Attachment styles have gotten some buzz in pop culture but what does it really mean? You may have looked up and tried to figure out what your attachment style is in your effort to understand or improve your intimate relationship.
So let’s first look at what an attachment is. Attachment is the bond you have with a close intimate other. If you are bonded to this person in a way that you rely on them for physical or emotional comfort and connection, you have an attachment to this person. Attachments can be healthy and move us toward greater mental health, or they can be unhealthy and move us toward mental distress. From when we are born, our caretakers, whether they are biological parents, adoptive parents, extended family members or the like, those are your earliest attachment figures. The people closest to you whom you rely on for comfort and care. As we evolve into adulthood, your adult intimate partner becomes your attachment figure, and you theirs, once your bond develops.
Before we get into attachment styles, let’s look at what healthy, functional, attachment looks like. In an ideal world, when we are vulnerable and in need, we can reach to an important other for comfort and support. And in that ideal world, the partner responds in a loving and caring way. So as a child, this might look like scraping your knee when you fall off your bicycle. Not only is there a physical wound, but you might have also gotten frightened by the fall. If your mother or father came and tended to your wound, held you and said, it’s okay, you’re okay. I know it hurts. Let’s get it cleaned up and you will be good as new! That is an example of a person in distress and vulnerable, being responded to with comfort and care. That interaction builds trust that you can count on this person to be there in times of need. That is what we call secure attachment. In adult relationships, this might look something like partner A getting their feelings hurt by partner B. So A turns to B and says, when you were late and didn’t call, I didn’t know if something happened to you and I started to worry. And when you got home and were fine I felt mad that you didn’t think to contact me. It left me feeling unimportant. And B responds to A with something like, oh gosh, I didn’t mean to worry you and I’m so sorry I left you feeling unimportant. My mind was distracted by a tough day at work and it slipped my mind to call. I’m sorry I hurt you, I am here now. And gives a soothing hug. This would be an adult example of one person reaching for support and care and the other person responding with love and comfort. That is an adult example of secure attachment.
But what happens when our interactions don’t go this way? What happens when the people closest to us don’t respond to us in the ways we hope for or need? What if we don’t trust the world enough to be that vulnerable?
This is where we learn to adopt strategies to protect ourselves from hurt and harm in the relationships closest to us that have the greatest potential to cause us emotional hurt and devastation.
Insecure attachment styles, also called strategies, are really just ways we behave in our intimate relationships to protect ourselves if it feels too dangerous to take emotional risks.
Let’s go back to that moment in childhood when you fell off your bike, scraped your knee and got scared. Imagine that caregiver responded with a harsh tone and said, “Get up! Don’t be a cry baby! You are ridiculous!” You would quickly learn to stuff your pain, that sharing resulted in shaming and humiliation, so keep your feelings to yourself. That can be a very painful, lonely place, but for most people, that is less painful then the fear and pain of feeling shamed and rejected by an intimate other. So stuffing feelings, withdrawing, going quiet, is a way to protect oneself from feeling shamed and humiliated.
Let’s go back to our adult example. If partner A shares that the missed call when the partner was late and partner B angrily responded with, “you are not my parent! I do not have to call you because I am running late, my goodness you are so controlling!” Partner A, just like in the child scenario, learns that sharing an experience is not going to result in loving comfort, but rather shaming, accusation and attack. So it no longer feels safe to turn to the partner from a vulnerable place.
Let me be clear, no parent or partner is going to be perfect and we all have our moments where we don’t respond the best way to our loved ones. It happens to everyone. These attachment strategies are employed when these interactions become a pattern, or the norm.
So the more clear question, rather than asking what is my attachment style, would be to ask yourself, how do I protect myself in times of distress if I do not see my partner as accessible or reliable in my times of need.
There are two primary ways people protect themselves in these moments of disconnection. We know them best as fight, flight or freeze. So if you see your partner as inaccessible, do you protest and get bigger and louder in your effort to be heard, understood and responded to? Or do you go quiet, turn away, and bottle it up to avoid the potential threat of further shame and blame?
Connection requires vulnerability. Vulnerability requires safety. We cannot connect when we are protecting ourselves. If you find yourself caught in this struggle, there is a way out and we can help. Please reach out to us anytime for help in healing your relationship.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
Dana Vince, Healing Hearts Counseling
There’s a scene in an old episode of Grey’s Anatomy. I was unsuccessful in locating it so I could post it here, so I’ll have to just tell you about it. It was years ago that I saw it, but I never forgot it because it was quite impactful to me.
A mother was talking to the doctor shortly after her son had major surgery. She was suffering because her son was in such intense pain. The doctor said to her something along the lines of, “just remember, it’s a healing pain, not a dying pain.” Ooof! I found that to be a pretty profound statement.
Therapy is like this. Sometimes people avoid coming to therapy because they don’t want to drudge up painful stuff. If you are in a long term intimate relationship, odds are you have caused each other pain. If you are a human being that was a part of a family during your growing years, odds are that they also caused you some pain. These pains vary in degrees from person to person, but we all have them. If we suppress or avoid this pain, it becomes a dying pain. It cuts us off from parts of ourself. It puts walls between us and our loved ones leaving us isolated and alone. We act it out in ways we may not even be aware of.
When we decide to face that pain, turn toward it, allow ourselves to feel it, process it, understand it, and share it, we create space for it to heal. This hurts. It’s not easy to do. We have to feel it to heal it. But the pain you feel during that process, it’s a healing pain, not a dying pain. It is not meant for us to suffer alone. When we can share with a safe other, we can heal. If you would like to know more about us, go to www.marriagecounselingknoxville.com/team
It takes courage to reach for help and support. You are strong enough.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
Social media and technology come up again and again in therapy sessions with couples as a source of distress, disconnection and concern. It comes up in a variety of ways. Here is a list of the most common complaints we hear from partners:
My partner’s face is always in his/her phone.
I don’t know if my partner is just playing a game or doing something important, so I don’t know if I can/should interrupt or not. I might start talking, and find my partner isn’t even paying attention to me.
I was doing something important on my phone, and my partner just starts talking without realizing I am in the middle of something, and that’s frustrating.
Friends or contact with people on social media that feel threatening to the bond of the relationship.
Answering texts or phone calls during time that is otherwise expected to be sacred to the couple.
Addictive habits around scrolling on social media during time together.
You can probably add your own complaints to this list.
In a world where we are all starving for more connection, we are looking for it in the wrong places. Social media and technology connect us in ways that we have never been connected before. We have friends on Facebook and instagram that we’ve never even met in person because we may have similar interests or ideas. But yet, it disconnects us more than ever because it takes us away from being present in the world around us and engaging with our important others who are right in front of us.
So what can we do about this? Here are some suggestions from unplugging from the digital world, and plugging in to your loved ones and being more present and accessible.
Put time limits on your phone around certain activities. For example; your phone can alert you when you’ve been on Facebook for more than an hour. Or when you’ve been playing candy crush for 2 hours.
Set some boundaries around when it’s time to put phones and internet away. Maybe it’s during dinner time, or maybe after 6pm. Or even just for an hour to engage with your family talking about your day and being with each other.
Check in with each other when you see your partner on their phone. Ask what they are doing and is it okay to interrupt so that you may share or have a conversation.
If you see your partner spending a lot of time in the digital world, rather than accuse or attack, let them know you miss them and would like to be more engaged and request to make a plan for that.
Be intentional about spending quality time with each other, and make that a time that phones are on silent and put away. If you don’t want to silence a possible important call from your child, or that doctor’s office you are waiting to hear from, put it on do not disturb and then set the exception to the numbers you will allow to ring through.
Be open and transparent about who you are interacting with digitally. Have conversations around expected boundaries to protect your relationship and each other. This is going to be different for everyone. Some couples are okay with their partner communicating with an ex on Facebook, some are not. Know and talk about how you and your partner feel about these things to avoid hurts down the road. You matter to and impact one another. Be thoughtful about how your communications with others might impact your partner. Also be reflective about why you might be engaging in certain communications. What need isn’t being met. Address it rather than avoid and seek it elsewhere.
These are just a few issues and suggestions about protecting your connection with one another by being thoughtful and intentional about digital and social media use. I invite you to come up with your own ways of being present with and connecting with those around you in your real life. Your partner and your family need that from you.
If you need help repairing your intimate connection with your partner, contact us today. We are here to help.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
As we settle into 2021, we have a great opportunity to pause and reflect on what we have experienced in the final months of last year. We started 2020 with certain hopes, plans, and expectations, many of which were altered or wiped out due to COVID-19. This has caused immense amounts of stress, especially for families.
Putting together a memory book is a great option to slow down and reflect on the past year. The good, the bad, the stressful, the funny can all be remembered. Options for a memory book can include a scrapbook, a storybook, or if you’re really ambitious, you could get creative with something like a comic book to tell the story of the year. Whatever form you choose, this activity facilitates reflection where all the voices and perspectives of your family can be heard and valued. Being heard and feeling connected to loved ones relieves stress and promotes resilience for future stressors. During an activity like this, it’s important to intentionally listen to and reflect what your child shares, being careful to catch any reactions or responses that might dismiss or deny your child’s experience.
Below are questions you can ask your kids to help generate ideas and conversation about what you’d like to include in a memory book:
- What do you want to remember about the past year?
- How would you describe the past year? You can use a color, an animal, a kind of weather or a feeling to describe it. Consider having everyone (adults included!) try to draw a picture that portrays what this year has felt like
- What was disappointing about the past year? Were there times you felt sad? Scared?
- What are you thankful for in the past year? What were things that were fun and brought you joy?
- How would you explain this past year to other kids if they hadn’t lived through it, and they were asking you what it was like?
Whether you use paper, markers, and tape on hand to throw a book together, or want to go all out with crafting supplies, use reflection time to compile pictures, drawings, and memories from everyone in your family. If each voice has a lot to be heard, consider compiling a memory book per person that all comes together as a series.
This book is a great read for any age, combining evidenced based research with helpful applications for how to engage children across developmental stages.
This book was written by a woman who specializes in helping children process distressing experiences. It’s specifically related to COVID-19 and is available online as a free PDF.
I pulled the following text from a lawn care website. They had a section on lawn care tips and as I read it, it reminded me of marriage.
“Contrary to popular belief, dandelions cannot be effectively prevented. They can only be controlled when they’re actively growing.The best defense against weeds is a thick carpet of grass – so thick it doesn’t give the weed seeds a chance to sprout. That’s one reason Scott’s LawnServicefocuses on improving your lawn’s turf density. And during the growing season we constantly monitor your lawn for new weeds and knock them out if they appear.”
So how do I relate this to marriage? Read More
When Shannon and Toby first came into my office for marriage counseling, they had already begun the healing process. They were talking more and sharing more than they ever had in their marriage before. They were already using this very painful experience to grow as individuals and as a couple.
Toby grew up in a family where there was a lot of screaming and fighting. Things would go from quiet and peaceful to extremely stressful in a short amount of time and these outbursts between his parents were unpredictable. He also described himself as the kid other kids made fun of. Because of this he came to avoid conflict at all costs in his own marriage. If things got loud, he felt very unsafe and would shut down. In his marriage, he would stuff his feelings and rarely share himself for fear of that conflict or rejection.
Often times couples find themselves so emotionally exhausted from the issues that plague their relationship, they look for a way out and make the decision to file for divorce. Many times the couple is made up of two people who still love each other, but they just don’t know how to get along with each other. They don’t necessarily want out of the marriage, but they want out of the pain and frustration and think divorce must be the answer.
For this particular couple, they were in very damaging cycle in their relationship and did not know how to break out of it.
In the first session, they were unable to be productive because they were so caught up blaming each other that they could not see their own part in the cycle. They decided to separate. During their separation, they continued individual counseling.
In continuing my work to share stories of couples who sit on my couch, it is my goal to provide hope and encouragment out there to those who are struggling in their marriage.
Infidelity is one of the most painful and difficult challenges for a couple to work through because it pulls the floor of safety and security right out from under you. But the marriage can be restored. In fact, it can be better than before. It's been said that time heals all wounds. When it comes to infidelity, time is certainly a factor, but it's not the only one. There is work to be done in that time to restore trust, emotional safety and connection to the relationship. Time alone won't solve those problems.
This story is about a young couple I'll call Tom and Suzanne (fictitious names, of course). Suzanne had lost her father at a young age which left her feeling abandoned. She grew up never having felt "good enough". When she married Tom, she had a lot of insecurities and needed a lot of approval. Because of this she avoided conflict like the plague. She was afraid if Tom got upset with her, he would abandon her. He would see the qualities that she saw in herself and he would not want to be with her any longer. Because of this fear, she manipulated herself to please him, never really being authentic. As some years past, she felt a loss of her sense of self.
This is my second month writing the stories of couples who come through my doors. As I stated in my first article, not every story will be a success story. But I hope each one is one that you can learn from. I hope to bring to light the struggles of many couples so others might realize they are not alone.
This story is not the story of one couple, but a story that I have seen repeated one too many times. (Names are fictional).
Joe and Mary have been married for 18 years. They have two children who are now 13 and 16 years old. Joe is a hard worker and dedicates himself to his career. He believes that by providing well for his family, he is doing his job as a husband and father. He puts in 60 to 80 hours a week and has for the last 20 years. He has done quite well in his career and provides a nice lifestyle for his wife and kids.
This is the first in a series I am starting. The series is going to involve couples stories. Some of them will be success stories, and some of them not. But each of them will give you a glimpse into what other couples struggle with. I think you'll find that you are not alone in your own struggles. I hope that from reading these stories, you find insight into your own marriage and how to make improvements. These stories come from my experiences in counseling couples. In my 4 years of practice, I have treated over four hundred couples. To protect the confidentiality of those involved, names are not used. I will also leave out certain details or edit parts of the story so that the couple cannot be identified and confidentiality is maintained.
Remember to like my facebook page, follow me on Twitter or Linkedin, or subscribe to my rss feed so that you can keep up with the series.