Updated: Aug 22
As a psychotherapist, I often come across people who struggle with connection; they want to experience love and to be loved, but for one reason or another that has proved elusive.
This can be bewildering and frustrating for them, especially since we live in an age of endless possibility. But as we all know, swipe right does not always equate with meaningful connection, far from it.
Discovering that we are loveable is a human motivation; from earliest childhood we seek out 'the gleam in our mother's eye' but if it is not there or if the gaze is too smothering, our sense of self in relation to other will be constricted. Throw in societal norms, family dynamics and cultural expectations, and defences such as dissociation and self-soothing strategies may become habitual, which may have an impact on the establishing and maintaining of meaningful and intimate relationships.
To complicate matters, societal norms and expectations are now less rigid, meaning that even the idea of a relationship is not as straightforward as it used to be, it is no longer the monolithic, normative model of 50 years ago; there is a whole spectrum of options available to us, which can be exciting and a little scary. No wonder that the idea of 'relationship' can feel like a Herculean task.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the novelist E. M Forster wrote:
'Only connect ... Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die'.
The invitation here was to allow ourselves to be open to the possibility of relationship and that through genuine attention and connection, which acknowledges our separateness and our needs, a fully functioning sense of self will develop.
This idea that we need to 'only connect', that connection is a fundatmental human motivation was a radical concept at the time. Psychology was still very much focused on the instinctual drives of sex and aggression, feelings were still the realm of art and poetry and relationships were defined by morality and social norms.
It wasn't until the late 1940s that child psychologists began to talk about the significance of connection. Infant mortality in orphanages had reached 70% which did not seem to make sense, since the children had sufficient food and a clean, safe environment. What child psychologists observed was that infants needed to be held, and that without human touch, they died. This awareness has had a fundamental impact on how we understand what it is to be human and what we need to function.
The good news is that human beings have neuro-plasticity. Our wounds, traumas and misattunements do not need to be our 'forever' narrative. We have the ability to create our own story and move beyond relational, developmental and social histories.
This is why psychotherapy and counselling can be so life changing.
The invitation of therapy is to be curious and be open to connection. The anticipation is for change. Anticipation usually presents itself as 'hope' and 'expectancy'. You will be welcomed; feelings will be shared, a hand is metaphorically, and sometimes physically held out. It may feel scary at times, but as the writer Bessel van der Kolk reminds us:
'You need a guide who is not afraid of your terror and can contain your darkest rage, someome who can safeguard the wholeness of you while you expore the fragmented experiences that you had to keep secret from yourself.'
Together we are witnessed, our feelings are felt, our sense of self is acknowledged. We are changed. I use 'we' intentionally as both parties are changed. And this is passed on. Imagine the impact this can have on society and future generations? 'Only connect', it is a powerful idea.