When I was in grade school, February was marked by an annual ritual. It would start with me asking my mother for an old shoebox. The shoebox would then be taken to school where my teacher would help me wrap the box in wrapping paper embellished with hearts or cupids or flowers and then we would carefully cut a slit in the top. This was essential because later, identified with my name, my box would be carefully placed on a shelf along with those of each of my classmates, and these would become “mailboxes” where each of us would deposit handmade Valentine’s Day cards.
While these childhood rituals may seem cute or silly depending on your perspective, they were, and are, driven by something that seems as innate as geese flying south for the winter… the desire for human connection. Researcher, teacher and author Dr. Brené Brown writes, “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” (Daring Greatly, p. 8) 1
Now you may ask yourself, “Are you saying we actually suffer when we feel disconnected?” Well, let’s think about it for a moment. How would you describe the look on the face of a child who opens his shoebox and doesn’t find any Valentine’s Day cards inside?
“Oh, but that’s because he is a child. We grow out of that pretty quickly.”
Do we? On January 25 of this year President Obama issued an executive order severely limiting the use of solitary confinement (the use of social disconnection as a punishment) calling the impact “devastating” and “an affront to our common humanity”? 2
When you stop to think about it, the desire for human connection seems to be one of those facts that is so obvious that we rarely stop to notice it. On the rare occasion when we find someone who says they don’t need other people, we usually discover that they have been badly hurt by others and have given up hope that they will ever find true, trustworthy connection.
So, what is this ethereal, romantic, primal, human connection, and where does it come from?
Well, if we are to believe Valentine’s Day cards, love and human connection come from a chubby cherub armed like Katniss Everdeen, shooting arrows dipped in love serum. If we are to believe the poets and songwriters, love is something like a fog that drifts in without warning, envelopes you, surrounds you for an indeterminate amount of time and then dissipates as imperceptibly as it crept in.
More recently, however, researcher, writer and consummate couples therapist Dr. Sue Johnson, and others like her, have put love under the microscope of research. After years of observing distressed couples in her office, Dr. Johnson perceived in the anxiety caused by their growing interpersonal distance a parallel to the distress of infants, separated from their mothers, protesting their loss of comforting human connection. Ongoing research, including real-time brain studies,3 confirm what Dr. Johnson observed and what early attachment theorist John Bowlby predicted, namely that adult love is the mature expression of human attachment needs that follow us “from the cradle to the grave”.4
One of the reasons why this most obvious of facts escaped researchers and therapists for so long is the same reason it still is missed by almost all couples seeking couples therapy… they don’t realize that the presenting problem is only the tip of the iceberg. If I ask couples in my office what their problem is I almost always hear something like: sex, money, children, long work hours, affairs or problems with his or her family of origin. But today we know that these issues are only the playing field for how the couple will live out their connection, or lack thereof. Hidden below the waterline are questions like:
- Are you there for me?
- Do I matter to you?
- Do my feelings make a difference to you?
- Will you respond to me when I need you?
- Will you trust me to protect you?5
Our treatment of each other in the addressing of the many necessary issues of life, not the issues themselves, are constantly answering these hidden questions that reflect our innate desire for a secure, caring connection with other human beings. When we feel insecure we resort to protecting ourselves and our interests, bickering endlessly in a battle of attrition to see whose will prevails, or we resign to negotiation in an attempt to cut our losses and maximize our gains. But when we feel safely bonded with our partner we come together to find mutually honoring and affirming solutions that in both the process and in the result affirm the care we have for each other and reflect the quality of the connection between us.
So go ahead, risk, and reach out. Give your partner access to your thoughts and feelings and be a safe place where they can confide theirs to you. Healthy dependence is not a sign of weakness, but rather courage and vulnerability and union. Go ahead and ask your partner, “Will you be my valentine?”
P.S. If you want to evaluate how securely connected you are to your partner, and they to you, follow the link, print 2 copies of the questionnaire, fill them out and share your answers with each other. It will make for a great discussion.6
P.P.S.S. If you want to take this all a step further, click on the link to purchase Dr. Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight, a step-by-step guide for couples wanting to move towards greater emotional intimacy.7
Cameron sees clients out of our St. Charles office