Is attachment in human families anything like attachment in animal families? Can we learn anything about ourselves by watching animal families interact?
A family of squirrels visits my home nearly every day. They’re usually waiting for my husband or me first thing in the morning. I toss almonds outside before I can even make my coffee! If I don’t, I’ll have to witness at least one beseeching little face outside the French doors and I can’t stand the guilt.
I don’t know if these squirrels are a biological family, but they clearly roam together and know each other very well.
Yet there is no visible affection between them.
When they’re on our deck, each occupies its own spot, well away from the others. If one encroaches on another’s space or food, a chase will ensue.
The family consists of a big male, a smaller male, and the smallest that I think is an adolescent female. (Sadly, there also used to be a large female, but we haven’t seen her in weeks. Was there a car, coyote, or cat responsible for her disappearance, I wonder?) The big male is dominant. The smaller squirrels defer to him. (As does an annoying poacher blue jay. I decide which animals are cute and which are pests around here!) The young male stays away from the big male, but won’t hesitate to steal from the little female. She’s on the bottom of the pecking order. Her tail is scruffy because the others chase her and nip at it. Sometimes she visibly trembles as she creeps around the males, trying to grab her share.
These are the only squirrels that show up in our yard. The territory clearly belongs to this squirrel family and no other.
Watching the squirrels and their non-harmonious, yet stable relationships highlights a vital aspect of human attachment.
Attachment isn’t about how much family members like one another or how well they get along. Rather, attachment is about the emotional intensity of bonded relationships.
Emotional intensity, not affection, is the glue that holds us together.
Unfortunately, too much intensity, rather like too much glue globbed between pieces of broken china, can also prohibit cohesive attachment.
When things get too intense between squirrels, they scuffle. The conflict is sudden, brief, and quickly forgotten.
Often conflict in human families comes and goes that quickly too. But sometimes it persists, leading to cut-offs that can last weeks, years, or even through multiple generations.
I think one lesson that can be learned by watching animal families is that attachment isn’t supposed to always feel good or cozy. Conflict is a normal part of attachment.
Maybe if everyone watched how squirrel families fight and make up, fight and make up, we humans would learn a lesson about the true nature of attachment in our own families.