Separation and Emotional Scars

Severe separations in early life leave emotional scars on the brain because they assault the essential human connection, which is the mother-child bond that teaches us that we are lovable. The mother-child bond also teaches us how to love. We cannot be whole human beings — indeed, we may find it hard to be human — without the sustenance of this first attachment. And yet it has been argued that the need for others is not a primary instinct, that love is simply a wonderful side effect. The classic Freudian view is that babies find, in the feeding experience, relief from hunger and other oral fixations and that, in repeated encounters of sucking and sipping and sweet satiation, they begin to equate satisfaction with human contact. In the early months of life a meal is a meal and gratification is gratification.

I believe, however, that the need for human connection is paramount to our existence. We are social beings. We do not do well in isolation for a number of reasons. The basic need for human relationships is the perpetuation of the species. It is also obvious that many tasks are easier with another person helping you. It is in the best interest of humanity that we interact, aid, share, communicate, encourage, evaluate, promote, judge, advise and show support between each other. Of course, no man is an island. So what is the cost of separation?

It is generally agreed that by six to eight months most babies have formed a specific mother attachment. It is then that we all, for the first time, fall in love. And whether or not that love is linked to a fundamental need for human attachment, it possesses an intensity that will make us vulnerable to the loss — or even the threat of loss — of a loved one. And if a reliable early attachment is vitally important to healthy development, the cost of breaking that crucial bond — in other words, the cost of separation — may be high. The cost of separation is high when a too-young child is left too long alone, or is passed from foster home to foster home, or is placed in a nursery by a mother who says she’ll come back. Even worse is the separation a baby feels when he or she is dropped off at a “safe haven” at a fire station or ER and never sees mommy again. The cost of separation is high even in caring family situations when a divorce, a hospital stay, a geographical or emotional pulling away, fragments a child’s connection with his mother.

Now of course there will be separations in early childhood. And they may indeed produce distress and pain. But most normal separations, within the context of a stable, caring relationship, aren’t likely to leave us with scars on the brain. And yes, working mothers and babies can establish a loving, trusting bond. This is accomplished hundreds of thousands of times over day after day in America. But when separation imperils that early attachment, it is difficult to build confidence, to build trust, to acquire the conviction that throughout the course of our life we will find others to meet our needs. And when our first connections are unreliable or broken or impaired, we may transfer that experience, and our responses to that experience, onto what we expect from our children, our friends, our marriage partner, even our business partner.

Expecting to be abandoned, we hang on for dear life. We say things like Don’t leave me. Without you I am nothing. If you aren’t around, I have no reason to live. Expecting to be betrayed, we seize on every flaw and lapse. We make comments like See, I might have known I couldn’t trust you.

Expecting to be refused, we make excessive aggressive demands, furious in advance that they will not be met. Expecting to be disappointed, we make certain that, sooner or later, we are in fact disappointed. Fearful of separation, we establish anxious and angry attachments. And frequently, we bring to fruition those things which we feared. Driving away those we love by our clinging dependency or our needy rage. Fearful of separation, we repeat without remembering our history, imposing upon current circumstances our previous habits and behaviors.

I am not suggesting that we consciously remember experiences from early childhood loss by summoning up a picture of us sitting alone somewhere in a crib with mother nowhere to be found. What stays with us instead is what it surely must have felt like to be powerless and needy and alone. Forty years later, a door slams shut, and a woman is swept with waves of primitive terror. That anxiety is her “memory” of loss. Loss gives rise to anxiety when the loss is either impending or thought to be temporary. Anxiety contains a kernel of hope. But when loss appears to be permanent, anxiety (that is, protest) gives way to depression and despair, and we may not only feel lonely and sad but responsible for the bad thing that happened. We may feel helpless and unlovable and hopeless

I’ve read about studies that show how early childhood losses make us sensitive to losses we encounter later on. And so, in mid-life, our responses to a death in the family, a divorce, the loss of a job, may be a severe depression —  the response of that helpless and hopeless and angry child.

Anxiety is painful. Depression is painful. I’ve been there. Panic attacks that cause nausea, chest pain, dizziness, ringing in the ears, severe shakes. Depression that causes horrible stomach pains and neck and low back pain. Perhaps it is safer not to experience loss. And while we indeed may be powerless to prevent a death or divorce — or our mother leaving us — we can develop strategies that defend us against the pain of separation. Emotional detachment is one such defense. We cannot lose someone we care for if we don’t care. The child who wants his mother, and whose mother again and again and again isn’t there, may learn that loving and needing hurt too much. And he may, in his future relationships, ask and give little, invest almost nothing at all, and become detached — like a rock — because “a rock,” as a song from the sixties tells us, feels no pain. And an island never cries.

Another defense against loss may be a compulsive need to take care of other people. Instead of aching, we help those who ache. And through our kind ministrations, we both alleviate our old sense of helplessness and identify with those we care for so well. A third defense is a premature autonomy. We claim independence far too soon. We learn at an early age not to let our survival depend on the help or love of anyone. We dress the helpless child in the brittle armor of the self-reliant adult.

These losses we have been looking at — these premature separations of early childhood — may skew our expectations and our responses, may skew our subsequent dealings with the necessary losses of our life. All of our loss experiences hark back to Original Loss, the loss of that ultimate mother-child connection. For before we begin to encounter the inevitable separations of everyday life, we live in a state of oneness with our mother. Think of this: there is no connection, no bliss, quite like that of the umbilical cord. Losing that connection is the first in a series of devastating losses. When newborn babies are not fed regularly when they are hungry, this is another devastating loss. Their psyche is actually damaged. It’s not just a loss of nutrition; it’s a loss of a primitive bond between baby and mommy. If this continues, the child develops problems on a number of levels. Disappointment becomes a familiar cloud hovering over the child’s life. Fear is also injected into his existence. And, again, there is a failure to satisfy the basic instinct of needing to eat. He feels rejected and abandoned and helpless. Hunger actually causes a newborn baby pain that he or she cannot understand. It simply hurts to be starving.

What is interesting is all of us live, at some unconscious level, as if we had been rendered incomplete by our upbringing. Though the rupture of primary unity is a necessary loss, it remains an incurable wound which afflicts the destiny of the whole human race. And speaking to us through the dreams that we dream and the tales that we create, images of reunion persist and persist, and persist — and bracket our life. So again, severe separations in early life leave emotional scars on the brain because they assault the essential human connection. When that essential connection is damaged or, in worse cases, cut off, it puts us at a complete disadvantage when dealing with others in our young adult and adult life. We are social beings, and furtherance of the human race must by necessity count on our having learned how to bond, to trust, to believe, to contribute, and to care about the outcome of our interpersonal relationships. How can we love others and show empathy and compassion if we never bonded appropriately as a child?


I’ve been less than connected to others during much of my life. I often felt dark inside. Unable to receive light. To use it in any way. Such as to cast meaning and clarity on a situation. To show me a direction. To give sight where it doesn’t seem to exist. It’s a singularly lonely feeling. There is an inability to latch on to others in any significant way. Sometimes it feels like you’re the only one in the room in spite of the cast of thousands swarming around you. You can’t even hear others breathing. Eye contact is not possible. The gaze of others is so bright it causes you to squint and guard your eyes. All that content, coming at you all at once. Blinding you. Confusing you. Causing you to shut down. Which makes it all the more impossible to go outside of your self. Which, of course, lends itself to cold, blanketing, deep isolation from others.

I felt that way a lot. Communication was painful. Nauseating. I was fully shut down most of my childhood. We moved a lot as a family, which made my antisocial behavior commonplace. It wasn’t just about girls. I liked them. Obsessed over them. Oh, their lips and their curves. I was aware of every girl in the room. Not that I believed they were attainable. I had too many problems dealing with people in general. Add sexual tension, and I was frozen in place.

I think that’s why it’s so fascinating that my first best friend was Lynn. She was cute. Not gorgeous. She had a fast reputation as a young woman. Unique, and otherworldly. Lynn definitely danced her own way. She did things she wanted to, and she had no real sense of restraint. Her eyes were bright. Wide open. Telling. Funny thing though: I didn’t need to squint when I looked at her. The brightness I shied away from in others was warm and subdued in Lynn’s gaze. It was beyond a gaze, actually. It was a gentle peek inside. There was nothing threatening or overwhelming about her contact. I felt warm and alive when she looked at me. I felt aroused. Nothing too deep or complicated. No rules. No agenda. Just a slow sucking in. A natural feeling of compatibility. A very special feeling.

I didn’t quite understand what was going on between Lynn and I. We were not officially dating. But we were joined somehow. It was as if we’d been gliding on a pathway that led to discovery and comprehension. No one ever understood me before Lynn. Freak that I was, I couldn’t make friends. I couldn’t behave long enough for my parents to be proud of me. They certainly didn’t understand me. I was lost even to myself, and so I couldn’t explain it. I had no respect for the feelings of others. You were no more than an object for me to use for my own ends. My ends were justified in my mind. There was only one way: the way I chose to go. I saw no other paths. I considered no consequences. Certainly, it was no concern to me how my behavior would effect someone else. This was, of course, the very root of my lack of friends. Even when my mistakes were pointed out to me, I couldn’t see them.

Except when they were pointed out by Lynn. She was gentle about it. It was as if she wanted me to learn something about myself that would lead to a happier life. She understood my isolation and hoped to teach me of its source. She knew it wasn’t of my own doing. It was because of things that were done to me. My isolation was because of others. Lynn didn’t want me blaming myself for my lack of friendships despite my bad habits and bad behaviors. She knew the egg in this case came before the chicken. My personality was hatched, in other words. Who I was and how I acted was a byproduct of how I was treated. Things were done to me that affected me deeply.

Some days I wish Lynn were still here. She died of ovarian cancer ten years ago.


That hatred you have for everyone, that global anger,
Is going to kill you.
It doesn’t matter how justified you are, or how wrong the other person is.
You can fume and cuss and scream, complain and blame everything on others,
But it’s just going to eat you alive.
You can get pissed off at me for telling you this,
Give me the cold stare and refuse to talk to me
Until the end of time, but it won’t change a thing.
Hatred will kill you.

1998 Steven Barto