The relationship with our parents and other significant people in our lives growing up is the first experience of attachment.
John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, formulated the theory of attachment. What he found was the quality of the connection to loved ones is a key to an individual’s development and habitual ways of connecting emotionally with others.
Dr. Sue Johnson, Canadian Researcher and Clinical Psychologist, in her ground breaking work in adult attachment in couple relationships states in her book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, “We need emotional attachments with a few irreplaceable others to be physically and mentally healthy – survive.” Contrary to the popular notion that we need to be independent individuals,
Dr. Johnson further explains that we need these kinds of positive emotional connections “from cradle to grave”. Where else might we need to have that kind of attachment relationship more than in our primary couple relationship?
Here’s some information on how the fear of loss of emotional connection drives repetitive arguments in relationships and how to take steps to identify and stop them, as well as how to regain emotional closeness when it is lost.
Does your relationship have repetitive, non resolveable arguments that you would like to change?
Alberta Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. He also said that you can’t solve the problem at the level at which the problem was created. One area where this plays itself out frequently is in the repetitive arguments in relationships. These go on and on without resolution, ending up in cycles of frustration, disconnection and divorce. In this email we will look at why this is the case and what you can do right now to start a new pattern with new outcomes and a closer emotional bond with your significant other.
Why do patterns of argument arise in relationships?
According to the Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT), our relationship difficulties stem from how we react to our partner not being Accessible, Responsive and Engaged (A.R.E.) with us. These three elements tend to underlay most arguments that do not get resolved in relationships. They pose the questions, Are you there for me? Will you respond to me? Will you engage with me? When these are present most of the time or can be achieved, a secure relationship is the result. When these three elements are not present, relating to the other is like knocking on a door, getting no response and knocking harder, trying the door handle and the door being locked or barred from the other side. Finally we give up in frustration, anger and resentment. This pattern then can take over your relationship leading to further disconnection, disillusionment and even divorce.
How does attachment work in relationships and disagreements?
The evidence based EFT approach is based on an adult theory of love stemming from John Bowlby’s research on attachment in individuals and researched by Dr. Sue Johnson, Researcher and Clinical Psychologist who has pioneered the evidence based EFT with couples.
The main part to understand is that our closest relationships are attachment based. There are four kinds of attachment, secure, anxious, avoidant and anxious avoidant which originate in childhood relationships with our parents. Since our closest relationships often mimic patterns instilled in childhood, many of us will revert to those early underpinnings to cope with the stress of not being able to connect with our loved one, much like a child will react when parental support and love are unavailable. If our attachment base was built on A.R.E. and is mostly secure, we will be able to cope and repair the disconnection easily and resume the previous close connection. When the attachment base was anxious, avoidant or both, problems can arise. As many of us did not receive secure attachment with our parents in childhood this can present relationship challenges that become increasingly difficult to change in a pattern that leads to further disconnection.
What does attachment mean for you in relationship?
It means that you are fighting for emotional connection with your close other when there is conflict. Most people tend to do this one of two ways, by pursuing, protesting the disconnection or by avoiding, preserving the relationship. The irony of this is the way we tend to try to manage conflict and emotional disconnection can feed into the other’s fears and vulnerabilities, creating the very disconnection we are trying to avoid.
What can I do?
The important first step is to notice when you are starting to feel the disconnection and what you are thinking, feeling and doing. Second, stop and look at your part. Identify what you are thnking, feeling and doing when you are upset or triggered into reaction by your partner. Thirdly, take ownership of what you are doing that is trying to pull or push the other into the disconnection. Fourthly, try something different.
If you are a person who reacts to your partner’s withdrawal by criticizing, complaining or cajoling, try stepping back, allowing yourself to calm down and come back to the disagreement in a few minutes. It can be helpful to have an agreed upon length of time discussed with your partner, preferably prior to the struggle in a time of calm.
If you tend to react to your partner’s pursuing for discussion by withdrawal, try staying present to hear what is being said or give yourself some time to calm down and return to the disagreement when both of you are calm. Try this for the next two weeks and notice what is different both in you quality of connectedness to your partner, and what happens differently in your disagreements.
As a bonus suggestion, to bolster the positives in your relationship and increase the secure attachment, notice and let your partner know the things that they are doing well or what you like about them. According to John Gottman, professor emeritus at University of Washington and researcher in couple relationships, it takes five positives to neutralize the effect of one negative.
This link is to a beautiful example of the basis for secure attachment in a child, that would translate to a securely attached adult. Imagine yourself being soothed by yourself or another to stop crying as with this child.
What would happen for you if you could be calmed this way in your relationship?