“attuned and responsive”
James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi blockbuster movie, Avatar, features human-like, cat-like creatures called Na’vi. When these blue, 10-foot tall creatures connect with each other in an emotionally intimate way, they announce to each other, “I see you!”
The fundamental need of everyone, from cradle to grave, is to be seen, to be acknowledged and responded to. In their book “Parenting from the Inside Out,” Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell describe the “still-face experiment,” conducted by Dr. Ed Tronick in his Child Development Unit lab at the University of Massachusetts. In the experiment, “a parent is asked to maintain an unexpressive face as a young child attempts to communicate. Initially, the infant responds with increased attempts to connect, then protests with agitation, becomes disorganized, and then withdraws.” (You can view an example of the “still-face” experiment here.)
What the child desperately needs is an “attuned” response from her mother. The child needs her mother’s eye contact, words and mood to match her own. She needs her mother to “resonate” with her. This is how she knows she is being seen; this is how she knows that she is making a difference in the world of people, and this is what assures her that she will be successful in keeping her mother and other caregivers connected to her. Her experience of attunement and resonance is the way she experiences safety and security.
To feel safe, we need to know that our loved ones will stay with us, and that they “get” us. According to Dr. Sue Johnson, in her book “Hold Me Tight,” we are always asking our loved ones (explicitly or implicitly) three attachment-oriented questions:
- “Can I reach you?”
- I need to know that I can get your attention without great effort.
- I need to know that you will keep on attending to me – that your attention won’t easily or quickly be drawn away from me.
- “Can I rely on you to respond to me emotionally?”
- I need you to resonate with me, to rejoice with me when I’m happy, and to feel for and with me when I’m sad.
- I need to know that, when I call for you, you’ll come alongside me to help me – that you won’t leave me alone when I’m suffering,
- “Will you value me and stay close to me?”
- I need you to treat me with dignity and respect.
- I need you to be intentional about engaging with me.
- I need us to be able to repair our relationship when our connection gets broken.
As children, we need our parents to take all the responsibility for creating and maintaining this type of attachment-connection. In adult attachment relationships, of course, both partners have these same needs, and both are responsible for maintaining the “safe haven” quality they each desire.
“Do you see me? Can I reach you? Can I rely on you? Will you stay close to me?” We all are asking these questions of our loved ones all the time. And if there’s life on other planets, those other life forms are probably asking their loved ones the very same questions!