Back to the introduction.
Previously, I explored the first skill on Al Turtle’s Map of Relationships: Safety. Today I’m going to look at the second piece of the Biological Dream, which he calls “Reliable Membership”.
Al says, “All humans require reliable, sufficient and not excessive, contact with other humans.”
Humans are social animals. We need to live in a herd to increase our survivability. I think we can all agree that this is a biological requirement for children up to a certain age (Al suggests age 7 or 8). And in adulthood there is still a biological drive for connection, although it can be overridden by a history of unpleasant social experiences. For example, as Al notes, people become hermits when they’ve repeatedly experienced unpleasantness when trying to connect with others.
But since survival is the primary biological goal, our brains evolved circuitry for social behavior. This circuitry is mainly located in the area of the brain called the limbic system, which as you may recall from my previous post, is located in the “midbrain”—right on top of the Lizard! (If you are just joining us, go back here to learn about your Lizard.)
The significance of this location is that the neural connections between our need to connect with others and our panic button (fight or flight reaction) are very short and very quick. In other words, any threats to our need for social connection are seen quickly and clearly by the Lizard. And we know what happens when our Lizard is activated!
How much connection do we require?
All people are basically the same in that we have this biological drive to live with others. But we differ in the amount of connection we require. Al draws from attachment theory to posit that the amount of connection we each find comfortable is formed in childhood. Our childhood experience with connection ranges from “absolute unreliability or insufficiency of connection to absolute excessive connection.” We are all located somewhere on that continuum. Al also notes that as we grow our required amount of contact may change, so we could move up or down this continuum.
Al labels the behaviors that result from our differing needs for connection “clinging” and “avoiding.”* And, he outlines the differences beautifully in this chart (I have paraphrased some for brevity):
Clingers: Received Unreliable or Insufficient Contact in Childhood
Children who got too little or intermittent connection from caregivers have very active Lizards—they panic. They survive by developing Clinging skills: staying close, holding on, resisting separation. These survival skills of clinging and pursuing, driven by panic, become habits and follow the child into adulthood.
When these adults panic, they move toward others, especially their partner. They ask questions, follow, push toward, talk at, and in general become invasive of their partner’s space. As an adult clinging may become very controlling, possessing, captivating, cornering. This is the source of stalking behavior.
Frequent thoughts or fears of your partner leaving you behind.
When nervous, you will focus on your partner’s evasiveness, withdrawal, silence. You may also have day or night dreams of safe togetherness – of finally living happily forever.
Avoiders: Received Excessive or Unpleasant Contact in Childhood
Children who experience too much or painful contact also have active Lizards—they panic. They survive by developing Avoiding skills. These are behaviors that do not invite contact. Even when hungry these children don’t cry. We often call them “good babies,” but really they are happier when left alone. As these children grow, when they can walk, they develop isolating skills, such as having hiding places, wandering off, climbing trees and not coming down, running away, sitting at the far end of the room, etc. These survival skills of avoiding and isolating, driven by panic, become habits and follow the child into adulthood.
When these adults panic, they move away from others, especially their partner. They are quiet, self-contained, elusive, non-talkative, and in general, emotionally cold.
Your mind often goes blank when your partner talks, asks, or moves toward you.
When nervous, you will focus on your partner’s invasiveness, attacking, pushing, and you may dream of peace, quiet, and space.
Like Al, I prefer to not label people Clingers and Avoiders. Rather, people display clinging and avoiding behaviors. It is an important distinction because we can become clinging or avoiding at different times in our lives and within different relationships. (In this post, however, I will use "Clingers" and "Avoiders" for convenience when explaining the differences.)
Often we respond in reaction to the person we are with, usually taking on the opposite role. I tend to be clinging in my marriage (in response to Jason’s avoiding tendencies), but I once had a boyfriend who was somewhat smothering and I remember developing some strong avoiding behaviors to get the space I desired. This also works with friendships. As a child, I remember so strongly desiring friendship with a particular girl that I became very clinging, always calling her, asking her to come out to play. And I had another friend in high school who was so clinging with me, that I began hesitating before returning her calls, and I stopped inviting her along every time my friends got together.
But I agree with Al that we seem to have a natural tendency towards one side of the continuum as a result of childhood experiences (attachment theory) and in-born traits (personality theory). I can see how introverting vs. extraverting preferences could have some effect on this. I think the most important factor, however, that determines a person’s general position on the continuum is what activates their Lizard. Do you feel more unsafe or panicked when there is a threat of isolation, or do you feel more unsafe and panicked when there is a threat of overwhelming and unpleasant contact?
Let’s look at what all of this means for relationships.
“When a Clinging person gets nervous, they tend to move toward their partner in order to reduce their panic. The Avoiding partner sees someone coming and, starting to panic, they move away. The Clinger sees their partner moving away, and moves faster. The Avoider runs faster from the clinging person, who is now chasing them. The two run toward what I call the Leaving Wall, the wall at the edge of the relationship – the Divorce Wall.”
A Clinger is scared of their partner leaving. They panic when their partner says things like, “I can’t take this anymore” or “I need to get away.” When panicked, Clingers often visualize their partner divorcing them, having an affair, or dying, etc. They then try to protect themselves by trying to get more connection. Which, of course, pushes an avoiding partner further away.
For an Avoider, leaving is a move towards safety. Instead, what scares them is the lack of space in a relationship. Avoiders often see contact as conflict. When panicked, they will move towards leaving a relationship if there is no built in safe space within the relationship.
Skills for Relationships
1. Create safe space within the relationship by learning how to take Time Outs. (Al gives specifics about Time Outs here.)
2. Clingers need to learn to be happy when alone and learn to switch to the on-your-own mode quickly.
3. Clingers often need to find other sources of connection in the world. But, and as Al says “this is a big but,” you can’t draw on sources that would threaten your partner. So build a network of friends, join volunteer organizations, keep pets, etc. And learn to shift from connecting with your partner to alone-mode, to friends, and back to your partner quickly, keeping the connection time with your partner the highest priority.
4. Avoiders need to learn to anticipate their need for space, and signal their partner when they need a Time Out.
5. Avoiders need to tend to their partner’s need for reliability by showing that their need for space is not a move towards leaving. Often, simply stating when you’ll return is enough to keep your partner calm. For example, “I need a time out—I’ll be in the garage for about two hours.” Or “I’d really like to read my book now, I’ll come back downstairs at 10:00 and we can talk about the kids then.” Al calls this Relationship Responsibility—“You can’t blame your partner for your need for space. You have to come back.”
And one last note. When in the midst of a clinging/avoiding event (when both lizards are panicked and the clinging partner begins chasing the avoiding partner who is sprinting towards the door) it is very important for the clinging partner to take the lead. Ideally, Clingers need to learn to call a Time Out for the Avoider, before the Avoider even realizes that they need it. This is because panic causes a Clinger to activate and an Avoider to shut-down. The frozen Avoider cannot call a Time Out when their brain has shut down. Al has a wonderful essay explaining this idea which he calls The Testicle Principle (even just finding out why he chose this name makes the essay well worth the read!)
So, that’s the second step on the Map. We’ve now explored the first two steps towards Vintage Love: learning to live with your Lizards and understanding each others’ needs for reliable connection. Interestingly, these are both unconscious aspects of the Biological Dream. The Lizard acts without our conscious control, and our need for connection is a hard-wired drive.
The next three skills on the Map are conscious: diversity, autonomy, and purpose. At first I thought that these would be the easy ones. That I have already learned good skills to maintain these aspects in my relationships. Boy, was I surprised!
* This concept was first discussed by Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy. He used the terms “fusers and isolaters.”