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The Scaffold of Relationship

Preparing for a seminar on "How to Connect in the Middle of a Fight", I have been considering a couple of movies that might have good examples of Attachment issues. I am looking for brief segments that capture the essence of the movement of our attachment dance. Sometimes it is much easier to see the dance of relationship than it is to listen to someone describe it. Two movies came to mind, The Story of Us and Kramer vs. Kramer, both movies about a couple struggling with their marriage and the effect it has on their family. In Kramer vs. Kramer there is a wonderful presentation of a father and son bonding after the wife and mother leave. You can see the movement of an unattached and emotionally clueless husband and father learning to connect with his son who has been abandoned by his mother, and come to terms with his role in losing his wife. (If you are offended by a few expletives or nudity do not watch either movie but I hope you do watch them.)

Sue Johnson, in her book Hold Me Tight makes a compelling point that attachment needs are "absolute", meaning fundamental to who we are and how we are designed. That is, our hardware won't operate to its full potential, and is often damaged, without the software system of human bonding. "Attachment is the bottom line, the scaffold on which other elements (of a relationship like sex, caretaking, play, work, etc.) are built. Without secure, safe and bonded relationships, especially during childhood, but also in adulthood, we will not have fully satisfying personal relationships or develop into fully functioning human beings.

Dustin Hoffman, the father in Kramer vs. Kramer makes the journey with his son that Dr. Sue Johnson describes as necessary for creating such relationships: "To achieve a lasting loving bond, we have to be able to tune in to our deepest needs and longings and translate them into clear signals that help our lovers respond to us. We have to be able to accept love and to reciprocate. Above all, we have to recognize and accept the primal code of attachment rather than attempting to dismiss and bypass it. In many love relationships, attachment needs and fears are hidden agendas, directing the action but never being acknowledged. It is time to acknowledge these agendas so that we can actively shape the love we so badly need. "

Like many of us, Dustin Hoffman's character has very little idea of his significant longings and needs but when thrust into caring for his son he chooses to care. He accepts "the primal code of attachment" and does not dismiss or run from it. Refusing to abandon his son, he learns what love is and how to love. There is a remarkable scene where his son falls off a jungle gym and busts his face. His father was attuned to the danger, tried to prevent it and then runs with his son in his arms to the emergency room, refusing to leave him during his treatment. Contrast these scenes with earlier ones of his hapless attempts to care for his son. He becomes a likable, compassionate human being who is there for his son. It is a journey and transformation we all must make to become fully human.

Many of us, particularly men, might question Mr. Kramer's manhood or challenge how important all this really is. His boss certainly does. He is an example of dismissing the basic need of relationship; he is attached to his career. Learning to acknowledge our attachment needs and fears in an open and responsive manner is not emotional sentimentalism. It is rather recognizing that we need the basic scaffold in place in order to build an enduring structure. Without the basic structure of knowing ourselves and facing our fears, being able to communicate and ask for what we need, and being vulnerable enough to receive what we need, we will continue to experience disappointment and failure in our intimate and meaningful relationships. In other words, we will continue to experience disappointment and dissatisfaction with life.

There are many examples that I can give of when I "dismissed and bypassed" my basic need for close, safe, and bonded relationship. I put many other things first, like success, career, sensual enjoyment, demanding my own way, or preferring to be alone. Like Mr. Kramer, my children have taught me to pay attention to building the scaffold of relationship for enduring and rewarding attachments. There is nothing more enduring, more powerful, than an attached relationship. It is something that we all hunger for and what we commonly name love. Do you know your hunger or do you dismiss or deny it?

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