Highlights

Starved of affection

Sep 2017    

The United Nations estimated that as of 2016, there are 795 million people facing hunger in the world. This fact is hard to comprehend, and even harder to accept in a world which has the capacity of producing enough food to feed itself and where food waste is a growing problem with many countries.

Even though the majority of incidence of malnourishment is located in developing countries, we too have our hungry in developed economies like Singapore. Whilst we do have some who need food assistance in order to stave off poor nutrition in our urban island city, there are many, many more who are starved of love from another human being.

Is it right to accord the need for love the same level of import as the need for food?

To answer this, let us look at the research by Harry Harlow in the 1950s on Maternal Deprivation. In the study, baby rhesus macaque monkeys were taken away from their mothers and raised by researchers. The baby monkeys were then exposed to two kinds of artificial ‘mothers’. One kind of ‘mother’ monkeys were constructed of wire frames with feeding tubes while the other kind had their wire frames covered with cloth but did not have any feeding tubes.

Over time, researchers noticed that the baby monkeys chose to spend more time with the cloth-covered ‘mothers’ even though they were receiving no physical nourishment from it. The researchers surmised that the monkeys craved for contact, and perhaps comfort, from these ‘mothers’. Significantly, the monkeys raised entirely with wire-frame mothers with feeding tubes did not appear to thrive despite having ready access to a food source.

What got me thinking about this topic was my meeting two couples who came for counselling. Both couples had been together for about 15 years and have children of their own. In both cases, the wives were so dissatisfied with their marriages that they were considering divorce. However, unlike other couples who are at the point of divorce, there was no threat from extramarital affairs, violence and abusive behaviours, or addictions. In fact, their husbands were at a loss as to the reason behind their spouses’ unhappiness.

One even considered himself a good husband because he provided adequately for his family’s needs. But herein lay the crux of the problem. He defined needs only in material and monetary terms. Giving his time and attention to the children and his affection to his wife was not essential in his mind.

To be fair, they, like many fathers, threw in the obligatory once-a-year holiday. As if this alone would see the affection-starved family through the lean months!

I should not be too hard on fathers and husbands; after all, I am one myself. But it is a fact that in the course of my work, I have come to witness many who are sadly unaware of the needs of their loved ones to have their undivided attention and time, not another computer game or a designer bag. Possessions do not replace people.

Their lack of awareness is also probably due to the lack of good role models. After all, stereotypical male models  tend to emphasise focus on building one’s home and providing for the offspring once they have ‘settled down’.

Another reason why men do not seem too keyed in on the emotional needs of their loved ones is that many are, themselves, starved of not just good fatherhood role models but also of love. They too may have been raised by distant fathers, and lack the vocabulary of words and actions to express love effectively.

Are we all then doomed to live in emotionally-challenged relationships and environments?

I like to believe not. If we embrace the God of Love and have the supreme example of what love is in Christ, then we can change this dire course, if we will humble ourselves to tap into this font of love.

Benny Bong –

has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

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