Yesterday my partner in our podcast, THE KEY, asked me to explain to him and the listeners more about secure attachment and why it is so important.
There are often terms I use frequently as a therapist I forget are not part of the average person’s vocabulary such as attachment, adaptive, regulated or dysregulated.
My main goal in these blog posts, the podcast, and the book I am currently writing is to take the complexity in the concepts of using our core emotions and how we connect with others and simplify them in a way anyone and everyone can understand and benefit from.
What is Secure Attachment?
Back to attachment. Let me begin by defining it and then explaining its relevance to our lives. What I’m talking about is emotionally secure attachment. Being responded to in emotionally attuned ways when needed. This process begins from the first day we’re born. When an infant is hungry, cold, tired, or excited does the parent or caregiver notice and respond in a way the baby needs. Whether this happens to a sufficient degree or not throughout infancy and childhood impacts our future to a higher degree than almost anything else. It determines how our brain develops neurologically and whether we will develop a fully formed sense of self; it sets the initial course for the rest of our life.
I cannot overemphasize the magnitude of how our early attachment experiences influence almost every aspect of our future. Due to a lack of knowledge, traditional ways of helping people recover from attachment failures have produced only minimal results. This is due to the fact that the impact is on a biological level. Talk therapy, self-help resources, and cognitive approaches can do little to repair what occurred neurologically. Things have to be changed at a biological level. We have come to understand psychology is biology. The days of esoteric theories and models has given way to neuroscience and technology to all of our benefits.
I will now lay out several attachment styles and give examples of how they manifest themselves in our daily lives and current relationships. Each of these attachment patterns are based in early attachment theory and have been validated through further research. Although, no one individual fits neatly into a model or designation, they can be useful guides to understanding these concepts and how to have better relationships. Furthermore, we now know as a result of the discovery and validation of neuroplasticity, these patterns can be shifted to ones that are more functional and effective in one’s present life. The first of these styles is what is referred to as secure attachment. I alluded to this one earlier. This develops as a result of a child being responded to in emotionally attuned ways. What do I mean by attuned?
I will give an example to clarify. Let’s say an eight-year-old wrecks his bicycle and skins his knee. He comes home crying and in distress. His mother is watching television. He informs her of what occurred. An attuned response would be the mother turning off the TV, picking the child up and comforting him, reassuring him he was going to be okay, and then addressing his wound. An under-attuned response would be the mother telling the child the bandages are in the hall closet and continuing to watch TV. This would send a message to the child he and his needs are unimportant, and basically, he is on his own. The contrast to this type of reaction is an over-attuned response. If the child came home crying and the mother screamed, ran about, and went into panic, it would flood the child with more distress than he entered with. Some parallel examples in adulthood would be a friend or family member attempting to reassure a loss with platitudes, over spiritualizing the issue, or telling you how strong you are and that ‘everything happens for a reason’. Although often well-intentioned, these are under-attuned responses leaving you feeling more alone and misunderstood.
In my work with couples who have lost a child, I’m sure if I had said ‘everything happens for a reason’ they would have punched me in the face and never come back, or maybe that’s just what I would have done. There is a timing and pace to everything. Nothing will leave you feeling more alone than an under-attuned response. Contrastingly, nothing will lift you and cause you to feel more connected than an attuned response. An example of an over-attuned response would be you reach out to talk to someone about your frustration with a friend or family member. They then become so angry on your behalf you have to calm them down. This is not comforting at all and everything becomes about them. Sound familiar to anyone.
Avoidant attachment style
As an adult, you have options with people in your life who cannot attune to you: you can end the relationship or choose to limit your contact with them. A child does not have the luxury of these choices when it comes to their caregiver. The best we can do is develop adaptations to their failures to attune to us. There are three dominant attachment styles that are the result of these adaptations. The first of these is termed an avoidant attachment style. If a parent or caregiver is frequently critical or emotionally absent on some level, it is painful for the child to keep turning towards criticism or emptiness. As a result, the child gives up on getting the emotional response he needs, and the nervous system begins to disconnect from attachment; it’s not coming. The child becomes a one-person system. In adulthood, this manifests as a person who shuts down and is conflict avoidant. There partner typically accuses them of being uncaring and selfish. Although, they can be at times, they are being hijacked biologically by the adaptations to their early attachment failures. No one ever gets to hear the story of the pain their child self had to experience at the hands of neglectful or abusive parents. This is what breaks my heart. Not only did this individual have to experience emotional neglect as a child, but now they are continuing to pay the price by not being able to stay emotionally engaged with their partner. What once minimized their pain now perpetuates it. Moreover, they are mislabeled as being uncaring, neglectful, or abusive.
Ambivalent attachment style
The second attachment style formed from attachment failures is what is referred to as an ambivalent/angry attachment. This develops from a child receiving inconsistent responses. A parent may be addicted to drugs or alcohol, emotionally reactive and unstable, or have unresolved trauma that cause them to have high levels of anxiety. There is angry mom and loving mom, drunk dad and sober dad, or a parent who is sometimes present and sometimes absent. The child doesn’t know which caregiver they will get. As a result, the child stays open to being responded to emotionally but cannot trust it; this leaves the child anxious and agitated. As an adult, this will manifest as someone who is hypervigilant to any form of disconnection. Even though they may be aware their partner will most likely leave at some point from their constant scrutiny, they can do little to refrain from the fear of loss of connection. An example is a partner pursuing their spouse who is attempting to withdraw from room to room or sending them a barrage of text messages, even though they know rationally this will cause further withdraw. They have been hijacked by their primitive brain. They will be labeled crazy, irrational, or insecure. Again, the story of the pain they experienced as a child when their caring and loving parent would go away and be replaced by an intoxicated or abusive parent is never heard. This relational trauma is re-triggered every time they experience disconnection in their current relationship. In addition, they are now shamed for a reaction that is primarily outside of their control.
Disorganized attachment style
The final attempt at adapting to attachment failures is generated as a result of not being able to adapt. This style is referred to as a disorganized attachment. When a child experiences significant neglect or abuse, the source of comfort is also the threat. The child is biologically wired to reach for attachment, but the attachment figure is the cause of distress. For the child, this is referred to as ‘Fright without Solution’. They cannot just withdraw like the avoidant attachment, and they cannot stay open and wait for the good parent to return as in the ambivalent attachment. They only option they have is to dissociate. This is a neurological process designed by evolution as a last line of defense. The lower brain releases internal opiates and splits of the neural network containing the parts of experience that overwhelm the nervous system. Now years later, anything that is even remotely associated with these original events activates these networks and they come flooding in emotionally as a felt sense in the body. The level of intensity rarely matches what is occurring in the present leaving the person feeling shameful for their overreactions. Underlying almost every compulsive behavior, such as drug and alcohol use, binge-eating, compulsive sex, and gambling, are dissociated emotions and memories. In interpersonal conflict the person with this attachment style is often erratic and explosive, or they quickly reach for their compulsive behavior of choice in an effort to regulate their overpowering emotions. They are labeled addict, promiscuous, or borderline by the mental health community. Again, few hear the story of the trauma and abuse the child experienced and only judge the behaviors of the adult.
How to shift from an insecure to a secure style
All of these styles are imprinted during a child’s formative years affecting how their brain develops. These patterns or adaptations cannot be overridden by reading a book on attachment or having a conversation about one’s history. They have to be shifted in the nervous system. This is done through what is called Neuroplasticity. There are a variety of methods and techniques to accomplish this goal. It is achieved through working with a felt sense in the body and having reparative attachment experiences that can be internalized, which requires focused attention on the experiential aspect of the new, positive interaction. This is the missing piece of the puzzle. Some therapists or counselors will orient the client to the new occurrence of feeling responded to or cared for by asking a question, such as, “What was that like for you to have him/her express that?” However, there needs to be a focus and tracking of the felt sense of it in the body for a sufficient period of time to create lasting change. Research shows evidence that if you can sustain the new positive feeling state for a minimum of twenty seconds, neurological changes can begin to take place. Without sufficient work in this manner, real change will not occur. Your primitive brain will override your more rational, cognitive brain. In my experience, these types of intensive experiences almost never take place in or out of therapy.
Nothing is more impactful to our lives than our attachment relationships – spouses, partners, children. As I mentioned prior, it is heartbreaking to me to witness how our early attachment experiences create imprints that generate lifelong negative consequences. If I was not a therapist and trained in these areas, I would not be able to understand and illuminate the deeper level of experience to my clients in order to help them break free of their past and create a better future. In my opinion, the average couple doesn’t stand a legitimate chance; it isn’t a fair fight. The majority of us receive no education or skills training in attachment. Furthermore, we are biologically handed down disrupted attachment styles with no say in the matter that affect how we connect with others for the rest of our lives. The most important aspects of developing a secure connection with others is virtually unknown to almost the entire general public. This is the core of why relationships are so challenging and one of the primary causes of our present divorce rate. Yet, there are couples who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and succeed in their relationships. We have learned a lot from these couples in ways to develop a secure bond. But even for these couples there could be so much more. Things do not have to be this way. We now know the characteristics necessary to build a secure and safe relationship.
Relationship work is simultaneously the most difficult and rewarding type of work I do. In our current climate, most couples will not receive adequate assistance for their relationships for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, I believe if the general public was exposed to accurate information about attachment theory and core emotions it would make a positive difference to many couples, as well as society at large. Culturally, we all pay the price for the staggering amount of failed relationships, particularly those that involve children: increased levels of violence, addiction, mental health issues, not to mention lost potential, which I believe is the greatest loss of all.
John Hawkins Jr., M.S., L.M.H.C.
John has helped thousands of clients overcome the hidden internal blocks which had kept them from achieving their maximum potential. Furthermore, he has assisted them in gaining clarity of their true life purpose, identifying their gifts and talents, and developing lives of greater meaning and significance.