Attunement is not a ‘task’ that can be carried out. You can provide physical care in a connected or a disconnected way. The cues that tell the limbic brain ‘I’m with you; we are connected,’ are tremendously subtle.
Connection isn’t forced through willpower or memorization; rather, it occurs when you allow your true self to be seen, making room for naked vulnerability while giving – and receiving – consistent availability, responsiveness, and attunement.
The pleasure that is possible in this experience is immense, better than almost any pleasure humans have made or found.
You can make a sandwich for your lover in a securely loving way or a disconnected way. You can even look them right in the eyes in a connected or disconnected way. You may be ‘trying really hard’ to take care of someone and may still be giving off microscopic, but very loud, emotional signals that tell them you are not with them.
Because it is so subtle, to know how healthy loving connection looks, it helps to see and experience immersive media representations of connected and disconnected humans.
A few examples from pop culture:
Look at the difference between these two images; both couples are ostensibly in love and taking care of one another. The first shows genuine vulnerability, which is necessary for true connection. The subtle muscles around the eyes give it away.
It is not the fact of eye contact that tells you there is genuine connection here. People can make eye contact without really connecting. And as you’ll see in a moment in the Buffy example below, people can be deeply connected even when looking away. It is not the eye contact – it is the subtlest aspects of posture, the tiny muscles around the eyes that give away what is actually happening.
The second image looks like the shape of nurturance, but something extremely subtle is off in these actor’s expressions.
At first I read this as a scene of connection, but as I came back to it in an earlier post, something felt wrong. They are not actually connecting. This is a posed shot without the true vulnerability that the limbic brain reads so well. The limbic system, seeking genuine connectedness, can feel the gap between them like invisible cotton balls separating the two people, even as their bodies are positioned together in an intimate act.
The difference is tiny, but our nervous systems are designed to read these minute differences with incredible precision.
You can kiss, cuddle with, or have sex with someone in a way that is connected intimately, relaxed and safe, and enjoying the pleasure of a deeply trusting human bond.
Or you can do the same acts in a way that focuses on physical sensation while blocking actual connection.
People feel the difference. In a misogynist culture, however, we may not know how to name, or may not believe we are allowed to recognize a normal, healthy need that is not being acknowledged.
It is normal and natural for humans to regulate one another’s nervous systems in an interdependent way. And it causes distress when those subtle cues are absent.
Somehow disconnection has become valued over connection. It’s time to flip the script.
Nomi and Amanita (Neets)– Sense8
It is no coincidence that the Wachowski’s amazing new series Sense8, which is about limbic connection, features securely attached couples as central characters and provides rich material for learning. The opening episode is actually titled “Limbic Resonance.” It seems this reference is about more than the supernatural connection between the eight central characters: it is also about ordinary human interdependence.
Neets and Nomi stick up for each other, take care of each other, look one another in the eyes, read each other’s body language exquisitely, and make it clear moment by moment that they are securely connected. They not only have one another’s backs in their actions; they also know how to connect limbically in a moment-by-moment way. They see one another’s needs and make it their business to meet them openly.
Lito and Hernando – Sense8
“Limbic Resonance” is precisely what Lito and Hernando have with one another in the private space they have created. Even without supernatural powers of connection, this couple takes care of one another, and this home base is the crucible within which Lito finds his strength, solace, and much of the inspiration for his public work.
The heteronormativity they face is a significant barrier to the security of their bond because secure love wants to be honoured and to have a social place. That Lito is unable to be a fully secure attacher – to name his love in public and honour his beloved in his community – eventually costs him the most important home he has ever had. Hernando, a secure attacher, is not content to be a secret, because a big part of secure attachment is the public quality of knowing you belong, that your inner-circle home bond is recognized officially and honoured within your human community.
For the straight and/or cis folks among us, challenging heteronormativity and trans- and homophobia culturally and socially makes more space for all nurturing human bonds to receive the valueing, honour and social acceptance that are fundamental needs of secure attachment.
Riley Finn and Sam – Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Riley Finn is loving, nurturing, and present for Buffy for years. He is always there for her, and he is available, responsive, and attuned. He’s in the right. Buffy – whose abandoning father taught her the wrong lessons about how love feels – isn’t able to recognize or take in what Riley is offering her, not because ‘women like jerks,’ but because she has been harmed by the breaking of a primary trust bond. We see Finn’s emotional well-being slowly deteriorate over his relationship with Buffy, who has healing to do before she can return or even recognize and value a secure attachment bond.
The wrong read of this situation would be to say that Finn ought to ‘act distant’ or manipulate Buffy to get what he wants. Actually, what he offers her is exactly what he ought to offer her, and we watch Buffy struggle to internalize this new kind of safety. By the time Buffy – as most of us do after some healing happens – recognizes Finn is the real deal, Finn has decided to move on, finding someone who is as securely attached as he is.
Those who love the show feel this as a huge loss for Buffy. Sam, pictured above, recognizes this secure quality in Finn and is able to return it. As is evident in this clip, Sam and Riley’s body language shows consistent, secure connection:
One great thing about Buffy is the way it makes implicit connections between Buffy’s vanishing, unreliable father and Buffy’s disastrous love life. Think of the limbic patterns! One feminist thing men can do is to make those connections in their own minds and name them outright. Rather than blame women who have had early trust bonds break (for instance by complaining about how ‘women like jerks,’ or attachment-shaming anxious, disorganized, or insecure attachers) feminist men can put the pieces together. Want to be a feminist man? Contextualize, don’t stigmatize, the insecure attachment that may show up in your romantic relationships, including short term ones.
Want to be a feminist man? Contextualize, don’t stigmatize, insecure attachment
If you find yourself involved with women who don’t seem secure with you, consider the effects of patriarchy and misogyny across the lifespan, and ask yourself if perhaps you need to be more securitizing: available, responsive, and attuned. This is not about the work you put in or flowers you buy or nice places you take someone, though physical care is part of nurturance too. It is about doing your own healing to grow the vulnerability and physiologic trust you are capable of allowing, the responsiveness you are capable of creating with women you date or sleep with.
Help repair the harm of misogyny by giving women a different kind of experience than the men who have harmed them. If you find this difficult, do the inner work so that it becomes easier. At minimum, own and recognize where the gap might be happening, and make it clear this is yours to work on, not a failing or problem in the other person, especially if the other person is a woman who has had trust broken before.
As rigid gender and relationship binaries break down, we may see more room for straight cis men to be more fully themselves as well. The changing centre transforms the whole. Perhaps this scene between two straight cismen might have played out differently were it written today, with our transforming gender awareness:
Sean Macguire (played by Robin Williams) – Good Will Hunting
In one of the more memorable moments in this memorable film, Robin Williams describes how it feels to create a deep, vulnerable connection with another human being, to “look at a woman and be totally vulnerable,” to create a bond that can be there “through anything.”
Even as Robin Williams’s character describes in words a secure straight cis relationship with his deceased wife, the eye contact and facial expressions between the two cis men in this clip are an example of the opposite kind of connection. Will and Sean are human, and they need to connect with other human beings. The tension between this need, and the codes of masculinity that deny it, generates much of the emotional interest in the scene.
They are trying to connect, but both must do so mediated through the ‘man box’ even though both are actually quite sensitive people. They can barely make eye contact, and when they do it is brief sideline contact with the rest of the body in fight-or-flight and eyes that say ‘I’m not connecting, I’m not vulnerable, I’m not really here.’
This contradictory glance – looking, but not looking – is much like the facial expressions of an avoidant attacher, who will do this sidelong-glance even in their most intimate moments with their most intimate people, and may not even realize it. The tiny muscles around the eyes are saying ‘I’m not really here, don’t get too close’ even when eye contact is happening.
This subtle form of disconnection guards against vulnerability – and blocks secure intimacy. If it happens on an ongoing basis, it can create a confusing fabric of instability between the people who are attempting intimacy. The limbic brain doesn’t notice your words; it only reads your nonverbal cues, and it reads them lightning-fast. If you are a feminist man, and you find women you get close to don’t seem to get secure with you, try asking them if this is why. In other words, you can contextualize insecure attachment to create more shared understanding for you both.
In the words of the inestimable Bey,
Don’t treat me to these things of the world
I’m not that kind of girl
Your love is what I prefer,
what I deserve is a man that makes me then takes me
and delivers me to a destiny, to infinity and beyond
Pull me into your arms
Say I’m the one you want
Your move, chief.
More by the same author:
The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture
Own, Apologize, Repair: Coming Back to Integrity
This blog has grown into a book!
Turn This World Inside Out: the Emergence of Nurturance Culture
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Additional resources: one of the best books on creating secure attachment I’ve come across is Wired for Love: How Understanding your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style can Help you Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship by Stan Tatkin, PsyD
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See the original post that inspired this series, “The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture,” here.
All references to gender in this post are meant in a trans-inclusive way. I want to recognize that human beings’ lived experience of gender is much more complex than an either/or set of boxes can capture. When I speak of ‘men’ and ‘masculinity’ I am referring to all masculine-identified people, including, as appropriate, aspects of the self for those who only partially identify in this way.
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24 thoughts on “Nurturance is about more than ‘tasks’”
Thanks for writing this, this is all good and true. I’d say too that it’s important to remember that trust bonds can be broken between mothers and their daughters as well and that will impact future relationships in the same way. I believe that misogyny is still at play, in this case, because as you’ve pointed out, the stigma is around “women who can’t trust” but the source could very easily be either parent and I think that the relationship between women and their mothers is sometimes ignored because patriarchy tends to assume that the most important relationships in any woman’s life are the ones between women and men (fathers, partners etc.) and this is not at all the case.
that is perfectly true, and yet this blog simply isn’t about mothers and mothering. there is a whole whack of other scripts and pressures around that and it is worthy of its own topic. this blog focusses primarily on how people who identify as feminist men can step up their game and make ‘feminist man’ mean something. when guys write in and say ‘but what about women they do bad stuff too’ – which happens after every post – i am reminded of http://imgur.com/p7ruPhm?r
This Article is attuned and does Connect. That’s nourishing!! So even if we hadn’t any eye contact it seems this growth has been possible thought. I thank you for bringing this so well into words, I’ll expand it.
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Hi Nora, saw a post of yours on facebook last night. Beautiful work, congrats on what you’re doing. I will refer people I work with to your blog. Many blessings, Jane Ellen Sexton
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thank you! 🙂
“This contradictory glance – looking, but not looking – is much like the facial expressions of an avoidant attacher, who will do this sidelong-glance even in their most intimate moments with their most intimate people, and may not even realize it. The tiny muscles around the eyes are saying ‘I’m not really here, don’t get too close’ even when eye contact is happening.
This subtle form of disconnection guards against vulnerability – and blocks secure intimacy. If it happens on an ongoing basis, it can create a confusing fabric of instability between the people who are attempting intimacy. The limbic brain doesn’t notice your words; it only reads your nonverbal cues, and it reads them lightning-fast.”
Man, it sucks to be an aspie in this world…
More seriously: would you consider looking at this again with neurodiversity goggles on? The model you’re discussing here rings true in all kinds of ways – it describes how NTs work, which is how most of the world works most of the time – so it’s useful to me in that regard; but it also veers towards pathologising some neurodiverse forms of social expression which are not, I promise you, purely about damaged or immature attachment patterns.
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true, you’re absolutely right, and thank you. I have a kid on the spectrum in my life who I love and a best friend who works professionally helping kids with autism, and I hadn’t made the connection you’ve brought to my attention but when I hear you say this I absolutely hear / see what you mean. The non eye contact of
… sorry – phone slipped. The unusual eye contact of someone whose system gives them terror of connection feels different (and more distressing) than the ‘forgetting to look at faces’ of spectrum folks, which is more a sort of content not remembering? it isn’t driven by fear, but just looks more like being happy without eye contact and having to remember other people would prefer it? is there this shifty-slidy-terrified quality to it? I want to capture how completely scary it can feel to have someone who is very intimate with you act terrified to ever have any emotional connection and get furious if you look them in the eyes lovingly, vs aspie folks who might just not notice if there isn’t typical eye contact but aren’t angry or afraid if you lovingly look at them? I wonder if I could add something to help with the distinction like ‘other normal things can create unusual eye contact patterns – folks on the spectrum, for instance, may not make ‘typical’ kinds of eye contact – the key to distinguishing dismissive-avoidant emotions is the feeling of terror at emotional connection. or something less clumsy, that doesn’t reify neuro typical ppl the way I have here. The feeling is really different for those close to the person, one is just like ‘oh yeah I have to remember you’d like if I look at your face,’ and the other is ‘I’m angry and terrified that you’re attempting any emotional connection at all but can’t name why.’
Eye-contact *can* be uncomfortable, although it isn’t always; when it is so, I liken it to having someone waving a lit cigarette lighter in front of your face – you just want to be looking somewhere else.
Years ago I read Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and came across the word “protopathic”, to describe physical sensation that is either absent or overwhelmingly present – the usual gradations of intensity aren’t there. Quite a few things to do with immediate emotional processing – the “instantaneous” responses to body language, tone etc. – are a bit protopathic for me: when something “pokes through” my usual slight obtuseness, it’s often a bit much to handle. This can generate a lot of frustration all round. You have to develop a kind of secondary alertness to monitor what’s going on – something I call “modelling in software” – so you can react before it becomes something you can no longer competently respond to. It’s *tiring*!
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The other thing that strikes me is that, in transactional analysis terms, this is all about the parent/child axis. TA would have it that we’re all sometimes in the “child” position, and all sometimes in the “parent” position, and need fluency and acceptance of ourselves in both roles. As the literal parent of a teenage daughter, I have some idea of what’s needed from me in that role, and value the performance of it very highly – it’s important to me to help her to feel safe and accepted, and it really feels like my “job” (in a good, “this is my purpose” way, rather than a bad, “this is my chore” way) to be available to her. But I’m not sure that I want that to be the *predominant* model in my relationships with adult women, any more than I would want to be primarily in the “child” position in such relationships. TA introduces a third role, “adult”, which mediates somewhat between “parent” and “child”; the adult is perhaps not so much centred on their own limbic system, being to some degree self-parenting or responsible for their own primary security. The adult/adult relationship seems to me to be something to aspire to; it’s where people meet each other as accomplished, individuated beings who aren’t (constantly, forlornly) looking for others to repair or stabilise them. Isn’t that where we should want to be?
yes, that is what emerges in a healthy human being over time of feeling secure with others. the trick is what we think about how to get there. old individualist paradigms would have a sink or swim mentality / bootstrapping mentality: if I help you you won’t learn. attachment science indicates quite the opposite is true: we organically gain this inner resilience over time by having a healthy container in others. I refer to it a little in the piece – this is actually the stage I’m at in my development these days, swimming further from shore and ‘growing my own inner relationship with myself and direct connection to the universe’ – though it took a long time of feeling held before I was ready. about half of us get this base from our caregivers growing up and organically our nervous systems develop optimally then. for the 50% of us who don’t have ‘optimal’ upbringings (intergenerational trauma is not uncommon in this world, if we consider all lost parts of the self as unrecognized trauma), we come into adulthood having incomplete processes and we can complete this next step of growth in our intimate connections. eventually, yes, the optimal human body can internally regulate for around 75% of needs and it is healthy to rely on others for around 25% of needs, according to Sue Johnson. This is the healthy kind of interdependence the piece is aiming to describe, that emerges over time, rather than the fake-autonomy of a traumatized nervous system.
A phrase that’s always circulated within my family is “primary ontological security” (my parents, training as teachers in the 60s, read R. D. Laing; his books were still on their shelves when I hit my late teens, and he’s still my problematic fav when it comes to psychotherapeutic stuff). It’s interesting to me to see what I think of as Laingian insights re-generated (and refreshed, and revised) from a different starting-point, minus the occasionally macho existentialist framing…
I will look into the book you recommended as an additional resource.
This post made me think of the book, A General Theory of Love – I think it would also make a good ‘additional resource’ recommendation.
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I’m late to the party here. But this is an exceptional work. I find myself doing a lot of introspecting, working with a therapist, and doing readings on my own issues with attachment. Specifically, I’m doing the work on myself and trying to repair harmful patterns I’ve repeated through the course of my life and learning to model a more secure way of being in my relationships. This essay is timely and especially relevant to me. Thank you for writing it.
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thanks! I’m glad 🙂