Secure attachment and the limbic system
A couple of friends recently asked me for my take on this article by Nora Samaran on secure attachment and autonomy. The article focuses on the sense of security that comes from someone consistently responding positively to requests for comfort. The key point is that it's not just a quantitative thing, where you accumulate enough units of comfort and feel good. It's about really believing on a gut level that someone is willing to be there for you, and wants to do so:
The attachment literature teaches us that autonomy is a paradox.
“Whatever I need” from someone I’m close to typically means one of two things:
- Proximity. Literally to be near. Like ducks. Because I trust him, when I’m shaken or need human connection, I quietly sit next to him and feel connected.
- To be cuddled. That thing where you lie on him and he puts his arms around you in a comforting way.
Universal human needs, in other words. Regardless of gender or of attachment style, if you have a limbic brain, you have these needs. [...]
Current attachment science names how this kind of safe presence looks and its pivotal role in creating trust and autonomy. Wired For Love, possibly the best attachment book to cross my desk, describes this as being attuned, accessible, and responsive. [...]
In the first few months we were together, Jordan got a job installing science equipment on a glacier in Norway for a month, near the Arctic Circle. [...] The only contact possible was via satellite phone when weather allowed. [...]
I already trusted that he was consistently available by this point because he had from the start been willingly reliable and there when it mattered, as I had been for him. We had built secure attachment quickly and well, so this time apart was easy and pleasurable even though we still, in retrospect, hardly knew each other. [...]
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t call him up at the Arctic Circle to tell him about my day, because by being consistently attuned, accessible, and responsive from the day he met me, he had firmly and quickly established beyond a doubt that he was consistently emotionally available, whatever the details of our logistical situations.
Because he openly greets attachment needs as the normal, healthy, eminently meetable things they are whether he is logistically available or not, being out of reach for a month was a manageable, even enjoyable, experience for us both.
These same ‘acts of care’ by a guy who was afraid to be relied on would have had a confusing and destabilizing effect. What matters was not the acts, the postcard, the cookies, the card. What made these objects work and created autonomy was that he willingly chose to be emotionally available the whole time, and thus infused these objects with his accessibility.
One thing I liked about this model was that it explains pretty well, from a very different perspective than mine, why the transactional view of friendly interactions feels limited, like much less than what I want. I don't feel like someone likes me because of a mere quantity of positive signals on the physical empathy channel - I feel like they like me when I get valid evidence of liking. Samaran's subconscious is clearly forming an estimate of her partner's long-run stable disposition towards her, and that - rather than the outward signs alone - is what makes her feel safe and loved. That is what makes her keep feeling that way. It's a relationship on something approaching the whole-soul level:
Then there’s another thing. It’s a thing I’ve read about in books, and want to build in real life. You recognize that someone is the sort of person who would help you, if the situation were reversed. You don’t value the other person causelessly - but you’re also not looking directly towards future advantage. The things they’ve done for you are important, not because they are evidence of future actions, but because they are evidence of the character of their soul. And you are not friends with their future actions; you are friends with their soul, which remains the thing which would do you good. Even if they never have any opportunity to benefit you, you expect that they will feel sad about this, like something is missing from their life.
Not for what you have ever done for me,
Though you have helped me past what I can pay,
But for the person you appeared to be,
Nor do I for some later help that may,
Though I expect it will, and more than now,
Accrue to me, nor work that I admire,
But that within, the source that could allow
These things to be, is all that I require.
And if you could or would no longer do,
Or be or seem like anyone to see,
Not who you could have been, but just for you,
For you, you now, you then, because to me,
The things you did, the things that I expect,
Themselves are only signs unworth true pride,
They are not beautiful, are but correct.
The beauty is in what is signified.
That which you are, I learned from what you do:
Not yours, not these, not all of this, but you.
But this also takes a too-narrow view of closeness and safety in two ways:
- It assumes that signals of affection and safety have to be sent through the channel of physical empathy.
- It sets up a false dichotomy between writing someone a blank check and resenting them for asking for things; it ignores the possibility of taking responsibility for one's own boundaries.
The directionality of warm fuzzies
Samaran talks about some signals of warmth as directly affecting the limbic system's sense of safety. I don't think this works well on me. It doesn't seem like signals travel in that direction. I'm aware that someone letting me be very near them means good things about their attitude towards me more broadly, but much of this is based on an explicit model and before that I didn't have the thing.
A fair amount of what makes cuddling feel good is that I can tell that it's a social interaction with someone designated as Friend, which I am succeeding at, and on general principles this advances my interests.
When I look at this picture of cuddling ducklings from the article, it makes me happy, not because I imagine myself as one of the ducklings, but because the ducklings are OK and all I have to do is make sure nothing interferes with that:
I think that other people have a sense that friendly creatures nearby can probably protect them from potential threats, or are at least a sign that such threats are absent. I have less of this sense, because I don't expect near-term threats. This is not entirely bad. For one thing, it's a sign of having an accurate world-model; variations in my physical safety are mostly not due to variations in how friendly the creatures around me are. Variations in the quality and quantity of things like this are responsible for the majority of the variation in my long-run safety.
Even in cases of actual physical threat, a cuddle partner is unlikely to be a great protection against, for instance, an enraged bear. If they are, it will either be as a distraction while I get away, or - more interestingly - because they can use their mind to protect us.
What makes me feel individually protected is when people offer me moral, cognitive, or other decisionmaking support. If someone knows me well enough to reliably help me think about my problems, that does make me feel good, in a way that rhymes with how people talk about their experience of cuddling.
This is an important abstraction on the concept of "secure attachment" that maps much better to my experience than the explanations I'm used to seeing. Belief that there is another agent in the world acting independently and optimizing for my well-being really plays the same role in my emotional architecture that Samaran ascribes to the belief in a friendly person who always responds positively to her requests for connection even if they can't meet them at that time. Or rather, the latter is evidence that the person has a stably friendly disposition in a way the limbic system and related S1 social cognition can understand, and I'm looking for evidence of a stably friendly disposition too. I'm just not accepting the sort of inputs the limbic system was designed to interpret directly.
Friendliness takes very different forms for me and Samaran, but evidence that the other person actively wants the chance to do friendly things plays the same role for both of us:
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t call him up at the Arctic Circle to tell him about my day, because by being consistently attuned, accessible, and responsive from the day he met me, he had firmly and quickly established beyond a doubt that he was always emotionally available, whatever the details of our logistical situations.
This is almost an exact analogy to the thing for me. It doesn't matter if I'm in contact with a person, so long as they've already established that they're meaningfully and persistently including my utility function in theirs. I can take comfort in the mere fact that they exist somewhere out there:
Since I have experienced him from the very beginning just being there, accessible, responsive, and attuned, his job at being a safe man is easy because now I can rely on imaginary him to comfort me.
To the extent that I believe this, I don't feel lonely, even if I'm alone and would like company. Because I don't forget that my allies exist, and the sense of comfort that Samaran says is downstream of signals optimized for the limbic brain is, for me, downstream of credible signals that someone understands me and wants to fulfill my preferences. This sense that doesn't go away feels strongly analogous to the thing she describes.
It seems to scale with extent rather than being a binary thing the way she describes, but I think she describes it as binary because she is making a deep error - splitting people into the categories of perfectly safe and unsafe. She doesn't even appear to have the idea of someone saying "your needs are legitimate, and I could meet them right now, but I don't want to" in her hypothesis space. On her model, either you can and do, or you think that the other person oughtn't want the thing, or you are unreachable because you are literally out of radio contact.
Boundaries: the excluded middle
One friend called this sort of mutual expectation "reparenting each other," and it does seem to closely resemble many aspects of what's called "attachment parenting." In principle, I don't see a problem with this - we're incompleted beings in a not-yet-repaired world, and it's not actually possible for our parents to finish the job in the time allotted:
I don’t know exactly what my infancy was like, but for a long time I have felt as though love doesn’t really make me feel like I can rely on someone unless they could pick my soul out of a lineup, unless it’s love on account of understanding who I am and loving that. The only kind of personal love that registers as unconditional love of me is love that’s conditional on the object of the love being me. I don’t have the subjective experience of feeling loved unless I feel like, if my external identity were erased but my soul were intact, or they developed amnesia about me, I’d be confident they’d still recognize me as someone to love. I think this is because love that’s not conditional on that feels like it’s not really directed at me in the important sense. It feels tenuous in a kind of bizarre counterfactual sense: in the alternative possible worlds where I don’t have this particular history with these particular people, their love for me doesn’t persist.
The obvious problem with this is that it’s not really a possible kind of love for parents to feel towards their infants. It’s not the kind of love someone can receive unconditionally from birth. It’s the kind of love that can only unfold over time as first one becomes a person, and then one becomes known by others.
I think that for the very close friendships I've been trying to figure out how to cultivate, the target I'm shooting for really is something like retroactively coparenting each other. Not approximating what a typical parent does, but the specific pieces that we wish had happened but didn't. As a collaboration, to make each other better, to be the allies and validators and resources we most need to grow forwards into our fuller selves.
This is a very high standard. It might not be a fully meetable standard. And I do not think that when someone is a poor match for this standard, it means that they are an unsafe person, or bad to be around, or even doing anything particularly wrong.
Samaran does a good job pointing to what it looks like when two people can achieve the sort of safety she aspires to in a comparatively complete form. But when talking about potential ways one could fail to reach that state, she ends up with an excessively binary description:
If instead of greeting my normal, meetable needs as what they are: normal and meetable, he were instead to get angry with me because I need him, or to try to ‘teach’ me not to rely on him by being unreachable, he would find his carefully-built autonomy evaporating.
Even if he went back to being loving and supportive the next day, all of his efforts at building autonomy would become shaky and unstable because – hello? – trust is by its very nature about consistency. Trust is fragile, alive, and powerful and needs to be handled like any object whose strength lies in its subtlety. Like your own eyeball, or a glass art piece whose power derives from fineness rather than force, it must be handled with great care to protect its structure.
Miri, as usual, gets boundaries right:
The author seems to believe that the default for healthy relationships is interdependence and intertwinement (to an extent that I would personally consider codependent), and she states that the reason she is able to trust her partner is because he has repeatedly met her needs no matter how inconvenient or difficult that was for him. Only then has he “built” autonomy; only then does she “give” him that autonomy; and only then does he “get” to do something like go away for weeks for a job without her being upset about it.
I see things the other way around. The default is independence and autonomy. The default is that we are each a ship at sea, setting our own courses, and we get to choose when and how and for long long to dock in someone else’s harbor. True, we don’t “take” autonomy, but that’s because we already have it.
For me, it’s interdependence that gets “built.” It requires immense trust for me to become more interdependent with someone else. If you want that from me, you first have to create a safe space for it.
And for me, I don’t “give” autonomy to anyone. They already have autonomy, and they have it no matter what I say or do or what our relationship is. They get to choose to reduce certain aspects of their autonomy if they want to, but ultimately it–just like their time, their body, and their emotional reserves–belongs to them.
Samaran's piece completely skips over the possibility that someone might say no without resenting the asker, or that a "no" might be about oneself - not about punishing or training the other person but, just about honoring one's own needs, and expecting the other person to be glad in the long run that you're not giving them what you can't afford.
It ignores the possibility of having good partial friendships. Of being able to interact well in some ways, even if not in all. Of really being there for someone, when they most need it - sometimes, but not always, because they are not your world. It conflates being a safe person with being in your thrall.
And it ignores the possibility of growth.
The friendship pledge
About a year ago, I was beginning the process of seriously thinking through what I wanted in my close friendships. I was telling a friend about my best guess, and they said that they wanted me to find it, thought I was worthy of it, and hoped to be the sort of person who could give that sort of thing to me if they were able.
I noted that they hadn't made any promises. And I thanked them for this. I very much did not want promises that might not be fulfillable. I had a strong sense that the only promise I could offer or receive in integrity, was the promise to tell the truth.
But then I thought about what sort of pledge I would want from a potential friend - and came up with this:
That you not spend on me more of yourself than we or the world can afford.
That you not sacrifice anything for me, that I wouldn't thank you for afterwards, knowing the cost to you.
This doesn't mean that you always have to obey if I try to push help away,
If you can tell that I need the help, and am not being reasonable,
Just that you should make sure it's actually worth it.
That you take care of yourself first
And let me know if I'm hurting you
Or if you need my help.
Or, failing all this,
If you are unable to keep this promise,
That you diligently try to do all these things,
And work to become the sort of person who can.
Cat's best friend: itself
One way to think of the difference between my attitude towards connection and Samaran's is that Samaran is looking for connection like a dog, and I'm looking for something more like a cat. Samaran's looking for expressions of emotional closeness that function more like an instant readout of one's warm feelings. I'm looking for a sign that a wholly other person, with their own interests and priorities, has chosen to care about me, though they could have done otherwise.
The second panel of this comic expresses pretty well one way in which I am catlike:
This is a thing I like about cats - on the timescale of a single interaction, they seem like they were fine before they met me, and they will be fine after I leave.
Dogs are sort of like people in your dreams: something bad will happen to them if you go away even for a moment, so once you start interacting with one, you're responsible for its well-being.
A friendly cat had a choice. They're by nature free. So if they choose me to be their friend, I am honored.