It's not too late to love.
Posted Oct 04, 2016
I am two years old. I know I don't look it. But I am two years old, and my ears hurt. The pain is terrible. My mother has picked me up. She is walking the floors with me, holding me tenderly, patting my back: "Shhhh, oh baby. I know it hurts. Shhhh."
I am three or four. As I wake up, I hear my mother doing something in the house. And I feel a sudden joy. I rush from bed, run to her, wrap my arms around her legs, say, "I love you, Mama!" She picks me up and hugs me: "I love you, my angel. I love you, Sunshine."
We know from Erik Erikson that the first big task of our lives is establishing basic trust versus basic mistrust--a sense that our needs will be met, versus a sense that they won't be. That early knowing is set for us mostly by how our parents respond to us. My basic trust began strong; how could it not, with such a mother as mine? I know that not everyone is so lucky.
But I also know this: these two extremes are just that. They are like the North and South Pole, where few actually reside. And just as none of us had our needs met perfectly, all of you have at least some sense of trust from your baby days. I know this because your needs were well enough met that you are here. You survived.
Attachment style is our habitual way of being in a relationship with an intimate other. We have an attachment style that is measurable for all of our lives, starting at around a year of age. Of course, when we're one, our attachment is usually with a parent, most often our mother.
And we know from science that most of us--two-thirds--have the same attachment style in our early twenties that we had at our first birthday. Where does it come from? From our sense of basic trust. From how we were responded to as babies. From whether our needs were honored and taken care of in the moment we cried--or whether we were left to learn that our needs would be attended to on someone else's schedule, if at all.
There’s good news: most of us were parented towards a secure attachment style. It’s a blessed and common lottery, where about 70% win the ability and desire to steadily open up to love, to needing and being needed; to relying on and being reliant; to a healthy interdependence that feels deeply right. If you have a secure attachment style, you don’t make mountains out of molehills in your relationships. You’re able to respond to what is needed, and take things as they are rather than getting too caught up in drama. You even deal with grief and recovery better, if a relationship ends.
For better and for worse, though, that’s not me--or at least, for a lot of my adulthood, it wasn't. I started out feeling secure, but we now know that for about a third of us, attachment style changes. It usually changes because of a relationship with someone who was particularly trustworthy—or not. In my case, I think my style became anxious after a breakup. I’ll just say it: we were getting engaged, and he gave my ring to another girl. My mother had been his fifth-grade teacher; I had known him most of my life. The relationship was deep and its ending made me distrust not only him, but myself. It affected me for many years. How could I trust my own judgment if something like this had happened? When we don’t trust others, there’s often more to it: at heart, we have learned not to trust ourselves.
The non-secure attachment styles are called anxious—which was mine—and avoidant. If you’re anxious, you may feel you’re not enough; you very much want love and the deep, total knowing and being known that mark intimacy, but you worry that your partner won’t or can’t love you as much as you love them. You might think you're a bottomless pit of need, or worry that your partner will think so.
If your attachment style is avoidant, you don’t actually avoid relationships, but you may find yourself feeling suffocated when a partner begins to need you, to depend or rely on you; it may seem like too much, and you may notice yourself creating barriers to keep the relationship, but to keep it at arm’s length. Feeling safe for you may require feeling free to leave; close, but at a distance.
A great irony in my life is that most of my career now involves people sharing their most private fears and relationship concerns with me. I, who have had many struggles and failures, am now honored with such trust. Recently, a man older than I am wrote in despair of ever being successful at a love relationship. He felt he had failed, and had no roadmap towards the lasting love he has always desired. He didn’t know how to trust—himself, another.
Here is more good news: getting into and staying in healthy relationships can bring us to security. The process of loving and being loved can open us up to trust. My beloved husband did this for and with me. We are coming up on nine years of marriage. He has healed me.
So I leave you with the words I shared with that bereft man who wrote to me. We can change, even when things have gone wrong. We can learn to trust, by finding and unfolding in a safe relationship. We can get better.
It is not too late to be happy. It is not too late to love.