“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new” – Ursula K. Le Guin
Humans are, by nature, bonding creatures. Seeking and maintaining closeness with those we love is our most innate survival strategy. We are neurologically hard wired for bonding; relationships are our ecological niche and the primary context in which we develop. Our brain, nervous system, and behavioral patterns are all oriented towards close connections with trusted others. It is hard to fully comprehend how strong this drive is within us. Yet, it isn’t surprising considering the sheer amount of time, energy, and money we spend on relationships. The strength and power of this survival strategy is precisely why relationships can feel so confusing to us. We start a relationship expecting the best and then “WHAM” something triggers a deep sense of fear inside us. This can fuel an intense back and forth as we both fight for survival, driving us further apart the longer it continues. If this is familiar to you, you’re not alone; every couple gets disconnected and has disagreements. Fortunately, attachment theory helps us understand the process of human bonding and love. My goal is to help make sense of how this unfolds in your relationships and give you a few tips on connecting with your loved ones.
Attachment can be a tricky word because it can mean different things in different contexts. When it comes to relationships, attachment refers to the process of seeking and maintaining closeness with key figures in our life. This process is relevant from cradle to grave and is our primary method of coping with the world around us. When we experience these key figures as predictably available, responsive, and engaged (A.R.E.), the security of our attachment strengthens. It offers a reliable place for comfort, reassurance, and restoration of emotional balance. This experience has a profound impact on our sense of self; helping us feel more grounded, resilient, competent, and strong. We are then able to express our needs more confidently, continuing to develop a template for secure attachment that is grounded in the experience of having a safe haven to return to.
On the contrary, when these key figures are perceived as inaccessible, unresponsive, or threatening, we adopt secondary strategies for seeking and maintaining closeness. These secondary strategies take two forms: anxious or avoidant. The anxious strategy can be characterized by a “fight” response that often involves protesting the lack of connection in order to increase responsiveness and availability. The avoidant strategy can be characterized by a “flight” response that often involves minimizing distress by distancing oneself from others, dismissing attachment needs, and self-reliance. It’s important to note that we all use fight or flight responses in our relationships and there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself. Rather, it is the rigidity around using these strategies that may impact the security of our bonds.
A.R.E. You There for Me?
“In relationships, shared vulnerability builds bonds, precisely because it brings attachment needs for a felt sense of connection and comfort to the fore and encourages reaching for others” – Susan Johnson
We cannot talk about attachment without talking about emotion. As Susan Johnson (the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy) puts it, “Emotion is the messenger of love”. How we have learned to cope with emotion has a significant impact on our felt sense of connection. If we are able to share our vulnerability (raw emotions/needs) openly and congruently and experience the loving presence and reassurance of our partner, we will feel connected, safe, and secure in the relationship. If we are unable to share our vulnerability and experience our loved one as distant, unavailable, or unreliable, we will feel a heightened sense of danger, fear, and helplessness. It is here that God’s words in Genesis 2:18 come to mind, “It is not good for man to be alone”. Isolation, both emotionally and physically, is inherently traumatizing for human beings.
As stated above, the formula for developing a secure bond is mutual availability, responsiveness, and engagement (A.R.E.). Emotional availability means an openness to and prioritization of making bids for connection. We make bids for connection intentionally or unintentionally all day, every day. Here are some examples of what bids for connection look like: sharing a memory/story/news, asking to spend time together, complaining/criticism, expressing an opinion or thought, talking about stress/challenges, or physical affection/closeness. Turning towards these bids is an essential part of being responsive. Instead of responding with your own thoughts, solutions, or criticism, you can try showing interest, expressing a longing to understand and hear more, and offering reassurance that your partner isn’t alone in what they’re sharing. The ingredient, engagement, is a process of sharing emotion back and forth. This can look like sharing more of your inner world, creating a shared vulnerability in which both of you are open and expressive about your emotions and needs. This process of gently sharing back and forth is what builds a secure bond, slowly creating a template for reaching and receiving love and support from each other. Eventually, through enough repetition, this becomes a trusted process that is relied on and used with confidence, strength, and security.
Tips for Each Attachment Style
It may be helpful to focus in on specific tasks for developing a more secure bond based on the different attachment styles. If you identify with the more anxious attachment style, you will most likely pick up on disconnection before your partner. This can be incredibly scary and overwhelming; often feeling like a preoccupation with your partner’s availability. There is nothing wrong with your efforts to “sound the alarm” and help your partner tune in to the disconnection. In fact, your protest is essential for the survival of the relationship. The goal would be to slow down your inner world and share your protest in a way that reconnects you rather than further distresses your partner. My favorite three words to help with this are: soft, slow, and low! Use gentler words and try to avoid criticism by describing your experience on the inside. Slow down the pace and intensity of your communication and be mindful of tone. Another helpful tip is that although it makes sense to fear disconnection, it’s best to slow down or pause how we make meaning of this disconnection. Our attachment system will often go to the worst-case scenario and not allow our partner to answer our fear. Learning to linger with the fear and invite reassurance is part of shifting our attachment bond.
If you identify with the more avoidant attachment style, you will most likely be surprised by your partners protest or bids for connection. This coping strategy tends to take the “everything seems fine” approach to connection; often assuming the relationship is stable unless there are major problems. It can be incredibly distressing and confusing to suddenly realize your partner is questioning the stability of your bond. You may begin to doubt your capacity to be a good partner and get defensive about all your do for your partner. It is important for you to feel like you’re good enough for your partner so the goal would be to share a peek into your inner world. Of course, you think about your partner and want to be close to them, but they might not know because you’re not used to expressing this! It’s ok to let them know and talk about how maybe sometimes you get scared and don’t want to let them down because you love them so dearly. The goal would be to reconnect with your own emotions and needs to help your partner find you and reassure them that you’re there.
As always, these are general guidelines and broad strokes. If you don’t feel safe or if you and your partner feel really stuck, therapy is always a good option. We have several great marriage therapists who have fallen in love with Emotionally Focused Therapy and would be more than happy to guide you to a more secure bond.
– Jonathan Dixon, LMFT
Jonathan Dixon is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Virginia who has offered mental health services at Alpha Omega Clinic’s Fairfax office since 2013. He is an active member of the Association of Marriage & Family Therapy. He also seeks to inspire healing and wholeness through reflections on Instagram @deepspeakstodeep.