Fear and Love: Adult Peek-a-boo

We scare each other all the time. It begins with passionate love, or tentative like, warm comfy sensations from being hugged, or mind igniting sparks from stimulating conversation. We feel attracted, interested, curious, pulled–and into the gap between two human beings we fall. At first it’s nice. We feel held, supported, lifted. We experience a shared bond, which can be emotional, physical, spiritual, intellectual. At its deepest level, we become attuned to the other person. So what does this have to do with fear?

Let’s go back to our first experience of attunement in infancy. At its most fundamental, attunement is the gazing, entranced contact we see in a mother and her baby.  According to David Arredondo, M.D., “attunement refers to a deep genuine and significant connection with another human being.”  Check out his excellent video, Attunement and Why It Matters:  

 So moms and dads watch, listen, respond, googoo and gaagaa their babies, but it’s the reciprocity of this exchange that makes it special. Mutual connection and mirroring of brain neurons takes place, creating a sense of being known and a secure relationship in both individuals. We play peek-a-boo with babies and they learn to count on us being there. Trust and empathy develop. Our bids for pleasure and happiness (smiles and laughs) and for comfort in distress (soothing cries and needs) are equally met. This early attunement teaches us that that we will be attended to and that we can elicit a response in others.

Now fast forward to our adult relationships. They often start off with a bonding that makes us feel attached to the other person–desired, understood, known. This feels good. It is like the primary attunement from childhood, recreating safety within love. Everything goes along just fine until this attachment is threatened and suddenly we feel afraid. We get scared that we have become disconnected from our partner. Our bids for attention go unnoticed or unanswered. (Didn’t he see I was upset? She never gives me credit. You don’t listen to me.) Resentment builds over money, kids, sex, chores. But really it’s about the seat of our emotional security being pulled out from under us. Our partner fails to respond, and in turn we usually either provoke or attack them, or shut down and withdraw. The game of peek-a-boo has stopped. We can no longer be sure that they will stay in contact with us, in the deep way we need to be seen, felt, heard, wanted. We fear separation, abandonment and emotional disconnection.

The good news is that this awareness of our need for attunement is the first step to healing our hurts and developing strong, long lasting relationships. We can learn to express our vulnerabilities and emotions to our partner, often with a therapist’s help, and share our longing for connection and contact that is left unsaid. For example, what do you really want for your partner underneath the perpetual argument about working too much? Maybe your wish for him is that he sees himself as successful and happy, instead of dissatisfied with his career. It is a wish of warmth and love more so than conflict, once you are brave enough to share it.  Your dreams for each other and longing for love don’t go away but get buried beneath the fear and messiness of emotions.

Attunement by its very nature invites discovery. It’s about being open with your partner in a form of mutual exploration that is safe and trusting. Becoming attuned is a process of learning to engage in new ways with each other by turning toward your emotions. You practice staying with your partner when they reach for you and responding with empathy. And this hearkens back to our primal attunement–the constant contact that is being created anew again and again when we watch mother and baby.

Why not give it a try? Uncover your eyes and say peek-a-boo.


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