Starting from our very early primary relationships and developing across time, we have a strong need to communicate, to express ourselves, to be understood and to understand others. We need the experience that someone hears and responds to our signals. In this way we learn that our basic needs will be understood and met, at least most of the time.
Learning to communicate is a challenge for both the parent and the infant. Ideally, through their experience with each other, both members of the parent-infant dyad learn how to relate: how to read the other's emotional states and physical signals.
The infant learns by internalizing experience. An infant who has experienced timely and attuned responses learns to regulate his or her own emotions. The infant, by participating in reciprocal relationships, also learns to recognize and relate to other peoples' minds. It is through the experience of having our needs recognized, mirrored, and met that a psychological self emerges. The quality of the attunement we receive from others helps us to form the mechanisms, both physiologically and mentally, to regulate our emotions.
Our attachment styles also reflect the nature of this attunement. A secure attachment reflects close attunement, whereas an insecure style reflects less attunement. These relational styles stay with us throughout our lives
It is important to the developing infant that his or her emotions register with the caretaker so that these early feeling states are understood and responded to appropriately. The infant internalizes these experiences of a synchronized or matching "call and response," and this process reinforces the infant's innate sense of mutuality and connection to others.
Of course, no parent can always match the signals of a baby, but getting it right enough of the time is important. When the inevitable disconnections do occur it is important that the parent and infant have learned how to reconnect, so that both members experience trust that repairs to their sense of connection can be made relatively easily.
When babies experiences a constant mismatch between their signals and the responses they receive, a sense of disconnection is created. Chronic disconnection creates stress and negatively affects the baby's development. There are many individual variations in the baby's reaction to this lack of attunement. Some babies withdraw. Others make heroic attempts to adapt by relinquishing their own needs; these infants focus on attuning to their parents' needs and end up feeling disconnected from their own needs.
There are long-lasting consequences when these early relational needs are not attended to. Styles of relating and communicating learned in our early experiences set the templates that follow us throughout our relational lives; the same frustrations we suffered in not being responded to sensitively early on emerge over and over again. Present-day conflicts mirror our early relational failures.
Some of our basic needs such as hunger, comfort, warmth, contact, safety, and being loved seem obvious; other needs that form the basis for building attuned relationships are more difficult to see. For instance, our need for a response to correspond to what we need, or are expecting, is not as obvious. This need for a contingent response means that when you are hungry, you expect to be fed, and when you are afraid, you will be comforted rather than fed. Most of us continue to be frustrated by a lack of contingent responses. We often get upset when our intentions or meanings are misread.
Another important communication skill that carries over from childhood into our present-day relationships is the ability to join our attention with another and to attend to what the other person is focusing on and vice versa. Babies begin to look towards an object that another person is pointing at in the early months of life. Following this development, they begin pointing themselves and expecting others to join them in their focus. The experience of joint or co-attention gives us further knowledge of other peoples' minds and our relationship to them. Being able to share our intentions and our meanings allows us to feel connected to others' thoughts and feelings, which is necessary for all leaning and is particularly important in learning language and using words to communicate.
Over time, babies learn to express their basic needs in more symbolic forms. Evolving from crying, whining, and other physical gestures to the shared meaning of sound symbols—i.e., words—is a major developmental task. We develop this capacity for shared meaning in relation to others who are reflecting back what they hear from us; we then hear and imitate their sounds. This reciprocal development not only gives us our beginning language skills but also a growing sense of self as we get our meanings, our feelings and thoughts, reflected or recognized by others. The need to receive recognition in our relationships is ongoing. Conflict is typical outcome of a failure in this domain.
Recent evidence of the functions of mirror neurons, those capacities of the brain to experience the intentions of others and to sense another person's experience directly, adds another dimension to an understanding of our innate relatedness. Questions arise as to the impact on relationships of this ability to tune in so directly to other people and how this empathic connectedness interfaces with how we learn to relate to others. Lack of connection, as occurs in conflict, may be experienced as fundamentally against the human grain.
We cannot overestimate the importance of relationship in child development and in our psychological world as adults. Continuous ruptures to these self-forming interactions can have a great emotional impact. Conflicts reactivate our reactions to past disconnections. Because we continue our need for relationship throughout life, disruptions, when they occur, continue to affect us deeply. Improving our abilities to repair relationships when they are disrupted is essential to our well being.