Deepening Toward Significance: The Emergence of Bonding

Bonding occurs naturally over time by sharing important events in daily life such as eating, sleeping and playing together.

Bonding is a continuum, a progression from distance to intimacy. The togethering begins with a meeting where a tangible connection occurs, proceeding over time to friendship. The friendship may grow into an attachment. As that attachment becomes more secure and necessary, bonding may result.

Romance follows the same pattern. The first attraction may be physical. Nice face. Strong square shoulders. Looking good. Contact is made. A spark or meeting of minds may take place. The couple must decide whether they want to pursue the relationship. If so, they begin exploring common ground. The two hang out, go for a walk, attend a movie or concert, or have a meal together. They are seeing how their relationship works as they do ordinary everyday things with each other. But they are still not letting their guard down.

As they get to know each other better, the relationship may develop into an attachment. As that attachment deepens and becomes more secure, bonding may follow. “I cannot live without this person. Now what do I do?” The marriage bond is the frequent result of this process.

The Celtic tradition speaks of “soul friends,” a rare but compelling relationship between adults. Poetic imagery is used to describe what happens. Soul friendship is the interconnecting and sharing of auras. A merging of sacred space. Boundaries become fluid. “A soul friend is like a hearth where I can be warm.” Soul friends are rare, perhaps no more than two or three in a lifetime. But their relationship is necessary and vital. Its loss leaves a blank space an unfillable emptiness. An empty chair. Becoming soul friends is to become bonded.

The relationship that develops between parent and child, while not automatic, is certainly the most common example of bonding. A mother gives birth, holds baby close, feeds him. Baby wriggles in next to her, is calmed and satisfied, and soon begins to smile. Assuming that mother and baby are reasonably healthy and happy, the initial attachment may rather quickly grow into a bond.

In many ways, the progression from a beginning attachment to bonding parallels Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.[i] For Maslow, no progress is likely without a solid base. Personal growth can occur only when the elemental needs for food, shelter and sleep are addressed. As those needs are met, safety becomes important. Next, love and belongingness become associated with the person or situation that makes one feel safe. Humans attach in a vital way to the person who meets their continuing needs.

The ultimate self-actualization is interdependence, where we find another with needs that parallel or complement our own. The needs may be horizontal, as in adult/adult and child/child, or vertical, as with a parent and child. Mutual actualization develops when two people are successful at meeting one another’s significant needs from security through joy. That can also be called bonding.

The developing concept of bonding

Many different definitions of attachment and bonding have appeared in the research history. They focus mainly on the internal and emotional interaction, particularly between mother and infant. The definition of bonding proposed in this book is operational, more external and objective, describing what bonding looks like, and what it does. Bonding needs to be framed in a way that does not depend solely on the feelings of the parties involved. Here is a summary of some key qualities that have appeared in the literature.

Relationships develop and progress, from first meeting to blossoming friendship, and sometimes to a highly significant and vital connection that we call a bond. The deepening of a relationship can be seen as a passage, a journey. There are stops along the way—and markers. Physical signs and changes can be observed as neurons form connections in the brain. There is psychological growth as an attachment develops. And there are social markers as the larger community begins to identify two former individuals as a pair, a couple, a family, a parent and child.

Physical evidence

The brain itself is fashioned from heredity and the environment. Neurons are the core components of the nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. A neuron is a brain cell that processes and transmits information through specialized connections or synapses with other cells. The synapse is a communication point between two cells.

While the major brain structures are in place at birth, that’s only the beginning. A newborn's brain is remarkably unfinished. Most of its 100 billion neurons have not yet partnered in pathways. Over the last several years, one study after another has demonstrated that there is much more to brain development than heredity.

The real work of brain development is in synapse formation. Nearly 2 million new synapses are created every second in the first two months. These connections allow the neurons to share data obtained from sensory experiences such as seeing, smelling, touching and tasting. Forming and reinforcing these connections are the key tasks of early brain development. The earlier and more consistently these connections are made, the more difficult it will be to change or reverse them. First impressions in the brain are more lasting than later experiences.

Life experiences are encoded in synaptic connections. Like genetic predispositions, these synaptic links can be overcome, but only with considerable luck and effort. Neurons and synapses both are fixed early, and both are relatively irreversible.

The first three to five years of life are a period of incredible growth. By interacting with the environment, a child’s brain is wired by the ensuing synaptic connections. How the brain develops hinges on a complex interplay between the genes a baby is born with and the child’s early experiences. By age three, the infant brain will have developed dramatically, producing hundreds of trillions of connections in the synapses between the brain cells.

The experiences expressed in brain circuitry can now be observed. Brain scans of pre-school children have provided physical evidence of a fast-growing network of neuronal connections. The following images graphically depict the significant physical changes in the child’s brain over the early years.

Rapid Synaptic Growth from Birth to Age Four[ii]

“The ultimate shape of the (child’s) brain…is the outcome of an ongoing active process that occurs where lived experience meets both the inner and outer environment…connections that are used become stronger, even permanent elements of the neural circuitry.”[iii]

“It is no great stretch to see the implication of these experiments for human development: A young child’s environment directly and permanently influences the structure and eventual function of his or her brain….”[iv]

“The fundamental characteristics of human consciousness and identity are that they are shaped and reshaped by a brain that is continually adapting to the world around us. Whether we’re reading or walking, dreaming or talking, the particular impulses and pathways of the brain’s billions of neurons are storing experiences, learning and unlearning, and creating us anew in the process.”[v]

Arredondo[vi] writes of changes in brain structure that come from life experience: “The developing cerebral cortex is exquisitely sensitive to external experiences. In other words, early childhood experiences in interaction with the outside world will, in part, determine the child’s subsequent capacities in the higher human faculties. It is the bidirectional interaction with a responsive external environment that supports the development of internal brain capacity for higher mental functions such as interpersonal sensitivity, empathy, compassion, and resilience.”

New terms have been coined to reflect our increased understanding of brain development. When the synaptic connections between neurons are expressed in behavior, they have been called memes. A meme is a way of thinking or acting that can be passed from one mind to another. Because they are reflected in brain circuitry and have a significant impact in a child’s growth and development, memes are analogous to genes.

The larger pattern of connections between the brain’s neurons has been referred to as our “connectome.”[vii] That is where our genetic inheritance intersects with our life experience, the visible template where nature meets nurture. Experiences shape the connectome, which changes slowly over time as we learn and grow. Elaborating on how the brain’s wiring makes us who we are, Seung has paralleled the connectome to our genome. Both nature and nurture, genes and experience, are seen to have an equally critical role in human growth and development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics notes: “During the first three to four years of life, the anatomic brain structures that govern personality traits, learning processes, and coping with stress and emotions are established, strengthened, and made permanent…The nerve connections and neurotransmitter networks that are forming during these critical years are influenced by negative environmental conditions…It is known that emotional and cognitive disruptions in the early lives of children have the potential to impair brain development…In terms of evolution, the cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that was last to appear and the part that is most quintessentially human. In addition to language and speech (e.g., reading, comprehension, writing), it is home to mathematical abilities. More important to decision makers such as judges, however, is the fact that the cortex is the home of conscience, abstract reasoning, empathy, compassion, moral development, and social skills.”[viii]

Genes and environment interact at every step of brain development, but they play different roles. Generally speaking, genes are responsible for the basic wiring plan—for forming all of the cells and the general connections between different brain regions. Experience fine-tunes these connections, helping each child to adapt to his or her particular environment. An analogy that is often used compares brain development in early childhood to the wiring of a phone network. Genes would specify the number of phones and the major trunk lines that connect one relay station to the next. Experience would specify the connections between the relay station and each person’s home or office. Once established in early life, these connections are difficult, if not impossible, to modify.

Neurons are rapidly pairing and connecting from the moment of birth. Synapses are fashioned. Memes are being formed, “cultural” ways of thinking and doing things. Synapses self-organize themselves into complex clusters, which in turn form the connectome. Bonding to a specific person is one way of organizing a variety of sensory life experiences. Memes parallel genes. The connectome parallels the genome. Memes and the connectome are fixed early and are relatively irreversible. They are as physical as genes and the genome.

Bonding, as expressed in neuron pathways, is demonstrable and physical. The recent research on early brain development shows that the synaptic connections clearly include the tangible aspects of day-to-day child care and the formation and strengthening of child/parent relationships. These relationships are vividly portrayed in the multiplicity of synaptic connections presented in the earlier figure on “Rapid Synaptic Growth.” Clearly, bonding, as here defined, is not merely a psychological concept but can be seen as a complex pattern embedded in synaptic connections, and is as physical and real as the genetic inheritance.

Psychological markers

Psychology is the scientific study of the mind and behavior. As such, psychology can offer considerable help in identifying the strength and growth of relationships. The deepening attachment that leads to bonding can be studied by examining the personal feelings of the relating parties. Assessing the strength of the relationship between a child and his potential adopting parents can be critical in a contested adoption.

A thorough bonding evaluation will take note of the behavioral interactions between the child and the adopting parent. The evaluator can use the observation of facial expressions, gestures and language as data to make judgments about inner emotions and feelings. He or she can troll for evidence of a developing relationship among the many things a child says, and even more from the child’s actions. Consistent behavior can lead to inferences about the child’s inner state of mind and allow the evaluator to separate what is fleeting from what is permanent.

A psychologist can observe when the child demands the presence of someone and refuses to be comforted otherwise, whether the child responds to the caregiver’s presence and voice, likes to be held and cuddled, sleeps well, explores his surroundings with minimal fear, copies the mannerisms of his or her caregiver, and much more. The psychologist can assess the consistency and strength of these behaviors. Behavior can offer help in identifying the transition from mere attachment all the way to bonding, but the evaluator must be careful to focus on consistent rather than short-lived behaviors. Many checklists are available to pinpoint specific behaviors that suggest bonding may be developing.[ix]

In evaluating the relationship between potential adoptive parents and the child, psychologists can explore transitional steps in several ways. They can take note of instant attraction or affinity. They can explore the life experiences of the potential dyad. They can assess the reciprocal meeting of needs of the parties. And they can measure the strength of commitment as the involved parties are moving toward permanence.

Instant attraction can be a good start. Sometimes a potential parent will connect with a child at first sight. Physical appearance and behavioral peculiarities can generate a spark of immediate attraction. Perhaps the child looks like someone they have known and loved. Perhaps a tomboy girl reminds mom of the child she once was. Perhaps they simply fall in love. Whatever attracts an adult to a child in the first place, the adults eventually come to believe that this child is the prize package. They have been entrusted with the most wonderful gift. Winning the lottery could not be sweeter.

Do the prospective parents understand what they are getting into? Has life experience prepared them for what lies ahead? Children who are removed from a troubled home have been damaged. New parents may have unrealistic expectations of what caring for them means. They may be misled by the notion that loves cures all, that these hurt children will automatically respond positively to a safe and caring home. And when their notion of parental love does not result in compliance and gratitude, the new parents may become disillusioned and give up. Obtaining a thorough social history will help in assessing how well parents and child are likely to weather the rough spots and get along.

Prior parenting experience is helpful, often essential. Most foster parents have practical knowledge and are not likely to be surprised by withdrawn or confrontive behavior. Parents who have already raised a disabled child may be better able to deal with a child with mental or physical disabilities.

Personal background may also facilitate connecting to a particular child. A parent who had difficult teenage years, who may have quit school, or who had abusive parents of his or her own, may have more understanding of a young person with similar problems.

The young child who displays few or no honest emotions, presents a particularly difficult challenge. Such a youngster is a psychopath-in-the-making and may use pseudo-emotions like the superficially friendly salesman to manipulate and get his way. Psychopaths don’t bond, they use people. He or she will need parents wise and experienced enough to set practical limits, but to back off a bit and give him time to truly relate—or not. The psychologist/evaluator can examine how prepared the potential parents are to raise this vulnerable and troubled child.

Matching needs can be considered. Humans are interdependent. We need one another. We become fulfilled by those who meet our deepest needs. Abused and neglected children have an absolute need for safety, security, warmth and nourishment. Many adults, with or without other children, have strong urges to parent, to be so very important to someone small and unready for life. This too offers a good start. Parents need the child. The child needs a permanent home. The psychologist/evaluator might attempt to assess how well the parties involved are likely to match each other’s needs.

How much do the potential parents want this child? In evaluating bonding, the psychologist must search thoroughly for evidence of commitment. Why do they want to adopt? If they are kin, are they motivated primarily by the notion that they must honor a family obligation? Or is there a history of caring and affection? Kinship counts. Family ties tend to be strong and lasting. Most extended families feel a worthy obligation to take care of “our own.” The sense of belonging may be mutual. On the other hand, good parenting implies more than a feeling of obligation or sense of duty.

Foster parents may present the evaluator with a similar dilemma. Some foster parents appear motivated by a more generic commitment. They state that they want to “do good,” “give back” or “raise good Christians.” Others may express simply that they like children or that they have extra room in their hearts. “I would like to find someone who needs me.” “I want to make a difference in a child’s life.”

A good psychologist or case manager will need to learn from the potential parents why they wish to provide a home for this child. Such personal and verbal sentiments are valuable, but are they simply nice-sounding words? The best way to find out is to consider the history. How responsible have these potential parents shown themselves to be? How have these kin and/or foster parents met their other commitments to job and family? How good are they at keeping their promises? And how able are they to raise a child over time?

Concrete evidence of a significant relationship may be found not only in documents that certify to lasting promises, but in cases where everyday care is given with minimal or no financial reimbursement. Providing food and clothing, a home, a bike, and other necessities are suggestions that a permanent relationship is developing. The strength of a commitment can be determined by actions that assume permanence. When a young unmarried couple recently bought a house together, the young man’s father joked: “With this house, I thee wed…” A house or home is one of many substantial ways that a permanent attachment or bonding can be demonstrated.

Social signposts

The transition from acquaintance to a necessary relationship can be recognized formally. The connection between people is often attested by documents. The birth of a child is certified with a birth certificate, recognizing the permanent nature of this attachment with its lifelong rights and responsibilities. Laws are in place to identify the ongoing obligations of the birth connection. Similarly with adoption, the court examines the relationship between prospective parent and child, and if it agrees, will officially recognize that same lifelong promise and connection.

Legal guardianship may represent a signpost on the journey to permanency. While legal guardianships can be dissolved, they provide evidence of a level of commitment. Because court action is required to terminate the guardianship, a legal guardianship is much stronger than long-term foster care or simply living with kin. Sometimes, especially in a contested adoption, legal guardianship may offer the best option at the time.

What does the community think? How do friends and neighbors perceive this developing relationship? Community wisdom is a strong way to identify the growth toward a permanent attachment. The psychologist can and should call on observations from the community at large. The wisdom of the gathered community is recognized by our society in a jury trial. The guilt or innocence of the accused is decided by his or her peers. The wisdom of the larger community is also reflected in the marketplace and in the election of congressional representatives. Folk wisdom with its common sense and awareness of culture has a time-tested record. The collective good judgment of one’s neighbors is deemed worthy of trust.

The tipping point

Why is it so important to know when bonding is present? When does one cross the line from friendship and mere attachment to a relationship that one cannot do without? Once the damage is done, we know that we have disrupted something important and significant. Unfortunately, by then it is too late. The negative consequences of interrupting bonded relationships can be severe. To anticipate and prevent potential harm, we need to know beforehand.

The line that marks the passage from attachment to bonding is blurred. There is no clear tipping point. We must evaluate the growing strength of the signposts and markers. Bonding can be assumed from the time spent in continuing contact, from the behavior of the child, from the actual commitment made by the parties involved, and from the wisdom of the larger community. In the next chapter we will consider these specific indicators of bonding.

Three cups of tea

Greg Mortenson became lost on his way down a mountain he had climbed in Pakistan. Near death, he wandered into a small impoverished village where he was nursed and cared for. He has since returned to rural Pakistan in gratitude to build schools. One day the village elder interrupted Mortenson’s hard-pressing American work ethic and got him to sit for tea. Mortenson quotes the elder’s words:

“Here we drink three cups of tea to do business: the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything—even die.”[x] That third cup of tea is a metaphor for the emergence of bonding.

Chapter 2- Deepening Toward Significance: The Emergence of Bonding Notes

[i] Abraham Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.

[ii] Excerpted from CONNECTOME: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are.  Copyright © 2012 by Sebastian Seung.  Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

[iii] Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. (New York: HarperCollins, 2002)

[iv] Lise Eliot, What's Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. (New York: Bantam, 2000)

[v] Roberta Conlan, ed. States of Mind: New Discoveries about How Our Brains Make Us Who We Are. (New York: Wiley, 1999)

[vi] David Arredondo and Leonard Edwards, “Attachment, bonding, and reciprocal connectedness: Limitations of attachment theory in the juvenile and family court.” Journal of the Center for Families, Children, and the Courts, Vol. 2, 2000. 109-127.

[vii] Seung, op.cit.

[viii] American Academy of Pediatrics. Committee on early childhood, adoption, and dependent care. “Developmental issues for young children in foster care.” Pediatrics, 106(5) 1145-1150.

[ix] See for example: Jay Belsky and Teresa M. Nazworski (editors), Clinical Implications of Attachment, (Routledge, 1987); Gregory C. Keck and R. Kupecky, Adopting the Hurt Child (Colorado Springs: Pinon, 1995); James Kenny and Lori Groves, Bonding and the Case for Permanence, (Rensselaer IN, ACT Publications, 2010); Elizabeth Randolph, Randolph Attachment Disorder Questionnaire, (Evergreen CO: The Attachment Center Press, 1997)

[x] Greg Mortenson and David Relin, Three Cups of Tea: One man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time (New York: Penguin, 2006).


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