Attachment theory states that we need a safe haven relationship to turn to when life is too much for us and that offers us a secure base from which to go confidently out into the world. This is effective dependency. Many psychotherapy patients learn that their problem is that they are too close or undifferentiated from loved ones. The approach discussed here offers a larger picture. The evidence is that secure close connection is a source of strength and personality integration rather than weakness.
Secure connection is shaped by mutual emotional accessibility and responsiveness. The fights that matter in a relationship are only superficially about the kids or money. Partners and therapists can spend many hours talking about these content issues instead of focusing on how the couple talk and more specifically, on the key attachment questions that drive a couples negative dance.
When we cannot get an attachment figure to respond to us, we step into a wired in sequence of protest, first hopeful and then angry, desperate and coercive. "I poke him and poke him. Anything to get a response from him. To know I matter to him." If we cannot get a response, despair and depression come to claim us.
It implies that unless the underlying attachment issues and primal panic is addressed, other approaches, such as insight or learning skill sequences, are unlikely to be effective.
The key questions are: "Are you there for me?" "Do I matter to you?"
Partners often do not know how to ask these questions, and therapists often miss them or even see them as a sign of immature dependency. Attachment theory tells us that emotion and emotional signals are the music of the dance between intimates. Many therapies encourage patients to replace it with rational thoughts or decisions. Recent research on emotion tells us that this not only increases arousal in the person who is inhibiting emotion but also creates tension in the other partner.
focuses on attachment suggests that emotion is best acknowledged, and
listened to so that emotional signals can be shaped in ways
that make for safe connection. New emotional responses are
also essential if therapy is to address each partner's deeper longings,
help partners formulate their needs and offer a path to the
kind of compassionate loving connection that couples are seeking. Safe
emotional connection then helps each partner deal positively with
stress and distress. Negative events then only make
a relationship stronger.
If we cannot find a way to turn towards our partner and shape a sense of safe connection, there are really only two other secondary strategies open to us and they map onto two emotional realities with exquisite logic.
Strategy one is to become caught in fear of abandonment and demand responsiveness by blaming; unfortunately this often threatens the other and pushes this person further away, especially if this strategy becomes habitual and automatic.
Strategy two is to numb out attachment needs and feelings and avoid engagement (and conflict), that is to shut down and withdraw. Unfortunately, this then shuts the other person out. Once they can order and name their feelings, blamers speak of being alone, left, unimportant, abandoned, and feeling insignificant to their partner. Underneath their anger they are extremely vulnerable. Withdrawers speak of feeling ashamed and afraid of hearing that they are failures. They believe that they can never please their partner and so feel helpless and paralyzed.
The therapist shapes new interactions and new emotions, helping partners move from desperate anger, for example, to a clear expression of fear and longing that evokes caring and compassion in the other partner and creates the contact they long for.
An attachment oriented therapy assumes that reshaped emotions and emotional signals and new sequences of responsive interaction are necessary to transform an attachment relationship. This approach addresses this issue as core to forging satisfying and meaningful relationships. The tendency to respond to hurtful disconnection by shutting down or attacking is also always there, and can become habitual for all of us.
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