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[R]omantic love is a biological ballet. It is evolution's way of making sure that sexual partners meet and mate, then give their child the care it needs to be healthy and make loving attachments of its own. This isn't a simple or fast process. The human brain is so complex, the mind so ingenious, that biology and experience work hand in hand. People usually undergo a series of crushes, infatuations, and loves between infancy and adulthood. They learn to make magnetic attachments, whose power they feel in their cells, in their bones. Thinking about the loved one steers their every thought, and they would die rather than break the force field of their devotion. It is as if they were two stars, tightly orbiting each other, each feeding on the other's gravity. Because nothing and no one in time or creation seems to matter more, a broken relationship rips the lining from the heart, crushes the rib cage, shatters the lens of hope, and produces a drama both tragic and predictable. Wailing out loud or silently, clawing at the world and at one's self, the abandoned lover mourns.

How do we learn to grieve? Society provides customs and rituals, but it's a behavior the body knows by heart. First we protest and refuse to accept the truth; we keep thinking the loved one will magically return. Next we sob a torrent of tears. Then we sink into despair; the world sags under the dead weight of our pain. And at long last we mourn. In time, we gather our strengths like so many lost buttons and begin searching for a likely attachment once again.

But suppose a child is orphaned or abused? When, through malevolence or circumstance, the early bond between parent and child is damaged, the psychological repercussions are profound. Such a person may end up with marital problems, personality disorders, neuroses, or difficulty in parenting. A love-thwarted child spends its life searching for that safe, secure relationship and absolutely loving heart which is its birthright. As an adult, missing cues that might lead to just such a relationship, it judges people harshly, trusts no one, and becomes exiled and alone. A child that's unsafe, or rejected, or deprived of affection, feels anxious, becomes obsessively clingy, and doesn't take many chances. Assuming that it will be spurned, that it is the sort of person one could only reject, it may try to be self-sufficient and disinherit love, not risk asking anyone ever to truly care. Such a child becomes afflicted with itself, and needs no other accuser, no other lynch mob. It feels as if it has been caught red-handed in the midst of a felony — its life. Is there no salvation for such a damaged child? Studies show that even one continuously sympathetic caregiver in childhood can make the difference between a seriously disturbed adult or someone who is nearly invincible. Ideally, there would be a parent whom the child perceives as its partisan, apologist, patron, devotee, grubstaker, well-wisher, and admirer rolled into one. But the minimum is one reliable guardian angel — not necessarily a parent, just someone who is always there, cheering in the dugout, steadfast through both strikeouts and home runs.

Cornell psychologist Cindy Hazan and her colleagues have gone so far as to chart the direct parallels between the many stages of childhood attachment and adult romantic love. What they found is that childhood experiences do trigger, and sometimes garble or distort, the love relationships made later. But nothing is cast in stone. As the child grows, it forges new attachments and some of these may dilute bad childhood experiences. This is an important conclusion, because it suggests that abused children — who are, essentially, loving disabled — may still be helped later in life. As anyone who has received or dispensed psychotherapy knows, it's a profession whose mainspring is love. Nearly everyone who visits a therapist has a love disorder of one sort or another, and each has a story to tell — of love lost or denied, love twisted or betrayed, love perverted or shackled to violence. Broken attachments litter the office floors like pick-up-sticks. People appear with frayed seams and spilling pockets. Some appear pathologically disheartened by a childhood filled with hazard, molestation, and reproach. Mutilés de guerre, they are invisibly handicapped, veterans of a war they didn't even know they were fighting. What battlefield could be more fierce, what enemy more dear?

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of Love
Copyright © 1994 by Diane Ackerman. All rights reserved.

Posted 25 March 2000

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