Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking and writing a lot about attachment--about the ways in which we learn to be individuals only in the context of relationship. And I've been thinking, too, about what happens when relationship changes dramatically, goes away, or just stumbles--as in the Still Face experiment. What happens to the developing person when their primary attachment figure--the person who cares for them most consistently--fails to mirror them? Is damage done? It can seem that way. Just a few seconds of the nonresponsive mother, and the baby begins to experience distress. The mother's emotional absence is experienced by the baby as a rupture in the relationship.
And yet, how can this damage ever be avoided? If, as Winnicott suggests, the ordinary devoted mother sometimes feels tired or anxious or irritated, and fails to be perfectly attuned to her baby--if she doesn't mirror her baby's experience--isn't this bad for babies?
Research suggests that misattuned parents miss their baby's cues about 30% of the time. So as babies try to communicate their needs, their desires, their wish for engagement, one out of every three times, their parents just don't get it. Over and over and over again, these babies are shut out or shut down. And research finds that well-attuned parents miss their baby's cues... about 30% of the time.
Missing cues is normal. It's part of being in relationship: sometimes we notice bids for attention, sometimes we don't. The significant difference between misattuned and well-attuned parents isn't about the missed cues--it's about what happens next, about what they do next. And that's part of what you can see in the Still Face experiment. The return of warmth, the genuineness of apology, the willingness to hear how it felt to not be seen, the pleasure of being together again are all part of what allows babies--and children, and adults--to get reconnected, and to trust that those they most care for are willing to come back over and over and over, to keep trying even when they've made a mistake. And that trust reinforces the bond.
Attachment theory is encouraging because it's not about urging us to become more perfect parents or partners--it's much more about making room for us to acknowledge the moments when we've failed and missed seeing the other person, because in that acknowledgement, the relationship grows stronger.