Recently I asked editor Maggie for suggestions as to what I should write about next, after she reminded me that I had not been very productive of late. She suggested in a very subtle way that I might want to write about a subject of which I had some expertise. After giving this some thought, I concluded that she had a point. I have noted that the feedback I get about my blog usually goes something like this: “It was well written”, or “you write well, you should write a book.” I usually respond, I already did that and nobody reads it either. There seems to be a remarkable lack of enthusiasm regarding the subject matter in my stuff. With that in mind I decided to heed my boss’s advice; although it presented a problem as I looked for a subject about which I could consider myself expert. The problem is that I am the kind of guy who knows a little bit about a few things, but not a lot about any one thing. It did occur to me that since I have spent a lifetime dealing with and studying how people relate that I should have more than a modicum of knowledge about the subject of relationships, which led to the title at the top of this page. I did try to come up with a catchy subtitle, but creativity is not my strong suit either.
None of the above comments are meant to demean the importance of the subject I have chosen, for relationships are not only important, but vital to one’s mental health. The types of relationships formed in childhood are powerful determinants of our personality development, and their effects are apt to follow us all of our lives. They will affect our self-image, sense of self, identity, values, and the way we view our world. The lack of nurturing relationships in early childhood can have devastating effects.
The long lasting or even permanent effects of such relationships was demonstrated by Harlow’s monkeys in his famous experiments with his “chicken wire mothers”. In the 1980’s these results were tragically replicated in the orphaned children of Romania. The communist dictator of Romania had outlawed contraception and had decreed that all couples should have at least five children. Years of economic deprivation had made it impossible for many to feed their children; consequently they had left them in orphanages which had become overwhelmed. The repressive government left the facilities underfunded and understaffed. As a result the children were neglected with hardly any interaction with the staff. When outsiders were finally allowed in they found children who exhibited signs and symptoms of brain damage. Scans demonstrated that their brains contained less than the normal amount of white matter, thereby confirming that nurturing relationships are necessary not only for our psychological well-being, but also for a fully functioning brain.
Anyone who has reared children knows well the importance of relationships in adolescence. The rising titer of sexual hormones is only part of the picture. This is a time when brains exhibit a high degree of what neurologists have termed “plasticity”. It is a time when neurons find millions of new connections. As a result they are more likely to be influenced by environmental issues. Drugs are more likely to have long lasting effects. As teenagers contemplate leaving the nest, they seek to establish an identity, and join the herd. Peer relationships achieve monumental importance. They eagerly adopt the latest fads, interests, dress code, and language. Interference by parents or teachers is often met with hostility. It has often been said that these behaviors are manifestations of kids striving for emancipation, but I suggest that their need for relationships may be even more important.
This need for relationships, although not as obvious persists, in adults. We court relationships of all kinds, and our search for validation is never ending. We are after all herd animals. Our ancestors must have learned thousands of years ago that their very survival depended upon learning to rely on each other. The statement that our need for relatedness is in our DNA is not a cliché. Feedback from relationships helps develop our sense of self. As cultures became more complex and people more specialized in their fields of work, we became more dependent upon others to help fulfill some of our most basic needs. Now the members of our herds are much more diverse than was the case with a typical tribe member in the hunter gatherer age. As a result there is undoubtedly more opportunities for enrichment, but also for conflict.
The evidence for the importance of relationships is further evidenced by the effects of chronic aloneness. Loneliness is uncomfortable, but isolation for long periods of time is almost unbearable. When shunned by groups to whom they are closely aligned, the results can be catastrophic and even result in suicidal ideation. Interrogators have long known that isolation is an effective tool to break one’s will. Prisoners denied of human contact for long periods of time have even been known to share their sparse rations with rats. Those who are separated from people due to physical or mental disability can derive much benefit from their relationship with a dog or cat. I recall a schizophrenic patient who decompensated and was hospitalized after his apartment manager refused to allow him to feed the birds who alighted on his windowsill. His paranoia had made it virtually impossible for him to relate to people, but he felt an extreme attachment to his birds.
While writing this, I pause occasionally to watch a pair of dogs cavorting in my neighbor’s yard. I have long believed that we can learn much about humans by observing dog behavior. We do have a lot in common with dogs. The wolves from whom they descended, had learned that to be successful as a predator they needed to band together. Likewise when homosapiens ancestors learned that the flesh of other creatures was more nutritious than nuts and berries, they must have realized they needed help to kill other animals. I also imagine that becoming the hunter rather than the hunted must have felt much better.
This arrangement worked out so well that some of these wolves decided to join the most successful predators, namely humans. Now after thousands of years we have bonded, and these domesticated wolves have accepted us into their pack. Most would agree that we got the best end of the deal. Dogs have been taught to perform all kinds of tasks many of which have been lifesaving, and contribute to our safety and well-being in many ways. Like Tom and Jerry (the labs next door) their loyalty will never fade not only for each other, but also for their family. The only thing they ask is that we feed them and scratch their ears. Such relationships between humans are indeed rare, and many count their relationship with their dog as among the most important in their life.
As adults we experience multiple relationships throughout our lives: some brief, some lifelong, some trivial, some intense, some forgotten, some memorable. The nature of these relationships can arouse nearly any feeling imagined including: love, joy, anger, fear, sorrow, or disappointment, to name a few. Even brief or superficial relationships can have long lasting effects. With that in mind it is little wonder that dysfunctional relationships especially between people who spend a great deal of time together i.e. those who work together or live together, can be so damaging that they may end up in the Psychiatrist’s office.
Maggie has suggested this readership might be interested in my thoughts as to how we go about attempting to repair damaged relationships, and some hints as to how we might develop more satisfying personal relationships. We will present some thoughts about communication which of course is the foundation of all relationships. Since I am following the Maggie rule to “keep it short” we will dig into some of that stuff in future blogs.