A person’s attachment style tends to be his or her mental model of human connection. A view of self and other in the world.
Let me give you an example:
In a couples session recently, we were talking about the couples’ negative cycle, and the couple had the following conversation:
Wife: Well sometimes I don’t speak up because I get worried that he won’t want to be with me anymore if I argue with him.
Husband ( with intense surprise)- Are you saying that you don’t argue with me sometimes because you are afraid I won’t love you anymore then? I can’t believe you think of me like that!
Therapist: Sometimes it isn’t view of other, but view of self.
Husband: Wow. So what you are saying is that sometimes I don’t need to take it so personally and think it is about me. Sometimes I just need to be able to listen to her.
See what he did there? He stepped out of his own feelings and pain, and for a moment saw his wife’s view of herself, and how that impacts their relationship.
If our partner or loved one is perceived as inaccessible or unresponsive, then early attachment wounds are sometimes activated. When our early wounds get triggered (and we all have some early wounds), then we often react from those wounded places. We tend to rely on our early models of self and other to interpret our partners’ behaviors. If, for example, we have early wounds about not being important or taken into account or valued by our caretakers, and if those wounds are rubbed by an action of a loved one; our reaction tends to be more intense, than if that wound did not exist. In other words, the neural pathway is tapped by our partner.
Our early views of self and other can take the form of anxious, hyperactivated ways of interacting with others-what is often termed anxious attachment. The anxiety surrounding the answer to the question “are you there for me” often results in “fight” tendencies with your partner, which tend to show up as protests to the disconnection. This often plays out in the relationship dynamic as criticism. The criticism or protest is meant to elicit a response from the relationship partner. It is at the core “something is better than nothing”.
On the other hand, avoidant responses (the next model) are “flight” responses meant to minimize frustration and distress through distancing. Needs are then minimized and self reliance becomes the order of the day. These responses are sometimes in response to feelings of having failed or disappointed their loved one, and believing there is no hope of meeting expectations. The partner then turns away or “flees” emotionally from the interaction in order to maintain their view of self as whole or good. Or as our example above illustrates, the partner ‘freezes” because of underlying feelings of not feeling inherently entitled to love, a sense of having to earn love by being easy to get along with.
All people utilize fight, flight strategizes at times in their relationships. Neither attachment model described above is inherently flawed or dysfunctional. However, when these strategies become generalized (occurring across many areas of content) or habitual, they can become constraining and predictive and lead to cycles of distress in relationships.
Many theories are interesting and can give us a lot of information about ourselves and others, but the question in therapy is often “well, that is interesting, and sounds like what we are doing to each other, BUT “what do we do about it? “
If you know your partners attachment style, try to see it as a window into what might be going on with them. The couple’s conversation detailed above is perfect example of this. He was able to step out of his own feelings and see his wife’s fears for what they were in that moment. Her fears were not about him, but about her own view of self as not feeling worthy of love.
A second possible solution is to listen to your partners fears and vulnerabilities and believe him or her. Sometimes when we are looking inside and trying to manage our own hurt feelings, it is so hard to turn to our partner and believe they may be hurting too.
Finally, you can see your cycle of distress in your relationship as an opportunity to heal your own attachment wounds either with your partner or individually. The telling of our stories unloads some of the burden of pain and hurt we feel. Silence about our pain allows it to fester. Sharing our wounds with our partner increases connection and trust and lightens our load. Sometimes the healing of your own attachment wounds can begin the healing of the relationship. There is a saying, “If it is intense, then it might be MINE (not my partner’s).
Attachment styles and strategies are not a fixed state, but rather change based on new experiences. In other words, no matter your early life experiences, you can earn secure attachment with your partner through new corrective experiences with your partner. Experiences of feeling secure, loved and worthy in your relationship. At Mending Hearts & Minds, we are trained to help you and your loved one achieve these new experiences. We utilize the skills of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy to help build a secure connection. If you want to learn more about EFT click here. Or just give us a call. We can help.