Relationships are wonderful, we need them for survival, but possibly, more so to feel connected to someone. Closeness and connection are aspects of relating that humans, and other social animals need to thrive. Even so, relationships aren’t easy. This is especially true for our closest relationships, because the ones we feel closest to are the people we are most attached to. Attachment here refers to the concept proposed by British Psychologist John Bowlby, who imparted one of the most useful psychological models we have today.
According to attachment theory, the messages we receive from our earliest relationships with caregivers help us develop what Bowlby termed an Internal Working Model. Essentially, this model, or blueprint provides a communication strategy for relationships going forward. Some people are fortunate and experience healthy relationships with their caregivers. This bestows them with the gift of healthy communication in the form of good communication skills. This is what is known in attachment theory as a secure attachment.
Secure Or Insecure, That Is The Question
This happens when a baby is responded to appropriately by her caregiver(s). So for example, experiencing good eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and active listening. This means that when distressed, baby experienced feeling reassured, safe, and validated by her parents.
However, there are also other attachment styles which fall under the insecure attachment category, and result in a less helpful Internal Working Model. Insecure attachment happens when caregivers are emotionally unavailable and negligent, resulting in poor communication, an example of this might be passive-aggressive behaviour.
Case in point, let’s call our baby ‘Claire’. When baby Clair doesn’t experience a responsive and emotionally attuned parent, she interprets this to mean she is unimportant and unworthy of love. She will also realise that crying will not offer her comfort and reassurance from the other, rather, she will feel disappointed, rejected, and hurt. Eventually Clair stops crying to protect herself from the pain of rejection.
The Implications In Adulthood
This strategy becomes long term and governs interactions in adult relationships. Because whenever Clair becomes close to someone, her attachment system, that is the deep-rooted feelings of rejection and worthlessness, are activated. On a subconscious and conscious level, she experiences uncomfortable and familiar feelings about herself, that are projected onto the current relationship. This has a cascading effect which establishes coping strategies, in the form of behaviours.
For example, (now adult) Clair becomes anxious, and seeks reassurance from her partner, she will predict that her needs will go unmet. Because of this she attempts to suppress and therefore dismiss her caring feelings toward her partner. This allows her to distance herself from the potentiality of rejection, which is so very feared.
As you might realise; insecurely attached people often perceive rejection where there may be none. And depending on the insecure attachment type, this results in neediness and clinging (for reassurance), or detachment (to avoid pain). This also adds pressure to relationships (especially during the early stages) which can be harmful, even being the reason for why relationships eventually fail. Because the ones we wish to be close to ‘turn on’ our attachment system.
Can Attachment Change?
This demonstrates the importance of communication and the great news is that attachment styles can be modified. So although we never completely lose our original Internal Working Model, which becomes activated in times of stress or friction. A partner who pays attention, values, supports, and provides safety, can help us learn about effective communication by fostering a secure bond and attachment style.
How Differing Attachments Clash
For example, during disagreements an insecurely-avoidant attached person will often use avoidance as a strategy to cope. Whereas a securely attached person will seek to communicate with their partner because this is what was modelled for them. You might recognise this disparity as true for your relationships, or see its implications. Essentially when there is a disagreement, or argument, one partner wants to talk, the other simply cannot, so how do you manage this impasse?
Using An Example...
It’s about understanding, compromise, and communication. Let’s take an example; if Jenny is the securely attached one, she will need to consider that her partner, Tim, who is insecure-avoidant, needs space to centre himself. It might be useful here to understand what is going on, on the deeper instinctive level.
Tim does not plan to end his relationship with Jenny, and it is not because he dislikes her. But this is how it might feel to Jenny. What has actually happened is that Tim’s relational strategies, that is, his Internal Working Model, has been activated.
And this makes sense. Think about it; if on average it takes 66 days for neural pathways to form new habits, imagine what a lifetime of learning and reinforcing does. So even if you are intellectually aware of your ‘attachment type’, this won’t matter when the primitive animalistic part of your brain hijacks you.
Jenny (securely attached) must try to understand the chain reaction in Tim, and take her own ego out of the equation. She must realise that his behaviour is not personal, it is his process and must play out. Patience and understanding will help here. But does this mean that Jenny must do all the compromising? Not at all. Tim must realise that it is difficult for Jenny to be left alone with her feelings when they’ve fallen out.
Tim must attempt to centre himself in a shorter timeframe, and realise what is happening to him. He must remember that his need for protection and therefore, distance, is not about Jenny. It is a long utilised coping strategy that is now getting in the way. Jenny will not reject him as he was previously rejected. But if Jenny provides Tim with the space and time he needs to calm down, he can get back to the discussion more quickly.
Practice Makes Progress
This takes practice, and couples therapy can teach partners how to listen to understand, and so improve communication by talking openly and honestly. This improves the relationship, and nurtures a healthier Internal Working Model (most of the time). In the long run, this manner of communication provides contentment for couples whose inner dynamics, ways of relating, and approaches to stress are in opposition.
I hope this brief exposition of attachment has offered some understanding of a complex and crucial aspect of human interaction. One that often wears down long-established relationships, or breaks new ones before they’ve even started. But, if like most, you could do with some help in this department, do get in touch.
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