Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP

Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP

Author, Mental Health Therapist, Researcher, Expert in Attachment Trauma

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Attachment in Adulthood – Early Bonding Contract

Lendora_Clifford_002Infants are born with a natural instinct to bond.  There is an innate fear that without a loving adult present, they will die.  Separation anxiety grows stronger throughout the first year of life, as the infant becomes more attached and feels even more dependent upon one or two primary attachment figures.  Although an infant does not yet have language, infants are wonderful observers and fast learners.  (Ninety percent of brain development occurs in the first two years of life!)  The infant begins developing a set of rules for himself to keep his parent closer and to ease his anxiety.  The rules are the essence of the “early bonding contract.” (I heard this term first from Bertrand Cramer, M.D., at a presentation at the Menninger’s Clinic in Topeka.)

A healthy bonding contract might include, “If I express my needs, I will get my needs met.  If I smile, I can get my parent to smile back.  I don’t have to worry, someone will always be there for me.”

But an infant in greater distress might hold the following rules: “I must keep quiet to keep my parent nearby,”  “I must blend into the woodwork,” “I must not have needs.”  Or another infant might find that the opposite rules are more effective:  “I must yell, scream, kick, and make myself heard in order to get someone to notice and give me what I need to live.”

Infants and children do what they have to do to survive.  If the bonding contract rules work for the infant, he can keep his anxiety at a low ebb.  If the rules work sometimes and not other times, the infant may stay continuously on high alert.

Later in life, an early bonding contract may become an “unlivable agreement” (a term I heard years ago from Landry Wildwind during an EMDR workshop) that causes problems in adulthood relationships.  If I learned to shut down my feelings and show no vulnerability in order to keep my attachment figures around, my partner or potential partner may find me  hardened and unfeeling.  If I learned to scream and yell to get my attachment figures to meet my needs, my partner or potential partner may find me demanding, dramatic, and overwhelming.  What worked to survive as an infant, may potentially sabotage my relationships in my adult life.

The real problem with the unlivable agreement, in my opinion, is its tenaciousness. Because the early bonding contract consists of rules for survival, and breaking those rules means potential annihilation, breaking the rules at any age sends alarms up through the nervous system.  One adult might say, “Expressing myself when I am supposed to be quiet makes me feel like I will die.”  Another might say, “Keeping calm and trusting that my partner will stay with me feels like a recipe for abandonment.”

I’m a big believer in the power of inner child work to address deep-seated beliefs and fears that are rooted in infancy and toddlerhood.  Creating a safe place for the younger self, providing safety, care, and nurturing through imagery can be a powerful tool for healing.  EMDR is a modality that increases the power by reaching into the limbic system with bilateral stimulation.  Awareness is the first step.  The rest consists of self-nurturing, self-compassion, healing, and intentional changes in small steps.

(The “Early Bonding Contract” is explained further in my book, “The Whole Parent: How to Become a Terrific Parent Even if You Didn’t Have One.”)

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