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Attachment in Adult Relationships

by Gudrun Zomerland, MFT

Couples counseling is continuously evolving. At the forefront of recent developments is attachment theory, originally a study of how children bond with their primary caregivers. This theory, as applied to adults, basically states that the way we learned to bond with those who raised us, leads us to partners with whom we can create a similar pattern of attachment. This pattern then gets acted out in our committed, on-going relationships.

In order to understand any strengths or difficulties we may have in our current relationships, it is useful to know the attachment styles we have grown up with. The pioneers in figuring out childhood attachment styles were John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. An imminently readable history of their and other people's work that brought this theory to life is "Becoming Attached" by Robert Karen, PhD. The upshot of this research is four basic attachment styles: secure, ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized.

A secure attachment is based on a parent who is emotionally available and responsive to a child's needs. This is important all through childhood, but particularly during infancy and the toddler stage, since the human brain has its foremost growth spurt during the last trimester up until the end of the second year of life; from then on the growth curve is less steep until it flattens out during later adulthood. Any experiences during the early stage of childhood are embedded in the brain as neuronal pathways. Repeated experiences lead to the strengthening of these pathways until all later experiences get filtered through these existing patterns. Thus, a securely attached child will seek a partner later on in life who can match a pattern of emotional availability and responsiveness to his or her needs.

When the security of the parental (or caregiver) bond is threatened in early childhood, the child will attempt to reestablish attachment through certain behaviors, like reaching out or crying. When these behaviors fail to bring the parent around as a figure of availability and safety, other behaviors will replace the earlier attempts to reconnect. These other behaviors are a range of angry protest, clinging, despair and, if all else fails, detachment.

An ambivalent attachment results when a parent is unable to respond to the child's needs in a consistent, caring manner. (Note: all parents reach this state at times; we are talking about degrees here.) The problem arises when the child, not attended to, increases the demands for bonding and the parent responds with increased irritability. The parent may rest, calm down and become available again later, but if this cycle is repeated frequently, the child is uncertain when it will receive attention and when not. Children, who grow up like this, doubt their lovability and will become hyper vigilant for signs of abandonment and will later on in life seek partners who are inconsistent in their affection and their presence.

In the avoidant style of attachment the unavailability of the parent is more consistent and the child learns that it cannot depend on the parent for soothing and comfort. In order to cope, the child learns to ignore his or her own needs and, therefore, also any needs for the parent as an attachment figure. As grown ups these people are fiercely independent and will not admit to needing others. They might seek others who function in similar ways, thus leading parallel lives rather than having intimate relationships; or they might bring out angry protests in their partners, who then appear as constant nags. They might also remain single and avoid relationships altogether. (Note: singleness does not imply a person is avoidant; finding a good partner takes a certain measure of good fortune!)

Lastly, a child develops a disorganized attachment style when, in addition to the above inconsistent or unavailable attention, the parent is abusive, intrusive, neglectful or otherwise dangerous. The child may develop behaviors such as rocking, head-banging, or abusing other children or animals. These people make poor partners later on in life since they are prone to dangerous acting out against themselves or others. Nonetheless, they might attract others who are used to drama and think they can fix the seemingly more damaged person.

Please be aware that the above descriptions are generalized and many other factors play into the development of a person, i.e. other available people in a child's life such as extended family, a neighbor, a teacher, or a therapist later on in life. Thus, someone who developed a disorganized attachment style early in life might develop into a compassionate, deeply feeling, present human being further down the road.

Dr. Sue Johnson, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Ottawa University and Director of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute, has done the most to incorporate attachment theory into couples counseling. Her model is called Emotionally Focused Couples Counseling or EFT, for short. So far she has only written books for professionals which are dense reading material, i.e. "The Practice of Emotionally Focused Marital Therapy: Creating Connections". She is planning to publish a book for the general public next spring, however, and I am very much looking forward to it. (The following quotes are from the above mentioned book).

The goal of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, in a nutshell, is "to address attachment concerns, reduce attachment insecurities, and foster the creation of a secure bond" between partners. "Problematic behavior" within the relationship "is seen as a response to past and/or present threats to secure attachment". In other words, when we think that our partner is not there for us, we will fall back upon deeply ingrained thinking and coping and either will react with anger, clinging, rejection, or stonewalling.

By the time couples find their way into counseling, old attachment wounds within the relationship have often gone unattended to for years. In order to establish a secure bond in the present, it is often necessary to not only pay attention to childhood attachment wounds but also to unearth the times within the relationship when each partner felt abandoned or betrayed by the other.

As a couples therapist I pay particular attention to each partner's expressions of "sadness and loss, anger and protest, fear and insecurity, as well as of shame", which underlies all attachment styles that are not secure. I try to validate each person's attempts to either connect with the other or to stay safe during a real or perceived threat. Sue Johnson describes a couple's interactions poetically as the "the music of the attachment dance".

Ever since attending a four-day workshop with Sue this spring, I have integrated what I have learned into my work with couples. It is extremely exciting and rewarding to see her model make a difference in the way I pay attention to the dance couples present to me. For more information or to talk to me, please call me at 707-575-8468.

To find out more about Sue Johnson, here are some useful websites:
http://aix1.uottawa.ca/~johnsons/Pages/aboutSue.html, http://www.eft.ca/sjohnson/sjohn.htm
 
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The Practice of Emotionally Focused Marital Therapy: Creating Connections by Dr. Sue Johnson