The Darker Side of Valentines: On Vulnerability and Parting

This Friday is the 14th of February –- the arrival of the annual Romantic Love Fest. I thought that gave us the perfect opportunity to look at the darker side of Love.

ImageHow come Love can make you crazy when it goes away? How come it hurts so much – literally, physically hurts? Heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, stomach churning, uncontrollable crying? Why do we have such extreme reactions?

I know this is a question that has vexed poets for centuries. Nonetheless, here goes an answer: For us humans, deeply social creatures that we are, the brain really is in pain upon separation. Experiments using brain scans, such as fMRI, have now shown that the same areas of the brain are activated when a person feels social pain as when he or she feels physical pain. The evolution of the human brain has led it to process sensory and emotional pain using the same neural circuits.

How do scientists know that? One now classic study, conducted in 2003 and published in the leading journal Science, was carried out by Eisenberger’s team, based at UCLA. They had participants play a computer game involving other (unseen) participants. Some players got the feedback that they were being included by the other players, whilst others experienced being excluded. Brain scans taken while they were playing the game showed that the part of brain being used to handle feelings of exclusion was the anterior cingulate cortex, which is also known to be used when handling physical pain. The ground-breaking implications of that early neuroimaging study drew lots of media attention at the time.

A more recent example (that is also more real life and slightly more twisted) is the 2011 study carried out by Edward Smith’s research team, based at Columbia University. They looked at the brain activity of people who were coping with a painful relationship breakup. They scanned the brains of 40 people, during two different situations. The first situation involved subjecting them to the kind of physical pain you feel when holding a hot cup of coffee. The second involved asking them to think about their break up, whilst (even worse!) looking at a photograph of their beloved ex-partner. Guess what? The scans of the two groups looked surprisingly similar. The same region of the brain was being used, regardless of whether the pain stemmed from hot coffee or romantic loss. As Meghan Laslocky puts it, “As far as your brain is concerned, when you break up, you really are in pain. For the brain, that pain you feel in a break-up is no different from a stab wound.

There are good evolutionary reasons for humans to feel pain and panic at separation. Humans used to live in small groups, with members dependent upon one another for survival. Separation or exclusion from the group was a death sentence. So if adults get anxious about getting lost from their clan, how much worse is it for babies? If baby humans get separated from their clan, they have no way of fixing that themselves. Baby humans can’t walk until they are a year old, or run steadily until they are 4. Baby humans are excessively dependent creatures, totally reliant for a very long time on the mercy of the people who care for them. The very best strategy they have is to cry. Babies’ helpless dependency has shaped the development of our species in extraordinary ways – and it continues to shape the development of the brain of every single person currently walking on the earth and in your house.

Our brain knows, as a consequence of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, that separation could mean death. That’s what it is telling us in the middle of a break-up, and in the middle of all partings. Our brain and body believe that terrible danger lurks, even if our conscious, rational self tells them not to be so silly.

That’s why cultures have rituals for handling even minor partings. You know how you say “Good night” to members of your family, every single evening? You know how you tuck your children up to sleep and give them a good night kiss? You know how you say “Have a good day” or simply “Cheers” to your partner, as you both leave for work? You know how you give friends a hug, or at least a nod, as you leave the pub? You know how you add x’s even to the ends of texts and emails? All of those are rituals that cultures have instinctively developed to help in handling partings. Parting rituals are a set of tools that our culture gives us for managing our physiological fear of separation. Parting rituals help us build trust that the parting doesn’t mean impending death.

So: partings take courage. In fact, Brene Brown points out that love itself takes courage, because of the inherent risk that we all face that it will come to an end. That’s why there are so many heart-break songs around. Its truly awful to realise, as the Righteous Brothers put it, that “You’ve lost that loving feeling”. The brain knows that’s awful; it can feel the stab wound that comes with the rejection.

But here’s the thing: love always carries with it the risk of losing. To love is to risk loss. Loss is inescapable. Love always ends, in either rejection or death. Brene Brown reminds us that the trick to loving fully is learning to embrace that fear – to live daily with the conscious knowledge of our own vulnerability.

So vulnerability is the darker side of Valentines.

Child psychologist and attachment theorist, John Bowlby

But let me now make it even darker… What if the person facing parting, and thus the fear of death, is a child? The brains of babies instinctively know that they are totally dependent on the adults around them to keep them alive. Every time a baby experiences a parting – when you put them to bed, when you go to the loo, when you close the driver car door to come round and take them out of their car seat — they are learning about how to handle separation. That insight lies at the heart of Bowlby’s original attachment theory.  Attachment is the process of learning how to handle the fear of parting. Self-regulation is the process of growing physiological structures  that allow you to manage strong feelings without collapsing or exploding.

Last week, I was working with nursery staff in Aberdeen. We were thinking about how to put attachment science into practice, and found ourselves talking about the transition into nursery, which typically happens in the UK before the age of 3 years, and often before the age of 1 year. This means that children in the UK (and many other Western countries) have their first major experience of ‘leaving home’ when their brains are still rapidly developing.

Its intriguing to put it like this – ‘leaving home’ – because we don’t think of it that way. We think of ‘leaving home’ as occurring when a child is grown and they move out to live with a partner or go to university or go travelling. But the staff in this workshop argued that going to nursery could be seen as a kind of first ‘leaving home’. Maybe that is part of why so many parents, especially mothers, struggle when they first put a child into nursery. They know that a major, irrevocable change has occurred in their family’s rhythm and in their baby’s life. (That’s why they sometimes go cry secretly in the parking lot.) That’s why they agonise about when to finally leave the building. Or they don’t agonise – they just hand the child over and quickly walk out. These descriptions are description of parents struggling with parting. Neither parents’ nor children’s brains like the feeling of parting.

But here’s the thing: the child transitioning into nursery struggles more than the parent. He or she has never done this before. He doesn’t know that policies for his safety have been developed, that staff have (hopefully) been trained in attachment theory. What he knows is that he is being parted from the people he loves most. His brain tells him that hurts. That’s why he cries and maybe throws a temper tantrum. His brain is telling him that protesting is a good way of trying to change the scary thing that is going on here.

A child going into nursery needs time to get to know these new strangers. He needs to discover how reliable they will be at keeping him safe. He needs to experience his mother or father or grandmother reliably coming back after every time they leave. He will need time to learn all these lessons. He will need time to form new relationships, time to form trust. It is trust that will be his biggest weapon against the fear of parting.

The staff attending the Aberdeen workshop talked about various ways they help the baby to learn trust. Many said they encourage parents to come and be with the child in the new setting on several occasions before they begin leaving him or her for a full session. Others said they do not charge parents any fee until after the settling in period is complete, which reduces parents’ stress in thinking they have to hurry their child through this transition, because they can’t afford for the child to ‘go slow’. Others said that they now extended this thinking to the transition that happens every morning, by creating a room where parents can stay as long as they wish, so they do not feel they have to rush away. Indeed, some nurseries try to encourage parents not to rush away, and to make the daily parting from their child more leisurely. This can be challenging in our society today, when parents have to juggle employers’ expectations, traffic, and older siblings’ needs to get to school.

Is all of this too dark? I can hear folks shouting at computers: “Suzanne, its Valentines Day! Can’t you write about cheerful stuff?” I’ve ended up writing here about stuff that sends sparks of fear into most parents’ hearts. All parents worry about how to handle that parting at the nursery. Drop off and hurry out? Stand and angst? Look back through the window to check she is happily playing? When they are unsure, parents look to professional childcare staff for advice about how best to do this.

The last thing I want to do is stoke fear in parents or childcare staff. That fear happens everywhere these days. Parents are subjected to tremendous worry and guilt, by the media, by childcare experts, by the pressures we all face in daily life these days. Childcare staff are prevented from cuddling and reassuring children because of fears of inappropriate touching.

However, I DO want us to be uncomfortable. Discomfort keeps us alert. It keeps us curious, asking questions about children’s experience. It is too easy, in our busy lives, to overlook children’s feelings. We forget what it is like, learning how to part from someone we love. We adults forget those early lessons because we had to learn them before we could consciously make sense of them. Empirical studies show that attachment styles are in place by the age of 1 year. We carry the lessons that our parents and our childcare staff unconsciously taught us within the motorways of our own brains. That’s what an attachment style is – the earliest lessons we got taught about partings, reunions and the trustworthiness of love. It doesn’t matter whether the lessons we got taught were gentle or harsh ones, sensitive or insensitive ones, secure or insecure ones. Those lessons are wired into the motorways of our brains. We are stuck with them, unless we realise they were lousy lessons, and we decide we want to teach ourselves new ones. That’s called healing.

In the workshop with the Aberdeen staff, we played with the idea of using other titles to describe childcare staff. We asked: “What if you were called grief counsellors?” Would that be too strong, to suggest that what families are dealing with — during that ordinary transition into nursery — is a period of grief? If such language is not too strong, that would mean that nurseries need to have in place policies that are highly sensitive and attuned to the emotional needs of both children and parents (because both are adjusting). Alternatively, if that title of ‘grief counsellor’ does feel a bit too strong, we asked ourselves, what emotional term would we use describe that tricky period of transition and loss that is normal in our culture?

ImageRemembering our own heartbreaks as adults helps us to think more about our own children’s heartbreak. Being willing to be consciously uncomfortable helps us to pay more attention to the lessons our children are learning right now about parting. Is it possible to teach them that parting can be gentle, loving, and trusting? Can it even be done with laughter? How do we build lessons of trust into our babies’ brains? Such motorways will serve them well when they have to grow up and, inevitably, come to know the reality of the darker side of Valentines.

If nobody is buying you chocolates on Friday, go buy a box for yourself.

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7 thoughts on “The Darker Side of Valentines: On Vulnerability and Parting

  1. Pingback: The Missing Piece | agirlcalledlynsey

  2. Mags D

    I tell all parents I come in contact with about the angst nursery transition brings for both parent and child and suggest they start the transition way before their first day at work so it an be a little gentler for all…..and hope someone bought you chocolates ! 😉

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  3. Marion Barker

    Really thought provoking blog Suzanne . I was one of the attendees of the Aberdeen meeting last week and this has already prompted further discussion and deep thought . Looking forward to the next session!

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  4. Stuart Patterson

    Tremendous and inspirational reading, when do you get the time to think about this let alone compile it !! Picking a sentence (I could have picked many), which made me smile and sit up and take notice at the same time, it would be “Discomfort keeps us alert”. I shall keep this notion in the forefront of my mind when discussing designing and delivering services.

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