Archive for November 9th, 2011
The emotional tie that binds us to another person in a special relationship is called an attachment bond. In the 1950’s, a psychiatrist in England named John Bowlby coined this term from his studies of the quality of the connection between a parent and child. He found that the quality of the attachment bond between a parent and child would predict how close and connected they were in future relationships and that attachment styles were different depending on how safe the bond felt.
Our attachment style is the working model in our mind of the ‘way people are.’ We define ourselves in the context of our most close relationships. It’s where we learn ‘who’ we are. Out of our early relationships, we develop a ‘working model’ of who we are and how safe we can feel around other people. This is our attachment style.
If our early experiences of relationship taught us that things were safe and secure, we would develop a sense of Secure Attachment which would allow us to experience a reciprocal and accessible emotional connection, to give clear signals about own needs, to feel secure away from loved one because they know/feel that the significant other will be there if needed and to feel safe to look to partner for reassurance if needed.
If our experiences in early relationships were sometimes not safe and secure, where we might have experienced loss or some type of trauma, then we could develop other types of attachment styles,
A person with an Anxious Attachment style tends to get very distressed at separation and is not confident that partner will return. They might cling to partner, be fearful of being alone, and feel jealous/watchful. Separation may be experienced as a catastrophic unbearable feeling like death leading to much anger at separation.
Those with an Avoidant Attachment style will show no external emotion on separation or reunion but internally may be unconsciously showing significant signs of physiological distress. They act like don’t care. They may be socially skilled but avoid seeking or giving support. They may experience intense hostility but attribute this to their partner. They may feel upset when partner seeks support.
The fourth attachment style that Bowlby observed is called Fearful Attachment. The person with this style of attachment is usually a trauma survivor who has been physically, emotionally or sexually abused as child. This leads to a very ambivalent view of self and the other with shifts between wanting partner close (needing comfort) but getting anxious when partner gets close so then pushes partner away with criticism. Partner never feels like they can love this person in the ‘right’ way and the fearful person has difficulty trusting that love won’t hurt them.
It’s helpful to realize that our attachment style is biological. It was learned when our brain and nervous system were forming. It regulates and guides our reactions and responses in relationships. You could say that it’s our ‘thrown’ way of being but it doesn’t have to sabotage what happens to us in relationships. Understanding our attachment style can be very helpful in changing the relationship dance when it becomes painful and even seems to be the source of our pain.
Because I’m a therapist and work with couples, I hear many of the difficulties that couples encounter in their relationship dance. How many time have you heard a woman say, “he never talks to me, he just want to watch TV’. How many times have you heard a man say, “she’s always after me to talk about how I feel. She’s never satisfied.” These are conversations guided (usually unconsciously) by the attachment style of the person speaking. As mentioned earlier, our attachment style is our working model of the way we see relationships. A woman with an anxious attachment style is going to seek reassurance from her partner that the relationship is solid. If her partner is avoidant in style, he is going to get upset about her ‘neediness’ and want to superficially reassure her or pull away and withdraw. When he withdraws, her anxiety goes up and she may pursue him for reassurance, which makes him want to withdraw more. This dance of pursue/withdraw can be very painful for both parties and can lead to divorce if not dealt
The purse/withdraw pattern described above is an example of a negative cycle that can make a relationship a constant source of pain and disappointment. As someone once said, there is no pain like relationship pain because we are all programmed to turn to relationship as a place of safety and comfort but as in the above example, these partners only find pain and frustration.
What is the way out of this cycle of pain? It is important to be aware of your own attachment style and the ‘raw spots’ that trigger the attachment fears and reactions. Everyone has vulnerabilities and it’s important in relationship for partners to be able to share these vulnerabilities and to be accessible and responsive to each other. The challenge is that it takes time and patience to develop the trust in another person to ask for what we need when we’re feeling vulnerable, especially if we haven’t ever experienced a secure attachment relationship before. When our ‘raw spots’ get activated, it’s easy to blame and develop patterns of relating that re-injure both partners.
Sue Johnson, Ph.D., in her recent book, Hold Me Tight, writes that “To reconnect, lovers have to be able to de-escalate the conflict and actively create a basic emotional safety. They need to be able to work in concert to curtail their negative dialogues and defuse their fundamental insecurities.” This may sound like it’s easier said than done. But love and connection in a relationship are like bread, you have to make them every day or they get stale. It becomes easier to move in the direction of creating a safe connection if you realize that the pain you might experience in your relationship is just a signal to move towards healing, towards understanding, towards each other, and that it’s no one’s fault.
Some of the couples I have worked with have found the following things helpful:
- Honor Separate Realities- sometimes we expect our partner to know what we need without realizing that they do not see the world the way we do. We are usually attracted to someone who is different that us and then can come to resent that difference. Get interested in the fact that your partner may see things differently than you.
- Nurture Your Emotional Connection- it’s hard to feel connected to someone if you don’t spend time together. Make it a priority to have special time together. It doesn’t have to be expensive dinners etc. but it does mean just the two of you being together. It could be just holding hands and taking a walk. Emotional connection means getting interested in and responsive to your partner’s emotional world.
- Handle disagreement and conflict with humor, affection, interest and respect. It is not whether couples agree or disagree that predicts whether their relationships will last: it is how they handle differences and conflict. Avoid the destructive ways of dealing with conflict, which are: criticism, contempt, defense, stonewalling and withdrawal.
- Re-engage after disagreement. Instead of continuing to maintain distant and build a wall between the two of you, turn towards your partner again and reconnect in whatever way works for you. Rather than shutting down, be present to one another, repair hurt feelings and build positive regard. Keep a 5-1 ratio of positive –negative interactions between you. Withdrawing from each other is the most destructive way of handling conflict, and the most likely to lead to the dissolution of the relationship. People who cannot connect or reconnect emotionally are affected by the isolation in both their physical and emotional health. Some differences and disagreements cannot be resolved, but relationships can still thrive in spite of some perpetual areas of conflict. Mellow out about your partner’s faults and above all, do not withdraw and shut him/her out.
- Seek professional help at the early warning signs of relationship difficulties. Waiting too long is never worth it, because you get stuck in negative patterns of interaction that become increasingly automatic and rigidly entrenched and more and more difficult to change.