One of the most important things that attachment researchers have done is to demonstrate just how much we are wired for deep, emotional connection with the people that matter to us. In the brilliant — but hard to watch — Still Face Experiment, scientists asked a mother to stop responding to her baby for two minutes, to make her face still and neutral. In that short time, the baby becomes very distressed, trying and trying to reconnect with her caregiver, ultimately turning away in despair from her unresponsive mother.
Fortunately, in the video, mother and baby are quickly reunited and able to repair. But what about the baby who is not so lucky, who has — like many of us had — a depressed, neglectful, or otherwise emotionally unavailable caregiver? What might be the long term impact on that baby’s ability to manage and express emotions, to communicate, and to trust in others? Because our need for attachment is lifelong, this experiment also explains why withdrawing behaviors can be so damaging to romantic partnerships. Just as the baby goes into panic and despair at her mother’s lack of response, so might a husband or wife experience terrible pain and confusion in the face of a shut down, emotionally unresponsive partner.
This simple experiment tells us so much about our profound dependence on our attachment figures, a dependence that we never outgrow.
It is often hard for withdrawers to see how disengaging and shutting down can be so hurtful to their partners. Compared to the angry protests of pursuers, it can seem like a small thing to go quiet and turn away. This wonderful new video from attachment researchers Sue Johnson and Ed Tronick really clearly depicts how that seemingly small move can be quite devastating to the person on the receiving end of that withdrawal.
Dr. Tronick first shares an example of how a mother failing to respond to her baby for just a few minutes (the still face experiment) causes the baby to despair and protest. Next, in a lovely demonstration of how our adult love relationships parallel the parent-child bond, Dr. Johnson's couple session shows the exact same scenario playing out with a husband and wife. Feeling anxious, the husband (the withdrawer in this relationship) shuts down and fails to respond to his wife's bids for reconnection. As she feels more and more panicked and abandoned, she escalates and protests — just like the distressed child — trying to get back into sync with him.