What You Need To Know In Order To Love Well
Most of the clients I treat come to me because they’re having trouble in their relationships. They’re not happy in their current one, not happy because they can’t find a good one, or not happy because they have a crappy divorce that they can’t make better.
While the circumstances are unique to each person, the foundational issue is always the same: they have problems knowing who to attach to, who to detach from, and how to relate in a healthy manner. So my job is to teach them how to do this. And that starts with a basic understanding of Attachment Theory.
Attachment: Secure, Anxious, and Avoidant
Our early experiences with our caregivers provide a blueprint for our later relationships. When we’re infants, the way our parents attune to us — meet our needs, mirror our feelings, validate our experience — shapes our neural pathways and our ability to regulate our own emotions.
- Secure Attachment. If your parents fed you when you were hungry, soothed you when you were upset, smiled when you smiled, and were reliable most of the time, then you learned how to regulate your own nervous system. Meaning, you learned how to cheer yourself up and calm yourself down with relative ease. You grew up feeling like the world was a safe place, and expected relationships to be a safe harbor. Securely attached children typically turn into adults who have successful relationships — or if those relationships don’t pan out, good-enough divorces.
- Anxious Attachment. Some parents, despite good intentions, are unreliable. They depend on children to meet their needs, become easily overwhelmed, and have various problems which cause them to be inconsistent or frightening. Children who grew up in these environments were often in a state of hyperarousal: anxious, upset, not knowing who they could depend on. They never learned how to self-soothe in a healthy way. They don’t believe the world is a safe place, or trust that they can get their needs met. They turn into anxiously attached adults who need constant reassurance that they’re loved. Unfortunately, they often chase after the least likely people to give that to them (which can lead to some nasty divorces). Anxiously attached people sabotage relationships because they’re terrified of abandonment.
- Avoidant Attachment. Parents who are dismissive, self-involved, and unresponsive teach children not to rely on anyone. Because they’ve learned not to expect that their needs will be met, avoidantly attached children are often in a state of hypoarousal: numb, checked-out, bored. Like anxiously attached kids, avoidantly attached kids grow up to feel the world is an unsafe place, but they’re way of dealing with it is to shut off their emotions. They don’t expect to get their needs met in relationships (what are “needs,” anyway?), and they’re burdened by their partner’s needs. They’re uncomfortable with intimacy, and put up walls to keep partners at a distance. In order to regulate their nervous system, they need the person they’re with to back off. Avoidantly attached people sabotage relationships because they’re terrified of feeling engulfed.
Your Argument Isn’t About What You Think. It’s About Your Attachment Style.
Couples come to see me because they keep having different variations of the same fight. They think their problem is sex, or substance abuse, or money, or “we just don’t have fun anymore.” And while all those things are problems, they are really manifestations of the same foundational issues: an insecure attachment style and difficulty managing emotions.
The first thing I do is to give clients a lesson in attachment theory, so they can identify their own attachment style, as well as that of their partner. This helps people own their own behavior, instead of focusing on the 97 ways their partner bugs them. It also helps people understand why their significant other is so “clingy” or so “cold.”
Then I teach clients ways of self-soothing so they stop trying to control their significant other in order to feel better. You can learn to self-soothe through meditation, a gratitude practice, setting intentions, journaling, mindfulness, exercise, and breathing techniques, among other methods.
As long as your default nervous system setting is agitation or detachment, you will not be able to resolve your relationship issues.
As long as you respond to your partner with emotional intensity or detachment, you will not be heard.
How To Talk. How To Listen.
If you want to resolve anything, you need to communicate effectively. That means no fault-finding, advice-giving, debates, or yelling. Here’s a script to talk in a way that will get your partner to calm down and listen:
“When you do A, I feel B, because C.”
“When you look at your phone when I’m talking to you, I feel that you’re not interested in me, because you seem more focused on the screen.”
If you and your partner were in my office, I would have you role-play this exercise. You would take turns speaking, repeating what you’ve heard your partner say, then validating your partner’s feelings and and apologizing if an apology is warranted.
(ABSOLUTELY NO “CORRECTING” THEIR EXPERIENCE OR SUGGESTING THEY LOOK AT THINGS A DIFFERENT WAY! Doing this will derail a conversation in a nanosecond. The goal is not to agree, but to validate).
Using this communication protocol may feel clunky initially, but it slows things down so you can both be in the present instead of thinking ahead to how you’re going to “win” or nursing your grudges.
When your partner validates your experience, they help you regulate your nervous system. If you had parents who didn’t attune to you, this is the experience you’ve been waiting for. I’ve seen couples transform their relationships when they adopt this communication strategy and take steps to modify their attachment styles.
For anxiously attached people, that means communicating directly, in a measured way, instead of acting out fear and anger. For avoidantly attached people, that means taking your walls down to pay attention to your partner and meet their needs when appropriate.
Learning these skills won’t necessarily fix your relationship. But it may “fix” you enough so you can get out of a bad one, and find someone whom you can love well.
Photo credit: Dimitar Belchev via Unsplash