The dynamic function of emotional bonds ties the emotional fortunes of at least two parties together, such that whatever produces positive or negative experience in one does the same, to some extent, in the other. Emotional bonds are the psychological glue of families, groups, organizations, communities, and nations. They motivate cooperation and foster group cohesion. Most experts agree that without emotional bonds, we would not have survived as a species, much less constructed civilization.

Because the maintenance of emotional bonds was (and remains) crucial to survival, there are powerful positive reinforcements for protecting and nurturing them. When the bonded parties do so, they tend to experience more:

  • Interest
  • Compassion
  • Trust
  • Safety
  • Security
  • Enjoyment
  • General well being.

When they fail to nurture and protect emotional bonds, they suffer negative reinforcements:

  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Isolation
  • Depression
  • Despair
  • Loss of the will to live.

There are three broad types of emotional bonds. Attachment bonds (intimate, familial, kinship) are the strongest and most enduring, with a distinct neurochemical basis and the most powerful positive and negative reinforcements. Many experts agree that attachment bonds generalize to a weaker but stable form of bonding in small social groups as children mature. Macro bonding emerges in adolescence, via a sense of community, ethnic identity, political allegiance, organizational loyalty, or nationalism. Because the biochemical basis for macro bonds is weak, if it exists at all, they usually require an ideological commitment (e.g., justice, morality, religion) or common interests (e.g., security, peace, commerce) to endure.

A Primary Cause of Violence

There are many sociological, economic, and psychological contributors to violence. Primary among them are wounds inflicted by the betrayal of emotional bonds. Loss of attachment or social bonds - through death, abuse, abandonment, or betrayal - gouges holes in the heart that do not remain hollow for very long. They fill in fairly short order with compassion and a sense of basic humanity, which strengthens other social bonds. (We become better people for a while after a tragedy.) Or they fill with a psychically deadening depression that admits no light of value, meaning, or purpose. Or they fill with anger, resentment, and an impulse for revenge.

Compassion and revenge are empowering, compared to the alternative - collapsing into depression or despair. Both make you feel more alive. Both have been naturally selected by aiding group survival. Compassion and a sense of basic humanity strengthen social bonds at the center, making the group more cohesive and cooperative. Revenge strengthens the periphery (against external threat) through common enemy alliances.

The thousands of violent and potentially violent individuals I’ve treated in the past two and a half decades have all born emotional bonding wounds of some sort. Although their injuries were common, all suffered from victim identity and regarded themselves as different from other people, in some sense misfits, and, in many cases, less than fully alive, much like the published descriptions of mass shooters and of the jihadists and terrorists in Anne Speckhard’s interviews.

The only way I could successfully treat these wounded and potentially dangerous people was to appeal to a deeper internal meaning, by invoking their deeper values of basic humanity and compassion and by keeping them steadfastly focused on attempts to improve, however minutely, their experience of being alive, to appreciate more, to make sincere and persistent attempts at interpersonal, communal, and/or spiritual connection, and, above all, to protect the well being of others.

The Culture of Emotional Violence

As a society, we must recognize that dangerous misfits are made (not born) by wounds of emotional bonding, which are deepened by our massive habit of excluding, isolating, and condemning those who seem different. This highly destructive process begins with the seemingly venial inclination to devalue those with whom we disagree – a tendency that has grown rabid on the Internet and has come to dominate media and politics. We must recognize the enormous power of emotional contagion; when we devalue and disrespect others, they, in turn, devalue and disrespect others, who then devalue and disrespect others, in ever-widening webs of dynamic emotion. All the while, those at the highest risk, who feel the most wronged, become the most dangerous. We have created a culture of emotional violence wherein those who feel different can find meaning and purpose only by opposing everyone else, thus widening the gap between them and those who behave humanely. When people cannot feel more alive by connecting, protecting, appreciating, and improving, they feel more alive by destroying.

We must reach out to isolated, emotionally unbonded people - in school, work, jail, and wherever we find them. The adolescents who feel isolated and see themselves as misfits must be recruited and empowered to help and protect vulnerable members of the community - the sick, elderly, and children - through volunteer work that gives them a sense of humane meaning and purpose.

Better gun control, though certainly needed, will help our violence problem only by making the tasks of killers less convenient. (The majority of potential shooters and terrorists are clever and motivated enough to make more horrific bombs from Internet specifications.) At the end of the day, the fault is not in our guns but in ourselves. The fault lies in our unwillingness to regulate our propensity to devalue, demean, and condemn. Our predilection for emotional violence is how we fail to protect our children.


Speckhard, Anne (2012). Talking to terrorists: Understanding the psycho-social motivations of militant jihadi terrorists, mass hostage takers, suicide bombers, and martyrs. McLean, VA: Advances Press.

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