How does bonding happen?

I don't understand how the "we" unit evolves because I never saw it happen with my parents.

Published October 14, 2003 7:43PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I find relationships impossible. I always choose people who are unworthy. Men who put me down, reject me, yada yada. They all seem so nice to begin with. But I think the problem is that my parents were never a "we," as in a unit. There was my father and then the rest of us. I never really bonded with either of them. How do people form those bonds? How does the "we" unit evolve?

Also, at what point in getting to know someone, platonic or otherwise, do you reveal things such as "I had a miserable childhood and I struggle every day with low self-esteem"? Such revelations are essential for intimacy, but even the most well-meaning people are stunned by my descriptions of childhood abuse and I feel they regard me as defective afterward.

Making a Break for It

Dear Making a Break,

You ask a good question -- How do people form "those bonds," and how does a "we" unit evolve? I guess the most important thing to understand is that they don't happen by magic. If you had been lucky enough to experience those bonds as a child, it would only be because your father and mother had built them. Some people are gifted at building such bonds and they do it with an ease and competence that seems so natural you might think it is unconscious and magical. Others have to struggle consciously to do it. But either way, the bonds that get formed in childhood and that you then use as a model later in life are formed by people interacting with each other in certain comprehensible ways.

If he had formed a bond with you, your father would have involved you in activities through which you discovered the world of emotion and consequence, of payback and restraint, of shared victory and shared embarrassment, of mutual admiration and mutual dislike, and a million other specific patterns of human interaction and sensibility. That's what a bond is made up of: shared experiences that form memories on which future expectations are based; a peculiar fondness for some tic or idiosyncrasy; the pattern of predictability that sets the stage for surprise. Et cetera. The whole panoply of human folly and grandeur.

Since your parents didn't build those kinds of bonds with you, you didn't learn how to build them with others, and now you have to start from scratch. Don't worry. You are young. Your capacities for human connection are nearly limitless. You just have to start out and do it. Interact with people. Watch what you feel. Identify what you like and what you don't. Study why that is. Look for repetition. Look for surprise and delight. Trust your instincts, but keep your own counsel. You build bonds by making promises and keeping them. You show up on time and do what you said you were going to do. By doing so you become a solid person in the eyes of others; when they sense you are solid they feel connected to you. They feel they know who you are. They don't fear you. You're not a mystery or an irritation to them. They feel there's a bond there.

You don't have to spill your guts about your past in order to form a bond with someone. In fact, you want to form the bond first, and nourish it, make sure it's strong, before you begin testing it with revelations about your emotionally painful past. It's sort of like an account; you want to make sure there's some money in it before you begin drawing on it. To make disturbing confessions about your past is to apply for deeper responsibility and commitment in the relationship. You don't want to do that before the other person feels ready to take on the responsibility of knowing so much about what you've been through. So put down the burden of your past lightly. Leave it out on the street. Let it go. Be elliptical about your past. Be circumspect. Don't parade it around. Let people ask -- give them a little control over how much they learn about you and how quickly.

So, in a nutshell, my advice to you would be to concentrate on what you can do now to form strong bonds with people through activities, shared interests and the like. Leave the past alone for now. Some of us were born rich and some were born poor. Some of us got what we needed from our families and some did not. There's nothing you can do to change that. But you have a marvelous life ahead of you, if you're willing to live it.

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By Cary Tennis

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