A while ago we went to a used bookstore with all the kids. My son (then age 6) was looking at some Calvin & Hobbes collections and I went down a different aisle with my youngest daughter. We wandered around the store together for a bit and then made our way back to where I thought my son would be. We found him barely holding back tears and scared. He thought we had left the store without him. He was obviously and understandably upset. But why is my son’s response to feeling left behind so intuitively obvious?
The Fundamental Question
John Bowlby, a pioneer of the attachment theory of development, studied young children interacting with their mothers. He found that children who had strong bonds with their mothers often had many advantages over their less fortunate peers throughout life. These children seemed more confident, had less social anxiety, and so on. Bowlby posited that it was the continuous feedback loop of the child reaching out for support and finding it as a child that cultivated a life of confidence.
In the 1990s, researchers began asking whether attachment theory could also predict the health of adult relationships. Did the same give and take — where one person reaches out for support and either finds it or does not — matter to grown ups? They found that, indeed, the best partnerships are built on continually deepening calls for support that are answered.
Adult relationships, like those between a mother and child, all hinge on the answer to a fundamental question being asked from one person to the other: Are you there for me? When the answer is an easy yes, the relationship strengthens — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. But when the answer is no (as it was for my son for a brief while) the relationship strains….