Longing for Love

Baby with arm around another baby

Back in the 1940s and ’50s, a medical doctor by the name of René Spitz conducted a number of experiments with orphaned children. In one study, babies were cared for by nurses who changed their diapers, fed them regularly, and made sure they were warm, but otherwise these infants received little or no interaction or touch.

A second group of orphaned babies were cared for by mothers who were in prison. These mothers were allowed to touch, hold, and cuddle these babies a number of times during the day. Researchers followed both groups for several years and, not surprisingly, found that those who received no touch and affection became severely mentally and emotionally handicapped, suffering from these symptoms for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, those infants who received touch and physical affection grew up to be normal adults, even though raised by mothers in prison (Spitz, R.A., “Hospitalism; A follow-up report on investigation described in volume I, 1945,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 2, 1945, pp. 113-117).

The Crucial Role of Love

This research, which would never be allowed today, demonstrates the crucial role of love and affection in our lives. The need for love is universal and just as real as our need for food, water, and shelter. Not only is a newborn totally dependent on his caregivers for survival, but even his sense of worth and psychological well-being come from the loving affection he receives from others. As human beings, we are profoundly interdependent.

We don’t outgrow this need because we grow older. Young children not only crave love and attention but seek it out. They long for playful attention, hugs, and kind words. They gravitate to caregivers or people who show them love and attention. We can even make typical parenting mistakes, like being irritable, and they forgive and come back to us.

Teens Long for Love

Older children and teens are less likely to ask for affection. They’ve experienced hurt and rejection which causes them to be ambivalent about seeking love. It might seem “childish.” Or, they may be afraid of being rejected by Mom and Dad or of feeling embarrassed or ashamed. They may think it’s something they should outgrow. Or they may not seek it due to feelings of resentment toward their parents. Parents need to be sensitive to this and yet continue to extend it to older children through hugs, an arm around the shoulder, a kiss on the cheek, or reaching out and touching a hand, arm, or shoulder. We don’t outgrow the need. We simply become more vulnerable and unable to ask.

Adults Long for Love and Connection

Although our ability to rationalize our needs continues to increase as we become adults, we still have such needs. Most of us crave physical and emotional connection in the form of touch, hugs, and smiles as well as affirming words, which is why infatuation and romantic love are such powerful influences in our society and can so often lead us to stray from family members whose expressions of love may be wanting or whose love we take for granted.

And I would suggest that the desire for love is also expressed in even more disguised forms. So much of our striving for achievement and success is really about knowing that we matter, that we have worth to others. I would even go so far as to say that many of our addictive and adrenalin seeking behaviors are escapes from our loneliness and lack of meaningful connection to others.

What Does This Mean?

So, what does this mean? I’ll suggest two things.

First, can we use it to understand and even reconnect with ourselves at a deeper level? How does admitting our own deep desire for love and affection help us understand many of our feelings and responses to the world around us? By admitting and connecting with this part of ourselves we can potentially become more whole. Perhaps we can better understand our feelings and motives. Perhaps we can find more meaningful ways of connecting with others. And perhaps some of the love we’ve been seeking “out there” we can give to ourselves.

Second, can we use this understanding to better love others? Perhaps we can become less judgmental as we reframe a lot of bad behavior as an unexpressed need or flawed attempt to either seek connection or protect oneself from rejection. Perhaps we can find more ways of offering connection through gifts of our time, deep listening, respect, service, words of encouragement and praise. Perhaps we can focus more on giving than getting.

What do you think?


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

4 responses to “Longing for Love”

  1. Dorothy says:

    Without going into detail, I personally know the result of neglect and abuse. My early childhood was a nightmare.My sister and I were adopted when I was 8yrs old. My adopted parents, while they loved me, could not give me the physical affection that I so craved. As a child and as a teenager I was confused as to what constitutes real love, and this need showed and made me a victim of sexual abuse. This coupled with constant feelings of being inferior and worthless, as well as guilt, created a lot of ” laundry” in my life that I had to sort out and take care of.
    Words cannot express how indebted and grateful I am to my Savior and Father in Heaven for providing help and guidance in my life, and lifting my burdens so I could have the strength to move forward. I am so very grateful that my adopted father was a faithful member of his Church. I am so grateful for leaders and teachers that have helped me, and for a wonderful companion who helped me realize my worth.

    • Roger Allen says:

      Hi Dorothy,
      Thank you for your comment. Sorry to hear about the abuse in your life but I’m happy to know you have received the help, through your church and relationship with your Father in Heaven, to realize your worth and move forward. You are an example that we have the ability to change and find fulfillment.

  2. Heather says:

    My partner said to me today that I am emotionally stunted. Immediately, I researched the topic as well as Borderline Personality Disorder. Guess what, he’s right. And it sure explains a heck of a lot. Had I known this many many years ago, I probably would not have been unfaithful to two husbands which led to two divorces, and I would be in a much healthier relationship with my partner, who I feel is the love of my life, and his children. I had front row seats to my father’s alcoholic antics. It tore our family apart. My mother was loving, but in a cool way. My father liked the boys better. I recall hugging my father once in my teenage years and never again thereafter. The same for my mother. I longed for comfort and the idea that everything was going to be alright.

    I give my sons hugs and support constantly having promised myself it’s what I would do for them having not gotten it myself as a child. I think I need the hugs just as much as they do.

    I have a long road ahead of me and many things I’ve said and done to make up for. I’m 48 years old. I hope I’m not too late.

    Thank you for your website. I enjoy it very much. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, Heather. It is not too late for healing from your childhood and mistakes made as an adult. I applaud you for realizing you have things to make up for. You are on the right road and more important than where you are on this road is moving in the right direction. And good for you for doing for your sons what you missed out on as a child. True, you also need the hugs. Finding healthy sources of love is so important for you in your journey.

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