As a couples therapist, I see so much frustration with my clients who think that their relationship should be ‘easier’ or ‘less painful’. One woman remarked, “We are both kind, well-educated, well-meaning individuals. Why is this so hard? It feels like we are playing a ping pong game, lobbing back jabs as fast as we can.” In the therapy room, once we start understanding each partner’s attachment history, the light bulbs go on. Partners start understanding that we humans are ‘wired for connection’ As infants, without emotional connection with another human, we will die. When that connection is threatened we react in ways to protect ourselves. This is Attachment. How we adapt when feeling insecure in our attachment with important others points to the amazing human capacity for survival.
John Bowlby, British Psychologist, and one of the pioneers of Attachment Theory, defined attachment as “a lasting psychological connection between human beings.” He found that infants needed to have a strong and consistent psychological connection with their caregiver that was marked by emotional responsiveness to form a secure attachment. Infants that did not receive this responsiveness became agitated, withdrawn and in worst cases died. We saw this through-out the 19th and 20th century in orphanages where children died of the diagnosis: ‘Failure to thrive’. Bowlby’s work with juvenile delinquent boys and teenagers found similar stories amongst all of them. Stories of traumatized and absent caregivers that led these boys to adapt to the emotional deprivation in the only ways they knew how – to find connection on the streets with other groups of boys. Bowlby’s work focusing on children’s need for emotional connection was fundamental in changing England’s hospital policies for allowing parents to stay with their sick children.
American Psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970’s developed the “Strange Situation” in which she recorded how 12-18 -month-old babies responded to being left alone, and then reunited by their mothers. Ainsworth found that that healthy babies uniformly responded with distress during their mothers absence, and then relief when reunited. Susan Johnson, founder of Emotion Focused Therapy watched thousands of hours of video tape of distress couples. She found that adult partners responded in similar ways as Ainsworth’s babies during disconnection; becoming agitated, complaining and eventually collapsing in hopeless withdraw. These Psychologists and others have informed our current understanding of distress in our adult intimate relationships – our adult attachment relationships.
The goal of understanding how our childhood attachment bonds impacts our relationship with our current partner is not to demonize our parents, but to understand how we deal with the pain of disconnection. As children, when parents were not able to be responsive to our feelings (sadness, anger, fear, joy), we had to shut those feelings down. Our ability to adapt as a child to get the responsiveness we need from our parents speaks to the survival value of maintaining this connection. For example, if you showed sadness and were told “big boys don’t cry”, the natural coping strategy to please your parents is to stop being sad. If your feelings of anger were met with rage, it would appear to be a good coping strategy to not show anger again in your family. The message to the child is: “If I am going to get responsiveness (attachment security) from you, I have to show you only emotions that are acceptable to you. Is it any wonder why sharing vulnerable emotions or addressing conflict to our partner during times of disconnection seems terrifying for so many of us?
The good news is that secure attachment bonds between adult partners can be earned. Partner’s can learn to risk sharing painful feelings and have an experience of being accepted, seen, heard and valued in the process. This is what creates a secure and sacred bond in our adult intimate relationships. This is what Hold Me Tight® Couples Workshop bases it work on – That we are wired for connection. That we can rebuild intimacy and emotional connection in our relationship as we understand Love from an attachment perspective.