She comes into the bathroom where I rub cleanser on my face, her tiny feet scraping my tan heels against the floor as she crosses the tile. I can see out of the corner of my eye that her face is covered in a rainbow of pinks, oranges, and browns, an immediate reminder that I forgot to do the extra latch I’d just added to my make-up drawer. With a huge grin, she pulls on my nightgown, “Look at me, mom! Look!”
“Just a sec, babe,” I reply as I splash water on my face.
“Look now!” she insists again, and I grab the towel to wipe away the drops from my eyes.
“I am, I am,” I tell her, turning toward her. My voice has an edge. To be honest, the day has been long and I’m really tired of broken lipstick.
“No, you’re not!” she bellows. Her hand moves to her hip and she takes her all-too-familiar indignant stance. “You have to really see me, mom!”
I suck in a deep breath, my body instinctively recognizing I need a little more fuel to manage yet another request for my energy today, and I turn my body fully toward her.
“Oh my goodness!” I exclaim, taking in the sight of my soon-to-be four-year-old in all of her bedazzled glory. “You are a sight to behold!”
I grab her hand and motion for her to twirl. She obliges. “Look at you,” I smile at her.
As a young graduate student working in a forensic hospital, I would be warned about engaging too much with certain patients on my units. While I was working on psychiatric floors with people who had engaged in some fairly dangerous behaviors, it wasn’t my safety that was at risk. They’re attention-seeking, I was told, and encouraged to acknowledge them as briefly as possible and move on. The threat was that if I gave them an inch, they’d certainly take a mile, leaving me without the time I needed to attend to other patients or get my charting done.
It took me a while, but I eventually noticed that the only patients I was warned were attention-seeking were all female. Despite the fact that male patients were frequently asking to talk with me or telling me fantastical stories, it seemed to only be the women whose craving for attention agitated the nursing and medical staff.
The best thing to do, I was told, is to be polite, but mostly ignore. They’ll learn that they can’t have all of your attention and will go back to entertaining themselves, some of the senior clinicians assured. The theory supporting this approach was classic behaviorism. Give attention to what you want more of, it purported – in this case, quiet compliance. Ignore – also known as punish – what you want less of –in this case, any demand on our energy.
When I ignored that advice and started having long talks each morning with a young, wheelchair-using woman who experienced extravagant delusional fantasies, I found something interesting began to happen. Rather than increase her formerly-called attention-seeking behaviors, she started to seem calmer during the day. She stopped rolling up to the nurses station multiple times an hour asking for medication or yelling profanities in the common areas. She began brushing her hair, something that she hadn’t done in months, so that she could be ready for our 8:45am talks each day. I hadn’t known her for long, but her eyes started to appear sharper, brighter.
Many months later I was asked to testify in a court hearing for the young woman. After years of being at the hospital, her improvement had been observed and it was now time to determine if she was capable of living safely in the community. It was my first time being on the stand, and when I was asked by the attorney to share what had made the difference in her condition, my mind drew blank on the list of therapies and medications I had planned to recite. All I could think to say was, “She needed some attention.”
Understanding just how vital a need attention is requires at least a basic appreciation of attachment theory. If you’ve been on mental health social media for more than a minute in the last few years, you’re probably somewhat familiar this term. But given all swirl around it, it’s worth reviewing what’s real.
Attachment theory can almost hardly be called a “theory” any longer. Blossoming as a field in the 1970s, by now it’s one of the most well-researched and definitive principles in understanding how humans operate. What it suggests is that because we are inherently social creatures – animals who require one another for our most basic survival – we are equipped with biological drives for attaching to others. In particular, we are wired to attach to our caregivers, the people upon whom we are most directly reliant for survival.
When we think about our most basic survival needs, we usually come up with the short list of food, water, and shelter. But consider that as a defenseless and pretty incapable human infant, we couldn’t secure any of those things on our own without a caregiver. (Let’s be real – it’s a long time beyond just infancy that we can’t really take care of ourselves.) Thus, if our caregivers were otherwise preoccupied, forgot about us, or were distracted, our very survival was threatened.
Our caregivers’ – our attachment figures’ – attention and engagement was the key to getting any other survival need met. If we didn’t have that, we were toast.
Given how absolutely crucial our attachment figures’ attention was, it makes sense that our biology evolved to ensure that we got it and that we were motivated to overcome any barrier to it. As a young infant, it was through those piercing baby cry-screams that couldn’t be ignored. As we grew, it was also through our motivation for physical closeness to our attachment figures’ and any other means that we found effective.
For example, we might have learned quickly – and subconsciously – that we gained or kept our attachment figures’ attention by quickly complying with their requests, or by being the loudest in our rowdy sibling bunch, or by wowing them with our diligent study habits, or by needing their help with tasks just enough that they couldn’t go away. Our adaptations to our particular attachment figures’ own personalities and needs are a huge part of what formulates our own. And it all comes down to how we secure attention because attention is key to safety and security as humans.
Where our understanding of human behavior has gone awry is in claiming that once we grow, we no longer need or should need attention in this way. But our drive for attention doesn’t evaporate because we can suddenly fill our own Stanley cups. It remains a core drive one or both of two reasons. One that is true for all of us is that we continue to need others – especially our attachment figure (who may in adulthood be a romantic partner) – to survive in the world.
The other is that many of us as children – particularly growing up in eras in which our parents were taught to actively ignore us as an actual parenting strategy – didn’t learn that we could safely rely on the attention of our attachment figures’ to be consistent. So what got wired into us is the idea that we need to stay hypervigilant to securing attention whenever possible. And for most of us, we learned that indirect attempts at attention were best (things that mask as not being attention-seeking at all) – things like performing remarkably well, being overly-agreeable, or even starting subtle conflicts to get a partner engaged.
Where this whole attention debacle plays out for most of us most directly is in the arena of our adult intimate relationships. What’s important about this is us recognizing that this is what’s at play in so many of our interactions – and especially the deepest aches – of partnership.
I will go ahead and say that If we dissect almost any relationship tension point, the conflict beneath the surface is about attention. Conflicts about who is doing what domestic labor are about equity, sure, but they are ultimately about wanting to be seen and acknowledged. Conflicts about time spent online, with friends, or at work are ultimately about where one’s attention is going. Conflicts about values and perspectives are ultimately about not whether we can agree on one single truth, but whether we can exit our myopia and really see and acknowledge the other person.
So often this desire for attention from our partner gets framed as neediness, and neediness gets framed as weak or pathetic. There’s the trope of the nagging girlfriend always looking for reassurance, or worse the “crazy girlfriend” being possessive or too desperate for him to check in on his night out. Women get pegged as hysterical for desiring even the most basic security. And to be honest, the attention needs of men in our culture may in some ways be even more maligned. To be seen as a man seeking validation or reassurance from a woman is ridiculed cruelly.
But what are we mocking and maligning here? We’re pathologizing one of the most foundational needs – a biological imperative – or human kind. It’s like saying, “Oh my god, you’re so pathetic that you still need water. Geez. Grow up!”
Most of us aren’t so malicious as to deride our own partner for their attention needs, at least not directly. But if we’re honest, we do all too often ignore this need and even actively withhold attention.
Consider the last time you failed to greet your partner when you walked in the door. What about when they were telling you a story and you didn’t look up from your book? Or when they texted you about a funny situation that happened and you forgot to write back. How often do we let our phones consume the attention our partner is longing for? Or don’t bother to say anything when they change their hair or their outfit?
When we’re on the receiving end of this lack of attention, this is what our biology tell us: You’re not seen, so you’re not safe.
There are literally millions of Google search results for “love languages,” with dozens of published books and thousands of published articles on the same (and yes, there are some majorly problematic issues with the originator). But at the end of the day, the concept of a love language, whether in the context of a lover or a parent/child, really comes down to one key thing: Are you paying attention to me?
What I believe has been so profound about love languages is that it asked people in relationships to really see the other person for how they want to be shown attention – whether that’s through gifts, time, service, or in other ways. Sure, perhaps we all prefer our attention to come in a particular package (I personally think we all need all of them), but the wrapping doesn’t matter nearly as much as the intent to really see each other.
When we’re not giving and receiving attention in whatever form that takes, our relationships fail. Full stop. What we also have to recognize is that when we’re not receiving attention, our bodies and our emotions start to break down too.
Deep down, we’re all three year olds with lipstick on just wanting to be seen.