In my previous blog on attachment I explored the definition and importance of attachment for children. We used to believe that adults grow out of their attachment needs. Instead, research on couples finds that in our primary adult long-term love relationships attachment is always important.
Both secure and insecure attachment impact the success or failure of adult intimate relationships. They also affect our ability to self-regulate emotions, tolerate stress, manage pain and rebound from disappointment or loss.
Adult attachment is established the same non-verbal behaviours used by caregivers to foster attachment in children. These are often the things we do so well in courtship – non-distracted attention, eye-to-eye contact, physical affection, and synchronizing our pace and lives with our partner. We tend to stop doing these over time - to the detriment of the relationship. Without rituals of connection the love bank can get dry so there is less resilience to bounce back from hurt.
We all know what it feels like when we feel ignored by our partner and how much it hurts when they don’t understand our deepest wishes, or shut us down for our vulnerabilities. Lots of us say, “why are we fighting over this stupid, insignificant thing?” It’s not really about the chores or money but about our deepest yearning to be accepted, loved, and validated.
In emotionally focused therapy (EFT) for couples, we look for the unmet attachments needs underneath the everyday arguments that don’t get resolved. Core attachment needs might sound like “I need to know I matter to you. I need to know that you will be there for me.” What we believe about ourselves and our partners also influences how we categorize and react to situations.
Whenever attachment appears to be at risk some people will pursue – this might look like complaining or criticizing to try to demand connection. Other people withdraw – they have to pull away to feel safe. Both partners are exhibiting attachment distress and usually don’t recognize the cues for themselves or their partners. Bridging the misunderstanding and resulting loneliness gap between the couple can heal disrupted bonds and create new long-lasting secure ones.
As for children, it is possible in adult relationships to move from insecure to secure attachment by tuning in, paying attention, being curious, considering our partner’s point of view, being playful in a mutually supportive way, sharing our vulnerabilities, forgiving and letting go of past hurts that have been repaired. This month’s Client Wisdom at the end of my newsletter is an example of how one couple repaired theirs.
If you want to deepen your relationship to your partner, one resource is “Hold Me Tight” by Dr. Sue Johnson which I reviewed In my October 2015 newsletter. She proposes seven key conversations for couples that deepen understanding of attachment. The helpguide.org site also has articles on adult attachment and relationships.
If you are not able to work things out on your own, couple counselling can be very beneficial. Eighty percent of couples who complete EFT counselling maintain a connected relationship.