Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.

11860969644_a158c910df_zPhoto by Le Tchétché via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

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Dear Dr. Ford:

I am a senior citizen, active, in good health, and involved with a man whose mother left when he was 3 years old. I have tried to understand him for more than four years, and I find that his distance and lack of companionship is troubling. I have asked him if he would like to end our relationship, and he says NO! His reply is, “I’m doing the best I can.” However, holidays come and go, and nothing! No small gift or special dinner out. Do you have any advice for me and others about men who have not had a mother in their formative years?

I love your column.

Arlene

 

Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Arlene:

You are in a situation faced by many women: Their partner does not give them enough affection or attention. There can be many reasons for this, but for many men it is often a matter of not understanding or empathizing with their partner’s needs. Some men can be “educated” and taught to see that relationships, once established, need to be maintained and developed. I once heard a man say that he assumed his wife knew he loved her because he had already told her (once!). No one would plant a garden and expect it to flourish with no further attention or maintenance. People too need this kind of care. Not only that: Like a garden, they have needs that can change and develop as the seasons change and the years go by.

This requires not only attention and a sense of priority, but also sensitivity. Unfortunately, your partner was deprived of the most important opportunity for the development of these skills when he lost his mother. Although some personality traits are present at birth (e.g. extroversion vs. introversion), the kind of parenting a child receives is crucial to his sense of self, sense of security, and, especially, his interpersonal skills. When a parent is inconsistent or absent, it can be devastating to his development.

The importance of parental warmth was not always acknowledged by the “experts.” In the early twentieth century the leading child care book, by John Watson, advised that too much physical affection would have a negative impact on their children. “Educated” parents were advised not to comfort crying babies, and to limit kissing and hugging. After the Second World War, these ideas were turned on their head by the research of British psychologist John Bowlby. He investigated the problems occurring in institutions caring for the large numbers of babies who were orphaned by the war. Although these nurseries were clean and well run, babies in perfectly good health were dying inexplicably. Bowlby understood that the babies were literally perishing from lack of affection—they were not getting enough human interaction or warmth. Though their needs for food and shelter were provided for, humans need more than these “basic” conditions. These babies were labeled “failing to thrive”: The scientists realized that in order to survive and thrive, we need the love of other humans.

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  • LEE February 23, 2015 at 9:36 am

    wonderful and comforting..thanks.

    Reply
  • Fiona February 19, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    Thank you for the thoughtful treatment of an issue that touches many people. Especially relevant are the historical sources cited. It is easy to forget that we function in the context of culture and its norms and influences. Wonderfully useful discussion of the realities and potential solutions.

    Reply
  • Andrea February 19, 2015 at 7:40 am

    Dr ford – you have answered this woman’s concerns so thoroughly and with such great compassion and understanding. This is a challenging situation. Once again it proves how important a stable and loving parent-child relationship is. Thank you for your insight!

    Reply