Attachment – the key for connection

Attachment - the key for connection

Do you ever wonder why we are doing the things we do in our relationships, whether they are working or not? Some people seem to know the secret to love and being loved, while others just can’t seem to find happiness in any relationship they encounter. As today’s individuals are getting more isolated and as many as 40% to 50% of marriages end up in brokenness, is there any hope for those who struggle to make sense of what’s going on?

We are “hardwired” to connect

There is now general agreement among scientists that human beings are designed to connect. We have an innate tendency to desire good relationships with people who are important to us. Researchers have long shown that people who enjoy stable and satisfying relationships in life are healthier, more productive, and live longer. Our relational well-being does translate into our emotional well-being and physical health. If we know it’s important and care enough for it, why is connecting with people so difficult?

One of the major explanations for interpersonal problems is through the Attachment theory. The theory describes that as we are growing up, we internalize experiences in our most significant relationships at a core level, which then becomes a script or an “operational manual” of what a relationship is about. Since British psychiatrist John Bowlby first described how interactions between babies and their mothers appear to correlate with how the babies tend to behave, over the years the attachment perspective has influenced the work of many psychologists, including American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who identified distinct attachment patterns. People who provided us with these significant relationships are our “attachment figures” and the script serves as our “attachment filter” that influences a life-long pattern of how we interpret relational encounters and respond. Now it is widely acknowledged that the primary relationship between us and the caregivers has significant influence in shaping our social aspect of personality, even to the level that as adults we will continue to behave toward romantic partners similar to the patterns of attachment that we develop in childhood.

Highlights of adult attachment patterns

People who grow up with a primary caregiver who are responsive to their needs develop a secure attachment style. As children, they could turn to their primary caregivers for comfort when they are upset and the caregivers often would respond accurately by satisfying their needs and/or calm them down effectively with some form of soothing. As adults, people with this secure attachment style are generally stable and able to hold healthy relationships with warmth, reassurance, and acceptance. They are not afraid to experience even intense negative feelings in relationships; they are more likely to seek social support when they’re stressed; they also perceive themselves as having more available support. The empathy also equips them to have the ability to see and act confidently in response to the needs of others. They report less conflict with others, better conflict resolution when it does occur, and more satisfaction in relationships with friends and loved ones.

On the contrary, people can grow up and develop an insecure attachment style when the early experience with a caregiver was unpredictable, inconsistent, neglectful, or even abusive. As a result, two types of insecure style tend to develop – Anxious or Avoidant. Both have the same vulnerability of being very sensitive to interpersonal issues and easily perceive conflict in relationships. These styles tend not to be good at expressing feelings and using effective communication to solve the issues.

People with an anxious attachment style often find themselves entangled in a constant ambivalent state. They may not be sure where they stand in a relationships. Although they desire connection, nothing seems to be good enough to assure them or make them happy. They seek validation in close relationships for self worth but often find it disappointing. They are especially inclined to be worried about rejection or abandonment, hence tend to have lots of ups and downs, which in turn could make their partners feel like walking in an emotional “mine field”. The typical response to this intensified anxiety is to protest. They might be prone to be dependent, clingy, jealous, irritated, demanding, and constantly complaining about the relationship. They often eventually face an outcome of losing the relationships due to this anxious ambivalent state.

The avoidant type tends to repress their feelings. They are the ones who are hard to get or have difficulty making a commitment and will keep romantic partners at arm’s length. Once in a relationship they become the dismissive partner. People with avoidant attachment style find it difficult to listen empathetically to thoughts and feelings of those they are close to. Although they desire connection, they tend to use a number of substitutes for closeness. Yet no matter how many personal accomplishments are achieved, the sense of validation remains eluding. People with avoidant type attachment style tend to perceive others as not reliable, dependable, or trustworthy, and they think that they must rely on themselves to meet all their needs. This mindset may create an underlying and simmering anger toward people and the world. Oftentimes addictive behaviors are developed to repress that anger.

Healing relationship wounds

As we can see, prolonged exposure to unhealthy experiences in early life creates relationship wounds. These wounds perpetuate themselves by affecting our interaction style with others hence may hinder relational intimacy. Relationship wounds need to be healed through healthy relationships.   Here are some suggestions to start the process:

  • Understand more about your attachment style. Start a journal for reflection regarding your relationship history – what your earliest experiences were like and how you tend to think, feel, and act in present relationships.
  • Identify people in your life from the past to the present who are generally safe and stable and with whom you can interact on a regular basis. Research has shown that such role models in life can be a very helpful and powerful tool to help us learn how to obtain an “earned secure attachment” later in life. These role models can be family members, close friends, mentors you find at work or faith communities.
  • Develop a greater sense of self-awareness. Learn to treat yourself and others with compassion and acceptance. Learn to see interpersonal interactions with reality-based lenses. Learn new skills to connect with others and ways to respond to issues in a positive manner – you will have to do less suppressing and/or less protesting. This will help change the way we react to the vulnerability with less emotional sensitivity to increase the chance of having a better relationship. You can do this through education, observation, and receiving feedback from the safe people you identified.
  • Commit to practice what you learn and continue to monitor your progress. Changes take time. When you feel a pull between your old pattern and the new way of connecting, make a conscious effort to re-engage with the new way. Gradually, you will be re-writing the script at your core level and on the way to creating a healthy relationship style.

Working with a professional therapist or counselor has the benefit of helping you develop a structured plan and accountability for achieving long term goals. Call Perspectives of Troy Counseling Centers at 248-244-8644. We can help.

By Jo-chen Hou, PhD, LLP