Have you ever experienced such pain or heartache in a relationship that you have sworn off future friendships or relationships? Has your trust or confidence in someone been shattered to the point that you never wanted to open up to anyone ever again? I think it is safe to say that all of us have been through a bad breakup or had an interaction with a friend, coworker, or family member that has left us feeling discouraged, rejected, or alone. In the moment we may have thought we would be better off living a life without ties to other people. But in the end, we nearly always end up making friends or falling in love with someone new. Why do we do that? Would you believe me if I told you that we legitimately need relationships in our lives in order to thrive and be happy?
A relationship is defined as the way in which two or more concepts, ideas, or humans are connected–in the case of humans, that connection could be through blood, marriage, sex, or friendship. This state of being connected functions optimally when both parties are mutually striving for closeness; when either side is withholding time, honesty, intimacy, or open communication, the relationship is strained. I chose to be a therapist and work with couples and families because I deeply value relationships. I have witnessed tremendous healing when a client has strong bonds in their life. Although it takes a great deal of time, effort, and energy to maintain and improve relationships, humans have an innate biological and emotional need to be close to others. Brené Brown said it best, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all women, men, and children.”
Believe it or not, human biology is involved in the formation of meaningful relationships. You may have noticed your adrenaline pump, palms sweat, breathing get shallow, skin feel hot, or pupils dilate when you are with people you care about. Less noticeable biological activity is that our amygdala (the center of the brain where emotion is processed) gets highly active as we interact with others. We produce the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter dopamine as well as oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” or the hormone related to bonding. Interacting with others physically makes our bodies feel good. We are literally wired to connect and form meaningful relationships with others!
We also have an emotional need to form and maintain relationships. I have never forgotten about a particularly interesting lecture where one of my college Professors described a Japanese concept called “amae” (甘え). Amae is the need to belong; the desired to be loved, to have someone take care of us, or even the unconscious need to rely on others. This amae is cross-cultural; American psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary subscribe to what they call the “belongingness hypothesis”, which states that people have a basic psychological and emotional need to feel closely connected to others, and that caring, affectionate bonds from close relationships are a major part of human behavior. We would rather have close relationships (even those marked by distress, conflict, or abuse) than permanently separate ourselves from those people (through breakups, divorce, death). Though unconscious, our emotional need to belong is incredibly strong!
Although relationships carry immense emotional weight, we need them in our lives. After all their research, Baumeister and Leary surmised: “It seems fair to conclude that human beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.” If you are struggling with an important relationship in your life, and you want to make steps to rectify that bond, schedule a session with me today.
P.S. My first post in the month of May will delve into how the lack of meaningful connection can actually lead to addiction. Stay tuned!
University of Rhode Island: “Love: A Biological, Psychological and Philosophical Study”
Science of Relationships: “The ‘Need to Belong’–Part of What Makes Us Human”