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Sweet Sorrow: Love, Loss and Attachment in Human Life

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This book defines the centrality of love and loss in human life and in human meaning. Bowlby's Attachment theory forms the basis for understanding our selves and our relationships. Alan Eppel proposes that love is the subjective experience of attachment and that dyadic relationships are the source of ultimate meaning. He supports his theses with a tour de force integration of ideas from attachment theory, psychoanalysis, neuroscience and existential philosophy. He argues that the quality of attachment between mother and infant lays the foundation for the formation of individual identity and ultimately shapes our capacity to engage in relationships with others. Eppel describes loss as the reciprocal of attachment and considers the enormous influence of loss on our moods, sense of identity, and our desire to live or die. The final segments of the book describe the implications of this analysis and links it to the meaning and purpose of human life.All of us seek to understand the meaning of life, and especially the meaning of our own lives. Anyone with a curiosity about love and loss will find this book attractive, as it provides insight and illumination to many of the human circumstances that people encounter in their day to day lives. It will appeal to sophisticated lay readers in addition to various categories of student and professional audiences. It will be of interest to psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, philosophers, neuroscientists and sociologists. Readers with a background mainly in the arts and humanities will find it appealing because of its linkages and use of poetry, song and visual art to elucidate and illustrate the major propositions of the book.

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CHAPTER ONE: Attachment

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The human infant commences life with an unwelcome propulsion from its mother’s womb. The umbilical cord is quite literally and unceremoniously cut. The infant is for the first time separate from its mother. And it is here with this radical transforming event that I will begin our exploration of human nature.

One can imagine in early human environments and certainly in animal environments that there would be inherent dangers if the infant took it upon himself to venture forth into the world and lose contact with its mother. The mother is the provider of food and protection from predators. It was the British psychiatrist John Bowlby in his groundbreaking work, “Attachment and Loss”, who put forth the concept of “Attachment”. Attachment is an inborn biological drive within the infant that causes it to remain in close proximity to its mother. The impulse to attach is one of the most fundamental dimensions of human nature and consequently a fitting place to start our inquiry.

It is now well established that the attainment of secure attachment in childhood is essential for the normal development of the human infant. It provides the basis for the development of normal relationships with parents, siblings and eventually with a spouse or partner.

 

CHAPTER TWO: Love

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Perhaps more than anything else in this world, we all long for love: more than money, more than power, more even than sex. But love remains difficult to define, it possesses an enigmatic quality, beyond words, beyond rationality.

I started this discussion in chapter one with a review of attachment and that is because attachment and love are two sides of the same coin. Love is the subjective feeling part of attachment: the cluster of emotions and sensations we know as love in our own experiences.

Attachment is also intimately related to separation. Separation is the reciprocal of attachment. Similarly grief is the reciprocal of love. In the great artistic portrayals of love, the intensity of the drama is fuelled by the prospect and then the reality of separation and loss e.g. Romeo and Juliet:

“Wilt thou be gone?
It is not yet near day. It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.
Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.
Believe me love, it was the nightingale.”

 

CHAPTER THREE: Formation of identity

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To comprehend the shattering effect that loss has on our lives, we must first examine the process of identity. The idea of identity is hard to grasp and is frequently misunderstood. Identity is often mistaken for “role”. We have many roles in our lives. A woman may be a mother, a teacher, a tennis player, a wife, a daughter, a sister, and an artist. These roles consist of different forms of behaviour in different relationships and environments. The concept of identity goes deeper than this. Identity is that inner sense of who we are as persons and is made up of our inner feelings, our view of ourselves, and our consistent responses to others. Identity is continuous over time. There are a number of interrelated terms that may cause the reader some confusion: “identity”, “personality”, “role”, “ego” and “self “. In my defence I must plead that there are no universally agreed definitions of these terms nor even a universal acceptance of their existence! I will therefore put forward somedefinitions in the interests of precision and clarity. Personality is the sum of the enduring features of an individual that are observable by others. It includes habitual moods, attitudes, values and behaviours. This is what we can see from the outside: recurrent modes of relating. We can also talk about “personality disorders”. These are recurrent maladaptive patterns of behaviour and relating, that cause problems for the individual or to those around him. Roles are a subset of personality and consist of those patterns that manifest in a particular context. For example a teacher will employ a role in the classroom that may be very different to his role at home as a father. In some respects we are all like the chameleon. Our roles are somewhat fluid and change in different situations; the visible parts of our personalities shift depending on the current social or interpersonal context.

 

CHAPTER FOUR: Emotions and moods

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Mood is emotion sustained over a period of time. To appreciate the role of mood in love and loss, I will first review the nature and function of the key emotions. In addition to love, a series of other emotions play a dominant role in our everyday lives, the emotions of anger, fear, joy, sadness and playfulness. These emotions are universal throughout human society and are evident in our mammalian ancestors. But just what is an emotion? When we feel fear or anger, just what are we in fact feeling? What is the source of such feelings?

The human brain has evolved from its animal precursors over millions of years. Broadly we can view the brain as having a three-part structure (Maclean, 1973): 1) the Reptilian brain, which we share with our reptile ancestors; 2) the Paleomammalian and 3) the Neomamma-lian brain. The Neomamalian brain includes the vast human neocortex which gives humans advanced intellectual and language abilities.

Our emotions arise from the older Reptilian and Paleommalian regions. These regions constitute the Limbic System (Papez), which is largely located below the cortex.

 

CHAPTER FIVE: Psychiatric disorders and love and loss

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The meaning and significance of the concept of “personality”, as we saw in chapter three, has been the subject of debate for many decades. Within psychiatry two types of personalities are broadly recognized, those that are deemed normal and those that are deemed abnormal. Personality refers to enduring traits and characteristics of an individual that persist throughout his life and are formed early in development.

Personality type is determined by a combination of inborn temperaments, the quality of attachment relationships and later life events. Each personality type is distinguished by an associated combination of defence mechanisms. For example obsessive personality is associated with the defences of intellectualization and reaction formation; projection is one of the defences routinely seen in people with borderline personality.Many of the personality disorders are commonly recognized within our culture and vernacular. We have all heard of narcissistic, obsessive, histrionic and dependent personality types. In the official classification of the American Psychiatric Association, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) 4th edition, each personality disorder has a list of criteria which must be fulfilled in order for a diagnosis to be made. This classification gives the mistaken impression that personality types are in fact unique categories. In reality, nobody is a pure narcissist or pure obsessive. We all possess many of the traits found in the different personality disorder types. In fact, a dimensional view of personality would be more accurate in that all of these individual traits exist in gradations. For example, some people may be more obsessive than others, but most of us probably have some degree of obsessive traits such as conscientiousness and orderliness. Similarly most of us have dependent and narcissistic traits, which vary in degree along a continuum.

 

CHAPTER SIX: Deviations of love and sexual desire

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The terms perversion and sexual deviation are controversial and carry with them discordant views about autonomy and social behaviour. In official psychiatric classification these terms have been replaced by the term “paraphilias” which means “disorders of love”. The controversies pertain to the definition of the boundaries of human sexual conduct. I will leave aside the question of what is considered “normal” sexual behaviour in contemporary society. I will start this discussion from an historical Freudian point of view without implications as to which behaviours are sanctioned in the present day. I use the Freudian metaphor because up until recently we have had no other language with which to attempt to explain the nature and deviations of man’s sexual behaviour. We must remember that Freud’s original aspirations were to develop a biological theory of mental functioning but because of the paucity of scientific information at the time, he was forced to develop a “metapsychological” theory of the mind. In the absence of a fundamental understanding ofthe underlying biology and physiology, he used the term “metapsy-chology” to refer to a series of conceptual constructs (e.g. ego, superego, id, drives, defences) that constitute an analogous or metaphorical parallel to underlying neurobiological processes. It is only in the last two decades that some of the underlying neurobiological workings of the brain have been elaborated. Freud grouped deviations of the sexual instinct into two categories: deviations with respect to the sexual object and deviations with respect to the sexual aim. Freud used the term “sexual object” to refer to the person who is sexually attracting; sexual aim refers to the nature of the sexual act. For Freud the normal expression of sexual behaviour was the choice of a member of the opposite sex as an object, and the joining of the genital organs, the normal aim of sexual intercourse. However, Freud goes on to say:

 

CHAPTER SEVEN: Loss

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Separation from the one we love propels us into a state of all-consuming sorrow. Loss of the love object gives rise to the same emotions that occur when an infant is separated from its primary attachment, “We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so forlornly unhappy as when we have lost our love object or its love” (Freud, 1930a, p. 82). Freud determined that grief is the reaction specific to object loss and occurs following the loss. In contrast anxiety is a response to the prospect of losing the love object and arises when there is a threat to the continuation of the relationship. These dynamics are masterfully conveyed by Shakespeare in “Romeo and Juliet”, the couple that inspired the title of this book:

“Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,”

(Act 3 scene 5)

We can hear the apprehension in Juliet’s voice as she tries to postpone Romeo’s departure which must come at the break of day. In the ensuing lines of the tragedy, there is a rising level of anxiety as both Juliet and Romeo are forced to face the inevitability of their separation. Juliet urgently implores Romeo not to go and he in turn is prepared to risk death in order to remain with her:

 

CHAPTER EIGHT: Suicide

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Suicide can be the final act that follows the dance of love and loss. Suicide is the deliberate act of ending one’s life, literally “self-murder”. Albert Camus in the “The Myth of Sisyphus” confronting the absurdity of life, wrote that there is “but one serious philosophic problem and that is suicide”(Camus, 1991, p. 3).

When a suicide attempt results in the individual’s death it is described as a “completed suicide”. This is preferable to the description “successful suicide” which is a contradiction that fails to convey the actual horror of the event. Suicide is the ultimate form of self-injury but there are other gradations. In psychiatric practice we distinguish individuals who inflict pain on themselves but who do not intend to kill themselves. Infliction of pain may take many forms, cutting, burning, scalding, banging. Such behaviours are more common in individuals who have experienced physical, sexual or psychological abuse in childhood. Such abuse can give rise to self-hatred and a craving for self-punishment. Cutting, in particular, is very common. Such individuals may repeatedly cut their arms, theback of their legs or thighs. The cuts are usually superficial and not life threatening. Patients with more intense self-loathing may cut more deeply which increases the pain level and flow of blood. Some patients have told me that they need to cut deep in order to see the blood; it is only then that they experience a sense of relief.

 

CHAPTER NINE: Meaning of time as a prelude to meaning

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The universe began over 13 billion years ago, one-trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Such time spans are beyond the range of human comprehension. Within this framework the existence of humans as a species is infinitesimally insignificant. The span of a human life whether of 7 years or 70, is almost irrelevant from the perspective of cosmic time. The notion of time itself is mysterious and has defied definition by ancient Greek philosophers as well as by present day astrophysicists. We feel that time flows inexorably. But if so what is actually flowing?

In the world of Newton, the occurrence of one event “A” can be clearly defined in relation to the occurrence of a later second event “B”. The interval between event “A” and event “B” is well demarcated and absolute. If this interval is zero, events “A” and “B” are said to be simultaneous.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity shattered the intuitively sound Newtonian framework. In Relativity the temporal interval betweentwo points is not absolute and depends on the observer’s frame of reference. Within one frame of reference event B will appear to follow event A. From another frame of reference in a different part of the universe, event A will appear to follow event B and within another A and B will occur simultaneously!

 

CHAPTER TEN: Meaning

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The question of the meaning of life has preoccupied humans since the evolution of the faculty of consciousness. For us the span from birth to death is a mere 50 to 80 years, an infinitesimal amount in the context of a universe, billions of years old. What then is to be made of the purpose of human life over this brief time?

The search for meaning in life is important to those who already have their basic survival needs satisfied. For those groups of people still struggling to obtain the basic necessities of life, safety, shelter, food and sustenance, the search for meaning may be displaced by the urgent demands of survival. For people in developed Western societies who take many of these survival basics for granted, there may arise a troublesome apprehension as to the purpose and meaning of life. We thirst to know if we are the product of some universal divine plan or the random concatenation of molecules that led to the formation of DNA. Is the purpose of life to transcend the material world in order to achieve moral or idealistic purity? If so, to paraphrase Schopenhauer, the divine plan (now often referred to as “intelligent design” ) appears to have gone badly astray based on the observable results!

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN: The love connection

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Love is a search for completion. In the Symposium Plato describes humans as having eight limbs, two faces and two sets of genitals. Because of human arrogance, Zeus cut the humans in half and scattered the halves in opposite directions. Humans are always searching for their complementary half. Eros (love) is the desire to become one again, to become whole. In accounts of love, as we have seen, the theme of union and merger is a recurrent one. This is evident in great art such as Munch’s “The Kiss” (Figure 2) and in poetry and song:

“When love, with one another so
Interinanimates two souls,
That abler soul, which thence doth flow,
Defects of loneliness controls”.

John Donne. The Ecstasy

For Donne loneliness is overcome when two souls unite in a new “abler soul”.And again themes of union:

“But we will have a way more liberal
Than changing hearts, to join them; so we shall
Be one, and one another’s all”.

John Donne. Lover’s Infi niteness

Ethel Person (2007) states “passionate love tends to overcome the pain of separation, separateness and the felt inadequacies of the solitary self, through merger with the Other”. Pearson writes that although lovers may strive for complete merger, this cannot take place, but there are “ecstatic moments of merger” which are experienced as “epiphanies”. During these times, there is a loss or partial loss of ego boundaries which is accompanied by a sense of “timelessness, bliss and transcendence” (page 103–4). I would add to her formulation the following question: Is this the return to the original dyadic state between mother and infant, with its sense of satiety and complete fulfilment?

 

CHAPTER TWELVE: Conclusion

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Based on the arguments and propositions developed throughout this book, I can now address the questions raised in the introduction:

All of us seek to understand the meaning of life, and especially the meaning of our own lives. We struggle with the mysteries of birth and death, of love and loss. These are fundamental to our nature as human beings. But what drives us? What impels us on our daily round of tasks and relationships? What propels us forward in pursuit of what unclear purpose, what ill- defi ned and hazy consummation?

My conclusion is that the purpose of life is to strive for the discovery and expression of the life-affirming components of the true self. The discovery or perhaps recovery of the true self occurs in the authentic and timeless encounter between two people. It is the rediscovery of elements of the primary attachments in the joining together of two human beings. I propose to call relationships that fulfil this promise, as described in Chapter Eleven, “resonant relationships.”

 

Neuroscience glossary

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Affect: the subjective feeling part of emotion.

Amygdala: a small almond shaped structure located deep in the front part of the temporal lobe, made up of a number of nuclei. The amygdala plays important roles in the expression of aggression and fear, has an important role in memory in relation to emotionally charged events and the ability to make social interpretations of facial expressions.

Basal Ganglia: a group of neuron clusters located deep inside the cortex. They facilitate movement. Their function is impaired in Parkinson’s disease.

Cerebellum: a lobular structure at the back of the brain. It is behind and below the occipital lobe and functions to coordinate movement.

Cerebral cortex: a convoluted outer layer of grey matter made up of nerve cells and their connections. This is the most recent part of the brain that achieves its most full evolution in the human. It is divided into several regions: the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe and the occipital lobe. The left side of the cerebral cortex is involved in logical processing such as speech and mathematics; the right side is related to global and impressionistic thinking, spatial relationships and emotions.Cingulate gyrus: a long semicircular tract running below the main part of the cerebral cortex towards the centre of the brain. The anterior cingulate is connected to the amygdala, the posterior cingulate is connected to the hippocampus.

 

Psychoanalytic glossary

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Conflict theory: Freud’s theory that human behaviour is determined by inner conflicts between opposing mental forces. There is conflict between the drives of the id and the rational requirements of the ego.

Death instinct: the tendency of every living thing to return to the inorganic state.

Defences: unconscious automatic mental processes that serve to reduce anxiety in response to internal or external threats. Common defence mechanisms are sublimation, displacement, reaction formation, projection, and humour.

Drive theory: Freud’s view that drives are central in human development and behaviour. The principle drives are the sexual and aggressive drives.

Ego: refers to the rational thinking part of the brain that mediates between internal drives of the id and the requirements of social reality and moral standards.

Eros: refers to the life instincts, which includes the sexual instinct and the instincts for self-preservation.

Id: refers to the unconscious instinctual drives, which include aggression and sexuality.Instinct: an inborn striving that seeks expression such as the sexual instinct. Instincts have an inner bodily source and have an aim directed towards an object.

 

Brief biographical sketches of key figures

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Michael Balint: (1896–1970) Hungarian analyst and one of the members of the British psychoanalytic society. Described “primary love”.

Jacob Bronowski: (1908–1974) Born in Poland and educated at Cambridge where he conducted mathematical research. Held several important research and scientific advisory positions in the British Government during and after World War II. He subsequently moved to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla California. He wrote eloquently on the relationship between science and human values.

John Bowlby: (1907–1990) British psychoanalyst who conceptualized Attachment theory. He worked for many years at the Tavistock Clinic in London and was a member of the Medical Research Council. Author of the groundbreaking trilogy: Attachment, Separation, and Loss.

W.R.D. Fairbairn: (1889–1964) Scottish psychiatrist. A central figure in the British object relations school postulated that object seeking is the primary human drive.

Kahlil Gibran: (1883–1931) Born in Lebanon, settled in the United States. Poet, philosopher and artist.

 

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