Emotional Health

Dr. Ford on Emotional Health: Loving the Emotionally Distant Man

Bowlby’s work stimulated further research along with Mary Ainsworth, who documented his theory. Among the fascinating studies in this area were experiments by psychologist Harry Harlow. He found that infant monkeys, when offered a choice between two fake monkey mothers, one made of wire and one of cloth, always preferred the cloth mother. This was found to be true even when the wire mother gave milk and the cloth mother did not. The infant monkeys would quickly feed off the wire mother and then rush back to the cloth mother when finished. If frightened or tense, they would cling to the cloth mother even if they were unfed.

Harlow and his colleagues also discovered something else that would be crucial to our understanding of human love: primates raised only with the wire mother grew up to be markedly asocial or antisocial adults. Those with the chance to cling to the cloth mother were more likely to be able to give and receive warmth as adults.

It’s easy to see the implications of this research when applied to humans. Orphans who are raised in institutions where they get little human comfort suffer from “attachment disorders” which make it very hard for adoptive parents to “connect” with them, even when they offer the warmest and most attentive of environments. Sometimes the damage is so deep that it cannot be reversed.

Luckily, your partner had his mother until he was 3, and the early years are most important to the ability to form attachments. However, if his mother left him at age 3, the degree of her attachment (and thus his to her) has to be questioned. Once a mother is well bonded with a child, it is very unusual for her to be able to abandon him, regardless of the circumstances.

Your partner, therefore, may have been subject to a “double-punch”: first, he and his mother were “insecurely attached,” and second, she left him. Though he may have had some warmth from her, if it was inconsistent, he was probably not adequately secure. When she left, it confirmed his expectations that human relationships are untrustworthy and maybe even dangerous.

Of course, we are ignoring the role of his father in all this, and fathers can be perfectly adequate primary caretakers. Given his age, however, it is unlikely that your partner’s father was given that role, at least not at first. When it was thrust upon him by his wife’s departure, he may not have been well prepared to take it on, or to do it well. If there were other children in the family it may have been especially challenging.

Nevertheless, children survive and thrive all the time with only one loving parent. The fact that your partner has lived a long life, presumably without the major life difficulties that afflict a huge number of unloved children (substance abuse, legal troubles, mental illness, etc.) is evidence that he was cared for by someone. Yet the scars of his mother’s abandonment remain.

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  • LEE February 23, 2015 at 9:36 am

    wonderful and comforting..thanks.

  • 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.

  • 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!