From an early age, we have been raised on bread and independence.

The thirst for independence is something that willingly or unwillingly is part of us.

Depending on the latitude, some were weaned on tomato noodles and the need for autonomy, others on a carbo first course, or protein, followed by the ever-present side dish of emancipation and freedom.

Between twelve and eighteen months, we human puppies learn to get rid of the diaper, then to ask for help to go to the bathroom, and finally, to make do.

We like DIY right away, and a lot.

Autonomy is “magic!” It makes us feel already grown up even when we are still as tall as a stool. Already independent, already free from the bondage of having to ask permission, or help….

Then we grow, in height, weight and number of cells. And with us grows our need to emancipate ourselves.

Suddenly, not only do we want to be freer, but the idea of having to depend on someone else begins to cling to us.

Not surprisingly, in northern European countries, teenagers take off early, leaving the parental nest even before they turn eighteen. In other places, including but not limited to Italy, we come across teenagers who have passed their thirties (and sometimes forties!) birthdays but still live with mom and dad…

This need for emancipation is both very ancient, I would say ancestral, and quite recent: both physiological and historical.

From the physiological point of view, common to all living organisms, the need to “take flight” has to do with the transition from childhood to adulthood. That is, toward the time when, from a biological point of view, our body is ready to reproduce and thus fulfill its equally biological primary purpose. We humans feel this physiological need, but adolescent possums, tiger cubs, and young buzzards also experience it.

On the other, the one related to recent human history, the need for emancipation is a phenomenon that is linked to our most sacred rights: the right to be free of and free from.

Free to be what we are and feel we want to be.

Free to think and express our opinions.

Free from chains.

Free from slavery, oppression, violence, war, fear.

Free from a system that does not recognize us, exiles us, bans us.

Over the centuries, always paying high prices, we have indeed succeeded in breaking some of the chains that we now consider absurd.

The abolition of slavery, for example, is a still ongoing process that began in Venice back in 960.

In 960, with the ducal promise of the twenty-second Doge of the Republic of Venice, Peter IV Candiano, formally banned the slave trade

In 1803, Denmark abolished the slave trade by an act enacted in 1792.

In the UK, the Slave Trade Act came into effect on January 1, 1808, triggering the process that would lead the United States to ban the slave trade in 1865, a full 905 years after the first step toward the abolition of slavery.

The process is still ongoing: both the slave trade and slavery are officially banned in much of the globe. Yet both continue to claim victims….

From a physiological point of view, independence is needed for young specimens to take flight from their parents’ nest, find a partner, build their own nest.

From the historical one, we can see the same need as something that speaks to us of social, cultural and anthropological emancipation.

From these two roots, here we can perhaps explain, at least in part, why the world has such a hard time understanding secure bonds are not at all something to “emancipate” from.

We became adults and then adults by being told:

Better alone…

Do-it-yourself…

We grew up thinking we didn’t have to need anyone. Even convincing ourselves that we should be independent. Free from the chains of dependence on someone else.

People overuse and misuse the term “dependence”.

“I am so dependent. I rely on you for so many things.”

“It’s addictive to ask for what I need-you should know that.”

“I need reassurance about our relationship, what an addiction!”

“I can’t live without him/her, I am affectively dependent.”

“You will never attract a partner if you need them.”

If you are in any way dependent on your partner, you will probably be judged as dysfunctionally dependent. Our society would say that you are too needy or do not take enough care of yourself.

Dependency was not meant to be a dirty, abused word. But it is.

The instinct to try to help, reach out and connect with loved ones is ingrained in us. It is a good and healthy instinct that makes biological sense.

Fortunately… something, from within, stirs, and tells us that maybe there is more to it, because somewhere deep inside, our “body” knows things that elude common thinking….

And here we use the word “body” as a unicum of soma and psyche, cells and emotions….

Our cells and deepest emotions know that safe bonds are NOT “chains,” NOT “restraints,” and NOT prisons at all.

Secure ties, provided they are indeed “secure,” are precisely those that paradoxically allow us to be more independent. Freer. Stronger. More creative, healthy, serene, balanced, even better performers.

I know this may sound strange, yet we now have evidence of this, even on a scientific level.

Secure dependence complements autonomy1

According to attachment theory, there is no such thing as complete independence from others or
excessive dependence (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999). There is only effective dependence or
ineffective. Secure dependence promotes autonomy and self-reliance. Dependence
secure and autonomy are therefore two sides of the same coin, rather than dichotomies. The
research tells us that secure attachment is associated with a more coherent, articulate and
positive (Mikulincer, 1995). The more securely connected we are, the more separate and
diverse. Emotional health, in this model, correlates with maintaining a feeling
meaningful interconnectedness, rather than being self-sufficient and separate from others.

Starting with attachment theory, as evidenced by the quote from this beautiful article by Sue Johnson, research has already shown that secure attachments help identity.

The reason is so simple that once “heard” it sounds self-evident.

If we know we have someone who has our back, we are less afraid to face the world. We are freer to express ourselves. Our bodies produce hormones that make us feel better: oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin.

To feel the deeper meaning of this last thought, it may help to think about its opposite.

When we live in a relationship that is not secure, everything is more tiring.

We are less motivated. We have to watch our backs, sometimes the feeling is that we have to watch our backs from the very people we love….

Our professional performance drops.

The mood is affected.

The body gets sick more easily.

The suffering of the soul affects that of the body.

When “heartbroken,” we produce less serotonin.

The reduction of serotonin, 95 percent of which is produced by bacteria in the microbiota, increases the permeability of the intestinal barrier; when the barrier that protects us from external pathogens becomes less effective, our immune defenses are lowered, making us less resistant to attack.

Here, why, in spite of what is unfortunately still being said, addiction is healthy, most healthy, even thaumaturgic. Its power is to heal the wounds of the soul as well as those of the body.

Dr. Sue Johnson, says:

“There is no such thing as addiction in only a positive or negative sense, there is only effective addiction and ineffective addiction.”

If you are addicted in an ineffective way, we may try to reach out to others, especially the partner, in ways that do not work.

In other words, we will have an emotional communication problem rather than an addiction problem.

In general, you have ineffective addiction if your attempts to reach out to your partner produce the opposite effect: anger instead of reassurance, withdrawal instead of closeness, or your partner working longer hours instead of making your relationship a priority.

Couples also show signs of ineffective dependence when, for example, one partner seems to be very anxious or clingy and the other seems to have no need for the relationship.

When we are ineffectively dependent on each other, our emotional relationship will be insecure and unstable2. Effective dependence is not a sign of weakness but of courage. It takes courage to show someone our feelings and needs for connection and love in a vulnerable way. We will discuss this in a future article….

And if today, this extraordinary power is already a little less “unpopular” than it was a few years ago, a great deal of credit goes to John Bowlby, the originator of attachment theory, who, arguably, is the first family therapist who challenged this pathologizing view of addiction, along with the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, Sue Johnson!

And what do you think about this?

  1. “Introduction to Attachment – A therapist’s guide to Primary Relationships and their
    renewal
    “. Sue Johnson. Reprinted from Attachment Processes in Couple and Family Therapy, edited by Susan M. Johnson and Valerie E. Whiffen, Copyright 2003 by The Guilford Press, 72 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012. ︎ ↩︎
  2. Translated and modified from this article. ︎ ↩︎