given us a map for how to raise healthier, happier kids. With more study and experimentation, we can do the same for romantic relationships. Better relationships are the way to a better world.