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Human Relationships: Our Emotional Safe Haven

Safe Haven

When my mother began raising her family nearly 60 years ago, the conventional wisdom could be encapsulated by statements such as “Children are to be seen and not heard,” “Big boys don’t cry, ” and “If you hold a baby too much, you will spoil her.” So it should have come as no surprise to me when I was caring for my fist baby nearly 25 years ago that her advice was “You just need to let that baby cry…….it will help his lungs develop.” That counsel felt wrong in my soul and was contrary to everything that I had been taught in both my undergraduate and graduate training. Mother’s often know best, but in this case my mother was dead wrong!!! (I still love you, Mom!!!)

There was a time when the “sage advice” that my mother offered was unquestionably in line with the “best practices” in parenting; the underlying belief being that if parent’s responded to their children’s emotional outbursts that would lead to dangerous spoiling of one’s off-spring and would undermine the goal of fashioning independent and strong adults who were prepared to face the harsh realities of the world. Thanks, however, to the work of a brilliant British psychiatrist by the name of John Bowlby and a host of other “attachment based” researchers who followed, today we know that one of the primary tasks of parenthood runs contrary to that old conventional wisdom and requires that effective parents “attune to” or respond, tune in to, show empathy and understanding for their child’s ever changing emotional state and, thereby, a strong parent-child bond is formed. Countless research studies demonstrate that children who are fortunate enough to have formed a strong emotional connection to a primary care giver are more confident, secure and capable of facing that harsh world – completely contrary to the notion that responding to children’s emotionality would actually create weak and dependent adults. We now know that this strong bond creates for a child, what is known to attachment theorists and therapists, a “safe haven.” With this safe haven in place, a child can go out into the big, bad world and face whatever dangers might be lurking there with the assurance that at the end of the day, someone is at home awaiting their return – prepared to lick and bind up whatever wounds the day’s adventures may have inflicted.

Despite the tremendous advances made by Bowlby and the countless researchers who have conducted literally thousands of studies that verify Bowlby’s claims that “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment and that not to do so may have significant and irreversible mental health consequences,” social scientists and society at large still held onto a false notion about what has been termed our “attachment needs.” Following the acceptance of Bowlby’s basic premise, the Western world embraced his concepts for children, but somehow continued to believe that the need for a strong emotional connection to significant others, that “safe emotional haven”, somehow did not continue past early adolescence. It was as if begrudgingly Western society collectively said, “Alright, alright!!! So Mr. Bowlby’s concepts just might apply to CHILDREN, but it cannot possibly be the case that adolescents and adults need all of that touchy, feely, warm and fuzzy stuff!!! They need to be tough and strong and prepared to face the big, bad world alone!!!” So around early adolescence, as a society, we by and large withdrew the warmth and tenderness bestowed on those in their pre-pubescent years. This was a tragic misunderstanding of our basic emotional needs.

Enter Sue Johnson, a gifted and brilliant psychologist who specializes in Marriage and Family Therapy. Through countless hours of observation and research, Dr. Johnson has unlocked the key to mental health in adults, as well as, healthy, strong familial and marital relationships, namely, strong, emotional attachment to a significant other(s) – THE VERY SAME DISCOVERY THAT JOHN BOWLBY MADE OVER HALF A CENTURY AGO REGARDING THE MENTAL HEALTH OF INFANTS AND CHILDREN!!! Dr. Johnson has shed light on our need for strong, secure emotional connection to a select set of individuals from the cradle to the grave. In infancy, that “primary attachment figure” is usually the baby’s mother and in adulthood, a person’s spouse usually fills that role. (Of course, others can serve as our primary attachment figures and fulfill our basic attachment or emotional needs, as well.)

Thanks to Drs. Bowlby and Johnson, we know how to create, strong meaningful connections with those who matter most to us and maintain those connections from, as Dr. Bowlby put it, from the “cradle to the grave” so that our lives can be emotionally rich and secure.

For more information about how to form these strong, secure emotional connections with those who matter most, refer to “Love Sense” by Dr. Sue Johnson or contact Wasatch Family therapy to set an appointment with one of our many outstanding attachment based psychotherapists.


Written By:  Katrina Appiah, LCSW

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