couples therapy
imago therapy

Attachment theory

from publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS    May 2011

In the field of couple's therapy, an issue that suddenly seems to be central to being a happy, contented duo is actually nothing new — but it's usually thought of in a different context.

"Attachment" used to be thought of as a process only between infant and parents. But these days, the idea of attachment is validated as an adult need. Recently, I heard Sue Johnson, the formulator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, speak of the importance of attachment behaviors in an adult relationship.

The theory of attachment says that no matter how old people are, how successful, powerful, or independent, all people still need to be able to re-experience those early feelings of being cared for, held, looked in the eye, touched and stroked, comforted, and told appreciative things — just like they (hopefully) were treated as babies and young children. Even as independent adults, people still need this experience from significant others; it's the way people calm themselves from the ongoing stressors of life.

This is a concept I can identify with, and sometimes, annoyingly so, since part of me wishes I wasn't dependent upon my partner for this feeling of peace, and could refuel my own self before going back out into the world.

Attachment theory says that people can't completely satisfy this need on their own, but rather, partners must help each other. Not even a best friend can fulfill this, because the satisfactions come from the physical connection, as well as the emotional. Being able to get and give this peaceful feeling to each other is the emotional bedrock upon which couples build the more rational aspects of relationships. Without this peaceful, loving connection, couples might wind up fighting over a myriad of issues. But where anger really comes from, is the disappointment that a partner's basic needs are not being met.

It's hard to deny that everyone yearns for this attachment experience, and it's probably universal that couples feel an intense attachment connection in the early stages of relationships. So, people want a safe haven, a place where they can feel calmed and supported by their partners. Achieving this feeling is such a basic drive that — in order to be brave enough to reach out and ask for reliable, loving, and protective behaviors — couples have to know it's safe, and that it won't be denied, ignored, or made light of by the other person, because that would be too crushing.

In order to take this risk of depending on the love and acceptance of others, therefore, people need to have a deep confidence that they can be their imperfect, bumbling selves, and that their significant others know who they are and fully love and value them, because of — and in spite of — their less-than-perfect ways.

The first step in achieving attachment, therefore, seems to be a willingness to share your innermost feelings, concerns, needs, fears, hopes, and dreams, and let your partner get to know that part of you. If you keep things in and don't share, a distance will start to develop between you and your partner, and attachment gets even harder to achieve.

How to reveal yourself, and what to do to help your partner reveal himself to you in return, requires the sacred rules of communication. First, both partners must agree that the conversation is strictly about understanding each other. Invite your partner to share feelings of what he's finding hard these days and what he wishes for. Then, reflect back to him what you heard. Once he says, "Yeah, you got it right," thank him for sharing.

When it's your turn to talk, speak from your own experience, using "I" statements to help your partner hear what it is that you've been dealing with. When he seems to understand, say, "Thanks for listening." If you get to this place of listening and really understanding, you've achieved your goals. Figuring out where to go next is the topic for another conversation.

When you talk, blame is the danger you must guard against. If one of you senses that you're being blamed for problems in the relationship, defensiveness and counterattacking usually follow, and you can't fully listen to your partner.

But it's the physical holding part of attachment that cannot be minimized. It gives each person in the relationship a peace and safety that they can only get from each other. It doesn't take long for these feelings to be generated; almost as soon as you relax against each other with an affectionate touch, you begin to feel a release of tension. Attachment theory has a lot to say about how couples can take care of each other.

>> read the previous article in the publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS
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