Hanna is a 31-year-old Polish American whose mother died when she was two years old. She was raised by a well-meaning, but alcoholic father before immigrating to the United States at the age of 19 to go to college. After college, she met her current husband, Mike, to whom she has been married for four years. She has a two-year-old daughter and works part-time from home.
Hanna and her husband are in couples counseling and on the brink of divorce.
She complains that her husband, “Works too much,” and “Every-time he goes to work,” it makes her, “Angry and then depressed.”
She stated that her day is hard to manage and that parenting has become difficult because she is “So depressed and tired.”
She worries because she feels she is hurting her daughter and thinks her husband should find a different job, or work fewer hours.
Her husband, Mike, works for an airline. He is at his wit’s end because he doesn’t understand why her reactions are so strong.
He says, “I just go to work like anybody else and come home. I do not understand how I could change my job or work fewer hours. I support my family. When I get home, she acts like she hates me and wants nothing to do with me. It doesn’t make sense.”
Getting Below the Surface
It would be very easy to get caught up in trying to solve a problem on the surface, such as shifting schedules, changing jobs, and improving coping tools, all of which may be intricate parts to helping this couple. However, those types of adjustments are like spinning our wheels when it comes to making changes that are genuinely substantial, meaningful, and growth-oriented. The example above represents a framework that is not too different from each of ours. The details of the story may be uniquely personal, but the underlying drives are common to all of us. What is happening under the surface is crucial to understand if we are to take meaningful action to change the course of our experience.
Many of us are looking for meaning and purpose in our lives. The problem is that we are looking at the details of our lives to provide meaning, failing to recognize that meaning is derived from how the environmental aspects of our lives relate to our inner world. Finding a way to connect these two worlds is the key to finding the elusive meaning in life. Hanna, like the rest of us, is interpreting her circumstances through a lens that is only partially conscious. Awareness of how this lens is operating on our overall perspective lends to our ability to connect with the circumstances in a satisfying way.
Familiarity comes from the Latin word familiaritatem, which means intimacy and friendship. It is the word from which we derive “familiar” and “family.” Humans draw comfort in familiarity, and the drive for familiarity is not something we can turn off. This underlying attachment need takes place on an unconscious level and is evident at birth where, ideally, we are placed in the arms of a loving mother. What becomes our “familiar” is an accumulation of relational patterns that start at the moment of birth and will continue throughout our youth.
“Familiar,” “Safety,” or “Comfort” could each be used interchangeably throughout this piece because what we are really talking about is a learned sense of relational “normal,” that becomes the foundation of our social/emotional life and our identity and therefore our foundation for any growth and satisfaction we are going to find in life.
However, as important as it is for us to have a healthy foundation to build on, we must be aware of the perpetual drive for comfort we are all subject to. Virginia Satir, a renowned family therapist, says that the drive for familiarity is actually stronger than survival. I agree because so much of our survival is based on our “familiar,” which is synonymous with our family of origin. The problems arise when we hold “familiar” or “comfort” up as a final destination. This unconscious drive backfires because our familiarity template was intended to inform our negotiations with the future, not be the future goal. Even when we have higher life goals, we may fail to realize them because we do not recognize the spell that familiarity has on us. Our higher functioning brain systems remain subservient to our primitive brain, and we wonder why we are failing. In other words, we are failing first to draw awareness to this drive and, secondly, define its meaning and value in terms of our present reality.
Are You My Mother?
Our natural biology places a lot of responsibility on our maternal caregiver. We don’t mistake our mothers for other people, and her presence cannot be replaced adequately. However, many circumstances require parent types to fill in, such as in adoption, death, and incarceration, the importance of that initial biological connection will show itself throughout our lives. Failure in this area of initial familiar connection through inconsistent relating or abandonment, can not be entirely made up for, but only grieved when it is lost.
No parent is perfect, and many factors play into the primary caregiver’s ability to provide consistent and appropriate responses. Still, for better or worse, we are plugged into that person, and our familiar is reinforced every time she interacts with us and meets our needs. Furthermore, the quality of synchrony that takes place as the parent and child coordinate gazes, share affective and reciprocating expressions, and other social communication that engages and coordinates mutual understanding becomes the foundation of the sense of safety(familiarity) in our bodies well into adulthood. It also becomes the foundation for our own ability to be empathetic and create social connections in the long run (Levy et al. 2019). The process of becoming uncomfortable, followed by the timely provision of comfort, teaches us to regulate our stress levels. Our caregiver’s emotional message to us when experiencing stress is implied in the metamessages, paraverbal, and nonverbal communication. As children, we are ripe to interpret these messages on a felt level, long before we can actually understand the meaning of the words being said.
It should be stated that familiarity is not meant to be a final destination. Instead, our awareness of this drive and its defined meaning becomes the foundation or launching pad for our personal growth. Personal growth takes place in the unknown, under stress, and in the unfamiliar. Many of us fail to recognize that we are intended to grow individually from that place, not simply stay there and receive continual comfort once we find the familiar. This pattern of being has never changed throughout life. Even as children, we experienced many scary first experiences, but we were succeeded and failed from the base of our attachment.
What our “familiar” teaches us is that we are interdependent on other people, contrary to the focus on individualism in Western Culture, which seems to struggle in finding the balance between personal responsibility and group identity. Naturally, everything we experience in life happens in relation to other people, either directly or indirectly. As a developing adult, we will grow out of the usefulness of that child-parent relationship and will need to differentiate from that environment to continue our self-directed development. Although the mother/child relationship dynamic changes as we grow, the underlying need to attach and find a familiar, safe place never ceases. Our intimate relationships will become the primary venue for acting out this continued self-development and growth. A large part of this development involves utilizing self-awareness.
Back to Hanna and Mike
In Hanna’s case, her “familiar” is that of abandonment. Her mother’s passing, although unintentional, was abandonment to the developing brain. This unresolved wound lives profoundly and painfully in her subconscious. Though the repression of this trauma may get her through the day to day, her intimate relationships will not allow for the pain to go unaddressed. Each time her husband leaves for work, there is a triggering of this pain of abandonment and loss. Her body and brain have not learned how to work together to resolve this issue. Her marriage is serving as a trigger that surfaces the wound so it can be dealt with. Unfortunately, her current thinking is disconnected from the awareness that this is happening. By drawing awareness to this underlying drive, we can change the conversation between her and her husband towards a meaningful light. Compassion and empathy can be applied directly to the wound, which will enhance their closeness and contribute to her healing in a way that does not cost the marriage or her child in the long run. Instead of merely persisting with the projection of this wound onto her current situation, where it doesn’t fit, we can become aware of how this internal system is attempting to inform our experience and provide meaningful direction. It will also take the personalization out of the equation, and she and her husband can have quality dialogue instead of defending each other’s intentions on the surface.
Our attachment system, whether secure or insecure, in many ways, determined how we handled the opportunities for growth in childhood and will continue unbridled in adulthood if we do not apply self-awareness. For instance, children who have a secure attachment can explore new situations and learn. In contrast, those with insecure attachments struggle to incorporate learning because that baseline physiology is not a stable foundation to build on. The constant need to be soothed on a physiological level supersedes our cognitive development making learning difficult. Teachers in grammar school classrooms are dealing with this every day, as they spend as much time helping students feel comfortable as they do teaching the subject material.
This failure to thrive is true for many adults, who fail to take appropriate risks, akin to trying new experiences, learning from past mistakes, and struggling to find relational security. While children do not have the cognitive ability to understand their underlying physiology, adults can utilize their cognitive capacities to self-examine their discomfort with their naturally attracted “familiar” situation. Instead of seeing it like it was an end in itself, they can vulnerably take a look at what their present circumstances are saying about themselves and their need to grow.
As adults, we seem to critique the quality of our job, relationships, etc., while failing to recognize that they are a place for us to challenge ourselves. In some way, this is no different than being dropped off during that first day of kindergarten, though now we are self-directed adults, responsible for incorporating accurate self-awareness into our approach to the world. Just like Hannah, we can learn to interpret our experience as it relates to our true self. This understanding will help us direct our lives and free us up to connect to the world in a growth-oriented and honest manner. This, after all, is the only way we can truly find meaning in life.
Previously published on “Change Becomes You”, a Medium publication.
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