Mother and infant

Emotional Connection Theory

By emotional contact, fusion, togetherness

Emotional Connection Theory – what is it?

Emotional Connection theory is an attempt to explain the mother infant bonding process. The authors believe that the mother infant bonding is a learned or conditional response. This learning occurs during the natural process of mother and infant interactions. The mother and newborn develop a connection by touching, looking at each other, using familiar sounds, and speaking. It is an adapted process to have the mother and infant automatically orient and approach to each other. Based on their findings, the authors suggest that the mother and fetus develop this adaptive orientation during a full-term pregnancy. If fact, it was occurs related to premature infants that let to the development of this theor.

Natural experiment of emotional connection

Dr. Welch, who has worked with infants for years, wondered why some mothers and infants did fine after a premature birth while others didn’t fare as well. She observed some mothers did not develop a “bond” with the infant. This tended to manifest in mothers as anxiety because of having a “difficult” infant. The infants would display a non-orienting, avoidant type behavior. The infants would later have less emotional regulation and more difficulty socializing. Dr. Welch developed the Family Nurture Intervention process that can substantially restore the adaptive orienting – approach behavior (the bond). This intervention involves one-hour sessions where the mother and infant interact through smell, touch, and eye contact. Importantly, the mother talks to the infant and expresses her emotions. (Welch, et al. 2019).

Key aspects of emotional connection

This is what Dr. Welch wrote about the mother’s talking to the infant.

  • “The mothers were led by the Nurture Specialist to speak directly to their infants in an emotional manner, including expression of their upset feelings about the early birth, their infant’s fragile condition, and about the hardships posed to the pair by NICU care. They were asked to speak in their native language, the emotional language spoken to them by their own mothers and family, while establishing eye contact.”

In another paper Dr Welch expressed as follows:

  • Crying is one of the deepest, most powerful, and most therapeutic emotions a mother can express to her baby in the NICU…the mother typically feels an emotional connection to her baby, most often for the first time.

Special emphasis on relationships

Another interesting aspect of the author’s work is the special emphasis on reciprocity and relationship. Both the mother and infant become conditioned to each other. They are co-regulating each other at the autonomic nervous system level and at a behavioral level. They both orient to each other and they both approach each other. It becomes so automatic that it appears to be instinctual. But that it can be disrupted and then “repaired” supports the idea that both the mother and infant learn this behavior. They learn a Pavlovian level conditioning and not via a cognitive process, which isn’t possible for the infant.

The first stage of emotional contact

So what does this have to do with Bowen Family Systems Theory? I think it’s interesting in a number of ways. First, the concept of Emotional Connection is similar to Bowen’s concept of emotional contact. The mother is making good emotional contact with the infant. She can express anything that is meaningful and important to her to her child. The expression of any meaningful and important idea to another is a key point in the concept of emotional contact. It would be fascinating to track reactivity in two adults over a period of six weeks og having meaning conversations with each other. (Note – There is no trying to change the other’s thinking. Each is working to be as emotionally non reactive as possible, while simply sharing their thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams about whatever is meaningful to them.)

Second, there is a special emphasis on the reciprocity of the relationship interactions. This is not about either the mother or the child. It’s about the relationship process.

Third, this is taking place at the level of physiology. Dr. Bowen would refer to this as the emotional system level.

An adaptive level of fusion

The term fusion often has a negative connotation when one talks about differentiation. Fusion implies that person A is automatically reactive to person B. This automatic reactivity leads to automatic behaviors that may not be thoughtful or effective. But with emotional connection, this automatic response is effective. I believe there that Dr. Bowen referring to fusion as something that represents my lack of differentiation. My reduced ability to think and act for myself, while not impinging on others. My ability to not change my thinking, or my principles, in order to avoid tension or conflict. Or in order to gain approval.

Differentiation is a developmental process, a process of maturation, from being more fused to being far less fused and more differentiated. So fusion, or automatic responsiveness, isn’t all bad. Some aspect is adaptive.

The authors also propose an alternative to attachment theory. I’ll explore that in the next post.

Thank you for your interest in family systems.

Comments are welcome:

The following articles inspired this post.

Impacts of Family Nurture Intervention

How babies learn: The autonomic socioemotional reflex

Read more about Bowen Theory here

This is a brief overview of Bowen Theory in Psychology Today: Bowen Theory.

What is good emotional contact

By Anxiety, differentiation, emotional system, togetherness

Dr. Bowen and Dr. Kerr have written about the value of having good emotional contact with family members. But what is “good emotional contact”? How is this different from an emotional connection? How does it relate to one’s level of differentiation? Is this something a person can intentionally work at increasing the quality or amount of emotional contact with others? And importantly, what would the benefit be to oneself and others of having good emotional contact?

What is emotional contact?

Neither Bowen nor Kerr clearly defines the phrase “emotional contact.” Bowen used the term thirty-three times, and Kerr more than that. Dr. Bowen also used “viable” and “meaningful” as part of the term. I will do my best to reverse engineer what I think the meaning is.

Put on your systems hat, as we must think of systems to find meaning. I believe Dr. Bowen intentionally chose the term because it is descriptive and accurate for the idea he wanted to convey.

Emotional connection is different.

Emotional Contact is not an emotional connection. Connection means “connected,” as A and B are connected. This implies that when A moves, B moves. Contact means they are touching, so A and B can move independently of each other.

Bowen was very specific in his definition of emotion, which stems from biology. Emotion relates to our physiological and biological functioning. Having low blood sugar is an emotional level state. Feeling hungry, consciously, is what Bowen called “feeling.” Strictly speaking, an emotional connection is when my emotional state changes in response to your emotional state. I’m automatically getting reactive. The “connection” is strong enough that the reactive behaviour actually gets in the way. I’m not autonomous in my feelings and thinking. This is fusion. You get anxious, and this leads to me getting more anxious. (I’m simplifying things as always.)

Emotional contact – I’m next to you, not stuck to you.

So, with good emotional contact, I’m in contact with you but not “stuck” or reactive to you. I’m at least not so reactive that it impedes my functioning. The topic of discussion is “emotional” in that one could physiologically measure changes that occur. We experience these topics as important and meaningful. They might be very impactful or scary. They could be very positive or negative. But, because I’m only in contact and not connected, I’m better able to manage my level of reactivity. I’m able to listen closely because I am genuinely interested. I don’t have an urge to fix anything or change your mind. I’m thoughtful about what I share, but not so worried about you I do not share my thinking. We have a meaningful exchange of our opinions. We learn about what is important to each other and how we think on that topic.

Emotions are sticky.

It’s easy to get “connected” and lose “contact.” Poor emotional contact can show up in several ways. There is distancing or avoiding on one end of a continuum and being too active and preoccupied on the other end. Avoiding contact or having shallow conversations without any significance falls under the distant side. This distancing is a form of reactivity, actually. But then getting reactive while in contact can show up as avoiding a topic, changing the topic, giving advice, being bored, frustrated or impatient. Trying to fix the other person’s problem trying to get them to change their mind or opinion is also reactivity. All of these mechanisms about trying to manage the anxiety or tension that comes up. All of these things get in the way of managing the tension and just listening with a curious, non judgemental attitude. This doesn’t mean you don’t have your own opinions or that you agree with everything.

Thinking systems can help

One thing I try to do is maintain a systems point of view. This gets me more curious about the *process* of how things came to be the way they are. It helps me avoid the blaming of cause and effect thinking and the urge to get I’m not sure that anyone wants to only talk about important and meaningful things all the time. Just getting know a person, staying informed about their life is also part of a good emotional contact. So don’t go overboard or you’ll stop getting invited to parties! Talk about the weather, sports, food, hobbies. Be open to where it might go. If weather leads to very meaningful and important discussion let it happen.

As with other aspects of working on self, I do this for my growth. I work on this because it’s important and meaningful to me. I also know that having good emotional contact is good for my emotional and physical health. Good emotional contact is an antidote to loneliness. Who will you work to have good emotional contact with? Like any fitness program, too much too soon is not recommended. Consistency is more important than intensity. Slow and steady wins the race.