How Romantic Attachment Works – Free Ebook

This is a piece about attachment – geese,
jackdaws, a man called Konrad Lorenz – and

your love life.

Konrad Lorenz, who was born in 1903 and died
in 1989, was an Austrian ornithologist and

zoologist who spent most of his adult life
in marshes and wetlands studying the behaviour

of greylag geese and jackdaws. What particularly
interested him was how these birds seem to

develop an attachment to their mother from
within a few minutes of their birth, following

dutifully behind her and obeying her guidance
in matters of sheltering and feeding. His

observations led him to develop what is known
as ‘the principle of imprinting’, a theory

about the way in which nidifugous birds – that
is, birds that leave their nests just after

hatching – grow to develop an instinctive
and rapid bond with maternal figures.

But what Lorenz discovered in his research
was that, contrary to centuries of thinking,

birds like greylag geese and jackdaws do not
necessarily develop an attachment to their

real mother; they develop an attachment to
the first moving object that they lay eyes

on within hours of hatching. They aren’t
able to discriminate in any sophisticated

way about who they form an attachment to:
it might be a kindly maternal bird, but it

could also be an indifferent farmer or a random
piece of agricultural machinery. Rather cruelly

but illuminatingly, Lorenz showed that a young
bird can – depending on the experiment – develop

an extremely powerful attachment to a scientist
in Wellington boots, a bicycle, a tire, a

garden hose or a mannequin.

Lorenz’s most famous book, “The Companion
in the Environment of Birds” published in

1935 talked exclusively of winged creatures,
but it was seized upon by psychologists reflecting

on human behaviour – and used to shed light
on a particularly painful phenomenon of our

love lives: our tendency to seek out and trot
obediently behind other humans who may not,

all things considered, be in any substantial
way fitting or appropriate for us.

Just like young birds, young humans develop
powerful attachments to the adults who are

closest to them in their early days. Yet also
rather like birds, they are unable to discriminate

very well between care-givers. They latch
on to who is around, not what their deeper

nature would ideally call for. They can, at
the most extreme, develop attachments to people

who not deserve their love at all, who are

  • as it were – as relevant to their needs

as a bicycle is to a goose. An infant might
not actually become attached to a tire, but

they might – in a comparable process – grow
powerfully impressed by someone who neglects

them emotionally, who belittles them, makes
them feel ashamed and visits considerable

cruelty upon them.

Far worse, this early imprinting then has
the power to govern the sort of lovers who

these people, once they are grown, find themselves
growing attached to in turn. With some of

the same sort of almost laughable impressionability
evinced by baby jackdaws trotting behind a

scientist in a lab coat, an adult who has
been imprinted with unhelpful ideas about

who should give them care and nurture may
spend decades devoting themselves to the most

inappropriate and callous figures.

It seems – via Lorenz’s work – that our
biological make-up privileges attachment to

anyone over attachment to someone able to
fulfill our needs. We are sometimes puzzled

by how frequently we find ourselves in love
with people whom we know – at a rational level

  • are not going to be good for us, but who
    mirror the disturbing patterns of our attachments

from early childhood. The process may seem
deeply dispiriting but Lorenz’s work opens

up an avenue of compassion. We may be a great
deal more sophisticated than birds in our

mental processes, but when it comes to whom
we are drawn to, we are prey to some of the

same mechanical illogicality as they. It can
take years and a lot of work to realise we

are imprinted to follow fools and ingrates.
When we trot without question behind a person

who treats us coldly or plays with our mind,
we should not merely hate ourselves: we should

reflect on how much this unfulfilling adult
mirrors an early attachment figure who indirectly

mocked who we were before we had a chance
to understand ourselves and what we deserved.

It is no insult to recognise that we are sometimes,
in intimate areas of our lives, as helpless

before the workings of imprinting as a goose.
And yet, as always, it’s by realising our

servitude that we have a chance to break free
from it. We are not compelled to follow incessantly

behind someone unworthy of our love. We are

  • as young birds are not – free to take off

and seek out someone better able to deliver
in an adult form the generous and life-enhancing

love we should have known from the first.

For more about love, try our book on how to find love which explains why we have the types we do and how our early experiences shape how and who we love.

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