...notting hill, bridget jones, four weddings.

I mentioned in a previous post that I’d tell you later about attachment.

I had a conversation with a student today that made “later” now.


Human infants are utterly dependent on their adult caregivers. They can’t run away from predators or wash themselves to prevent infection or even thermoregulate particularly well – leave a baby on the ground and it will just freeze to death overnight, unless a lion eats it first.

And babies are a pain in the ass. They’re loud, they produce noisome fluids, they wake you up in the middle of the night, they’re heavy and need to be carried all the time, and if they weren’t so fuckin’ cute you’d leave them by the side of the road.

In order to keep caregivers giving care in the face of horrible fluids, sleep deprivation, and the assassination of their sex lives, evolution in its wisdom has installed in mammals an “attachment” mechanism that bonds adult caregivers and offspring. The more dependent the offspring and the longer the dependency, the more powerful the attachment system. Humans have the most dependent offspring and the longest dependency (relative to lifespan) of any species. So boy howdy do we attach.

Here’s how it works, roughly: baby comes out, mom is flooded with oxytocin, and the adorable face, cuddly warm body, and tiny little hands hook into her heart and she’s linked forever and ever to this new life. The baby takes about 3 months to attach to an adult caregiver, and he’ll attach to whoever shows up when he cries. I previously described the 4-stage process that the baby goes through (proximity seeking, safe haven, separation anxiety, secure base).

Fast forward 12 years. Baby crosses into adolescence and, in a way that’s not clearly understood, the attachment system gets coopted from caregiver to romantic partner. We engage in the same behaviors – “attachment behaviors” – with our potential romantic partners as caregivers do with infants, like eye contact, hand holding, face stroking, smiling, hair touching… also, sex gets added to the repertoire.

You’ll recognize the experience of attachment, probably: you feel connected to the other person. When things go wrong, you want to tell the person all about it. When the person goes away, you feel physical pain. Wherever that person is, that’s your home.

This is the point at which romantic comedies end.

But in my experience what people find most helpful about this information is that it explains why it hurts so much when someone leaves you, long after the romantic comedy of your life is over.

See, when we’re infants, our lives quite literally depend on our adult caregiver coming when we need them. We would die without them – literally DIE. Well when you’re an adult your life doesn’t actually depend on your partner, but your biology doesn’t know that, so when you get dumped it feels like someone cracked open your ribcage and tore through your heart so that your blood gushes out onto the floor for you to slip on and fall in so you look like an idiot WHILE you rapidly bleed to death.

You don’t actually die, you just want to.

(So much for 1st Corinthians.)