Positively Kick Ass

Love with conditions

From Harry Harlow, "The Nature of Love," 1958.

From Harry Harlow, "The Nature of Love," 1958.

When I hear the words "unconditional love," I think of Harry Harlow. Harlow was a psychologist and a major contributor to our current understanding of the role that attachment plays in a child's development (though he worked almost exclusively with monkeys, most of them rhesus macaques). What Harlow did in order to learn what he learned can make you wish he'd never taken up the question of love and its distortions - if you don't already know about his research, I need to apologize in advance for possibly breaking your heart. But his damage is done, and his work remains an illuminating bit of darkness.

Harlow's most (in)famous experiments were inspired in part by a fractious debate back in the 1950s about best parenting practices. Behaviorists were then in the ascendancy, and their view of child development held sway in many American laboratories and homes. Mothers got admonished (as they're always getting admonished by someone for something) for "reinforcing" their babies' cries with cooing and cuddles, for comforting their toddlers when they scraped their knees instead of teaching them that pain was part of our common portion. By the behaviorists' lights, "good" parents simply and matter-of-factly answered their children's primary needs for food and shelter; those who indulged in lots of hugs and kisses and "I love you's" were molly-coddlers who infantilized their infants and naively barred their way to becoming stoic, self-reliant, boot-strapping individuals worthy of respect.

The English psychiatrist John Bowlby had already complicated the question of what children really need before Harlow joined the fray. He'd been sent to boarding school when he was all of eight, and his personal experience of the miseries of separation bolstered his adult conviction that we "hunger" most powerfully for attachment itself, that we build ourselves up from the ground of a caregiver's (most often a mother's) steady and immediate presence. He hypothesized that touch satisfied a need distinct from and possibly more powerful than the need for literal nourishment, and Harlow's research helped support his claim.

Harlow untangled the need for food from the need for tactile comfort by taking baby macaques from their mothers only hours after birth and offering them the choice of two inanimate surrogates. In the study's most salient (and at that time surprising) variation, each surrogate roughly approximated the size and shape of an adult female macaque and each was warmed by an internal light, but one was constructed of thick wire mesh and "naked" save for the nipple of a full bottle protruding from its rib cage. The other, made from wood, was covered in foam rubber and terrycloth but nipple-less.

Harlow found that, given a choice, the babies would spend only as long with the hard wire surrogates as they needed to fill their bellies, returning immediately to cling to their softer "moms." As they grew a bit older and bolder, they began to venture out to investigate their small cages, but loud sounds and other novel, frightening stimuli sent them scurrying to the cloth surrogates, which they would cuddle and stroke in ways that appeared to help them self-soothe.

When the monkeys were left alone or with the wire surrogate, they did not learn stoicism or self-sufficiency. On the contrary, they lost their ability to return to calm from even mild experiential shocks. Some would freeze in a crouch, or rock and hold their own bodies tightly, while others would scream and run frantically around their cages. Even a horribly inadequate and unresponsive "mother" (one who never cuddled back) became "a haven of safety" (Harlow's words) for a monkey who'd never known anything better.

These are not the most disturbing of Harlow's studies. He later set out to test the limits of the monkeys' established attachment, by replacing neglectful (but cozy) surrogates with truly abusive ones. He and his research team created "monster mothers" who would unpredictably lash out at their devoted infants, suddenly blasting them with air or poking them with blunt spikes or rocking them violently enough to make their teeth chatter. Many of the little monkeys would hang on through it all, and those who ran away or got dislodged would invariably return to their tormentors for comfort.

This is why the phrase "unconditional love" has a sinister edge for me. Creatures who do  love unconditionally are so often those who have little choice. And on the other side, those who have a moral responsibility to love without conditions - by virtue of having invited or created a deep dependency (e.g. from a child or a pet) - are those most secure in being loved however little they deserve it.

Harlow's horrible research clearly demonstrates that the need for secure attachment among highly social animals is so strong and deep that it can override the imperatives of physical self-preservation, but to my mind that knowledge is cause less for celebration than for caution. We need first to be cautious in creating dependencies, to ask ourselves whether we can wholeheartedly embrace the obligations they entail. But we need also to arrogate back to ourselves when we can the choice of whom to depend on.

Louis C.K. gave an interview to Rolling Stone last year, and something he said there has stayed with me: "You don't owe anyone a relationship." When it comes to relationships among more or less independent adults, I strongly agree. We have the right simply to walk away when love becomes indistinguishable from pain (even if metal spikes don't enter the picture). We have the right to seek out those people whose love for us is reliable in its very limitations. Once we stop expecting to be loved unconditionally, we may be inspired to love more and better.