You may remember from a previous post on Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, a lot of talk about attachment. If you didn’t read the post, I recommend giving it a brief look. Even if you aren’t in a romantic relationship currently, you most likely will be at some point in your life. Also, your attachment style doesn’t just affect your relationship with a significant other; it pretty much creates a lens through which you interpret all interpersonal interactions (THINK: family, friends, coworkers).
So what the heck is it?
I’m not going to hit you with a bunch of theory and science here. My goal is more to explain things in laymen’s terms and provide analogies that help break down this pretty expansive topic. Know this, though, Attachment Theory is one of the bigger theories in psychology. Its origins date back to the early 1950’s, and new research continues to develop and push the theory to this day. Given that people have been designing experiments and studying these concepts for decades, you can only imagine how in depth the topic is. For the purposes of this blog, you just need to understand that, in a nutshell, attachment looks at our biological drive towards creating connection with others and that we develop pretty predictable “strategies” in relation to the connection we seek to create or hold on to. It’s also important to know that attachment develops what is referred to as a working model of “self and other.”
I know. That last part needs a bit more explanation. Simply put, your working model of self and other is that lens I was talking about earlier. It contributes in large part to how you see the world, and your place in that world. Your model of “self” is how you view yourself, and your model of “other” is how you perceive others view you. For example, think about how you feel at work most days. Do you feel like you do a good job? Do you feel like your boss notices your hard work? Or, do you constantly feel unsure of where you stand, and if the boss walks by your desk without saying, “Howdy,” you’re instantly flooded with anxiety and feelings that she must be upset with you? Neither is the right or wrong way to feel, both are simply your perception of the situation. One comes from a secure attachment and one comes from an insecure attachment. Still following me? A securely attached person’s working model of self essentially says, “I am good enough,” and their model of other says, “And, other people think I’m good enough.” An insecure attachment creates the feeling, “I am not good enough,” and, “Other people don’t think I’m good enough.”
Okay, now let’s tie it all together! Imagine you’re beginning a romantic relationship and your working model of self and other is telling you, “I am unworthy of being with this person, and I KNOW they don’t really want to be with me anyway.” I’m sure you can already imagine some of the complications that could arise. This is where the “strategies” I discussed earlier begin to play out. Different styles of attachment (that’s a whole other blog post!) create different strategies. One person, in fearing disconnection, may cling tightly and run the risk of being labeled “overbearing,” while another might shutdown altogether, being perceived as “emotionally unavailable.” Both people in this scenario want the connection. But, disconnection is so threatening they begin to act in ways they believe will preserve the connection (keep closer), or at very least preserve their own emotional wellbeing (shutdown all feelings). The romantic interest most likely does not want to leave. But, a person with an insecure attachment has a hard time feeling this to be true, and so they continue to employ the strategies learned in childhood, often to the detriment of their dating life. Many people struggle to maintain a relationship at all, thinking they are fundamentally flawed, when really this attachment stuff is throwing up roadblocks.
Let’s say you’re in a relationship and have managed to stay together for a good deal of time, but you find that you’re constantly arguing over anything under the sun. Attachment probably has its dirty little hand in there, too. Here’s a scenario I like to use all the time. Imagine getting a text message from your partner saying, “I’ll be home a little late. I have to stop at the grocery store.” You could take this completely benign text at face value and never give it a second thought, or it could send you spinning out of orbit with thoughts like: Are they hinting that I don’t do enough? Am I not pulling my weight? They think I’m lazy. They probably wish they had someone else. Are they even really going to the grocery store? Maybe they’re stopping to meet up with someone they’d rather spend time with… And, so on and so forth until you’re completely worked up, and decide the best course of action is to fire back with, “I hope they make you happy!” It’s off to the races at that point. Another argument is in full swing and things will get said that can’t be taken back.
I’ll admit this is a pretty dramatized scenario. But, I’m guessing more than a few people reading this felt like it hit pretty close to home. I purposely use the text message example because most everyone can relate to misinterpreting the “tone” or the message in a text. The whole take away here is that the text meant exactly what it said. It’s the interpretation of the person reading it, and the looking for underlying meaning, that leads to further problems. So now, apply this text message analogy to the hundreds of actual interactions you’re having each day. You may be constantly reading between the lines, thinking you know what the other person is really trying to say, when in actuality you are creating scenarios that align with your internal model of self and other. We perceive the world through our internal working model (picture wearing colored glasses: what you see looks different, but has it actually changed?). But, often times our working model is slightly skewed due to various experiences throughout our life.
So what can you do about it? I will probably say it a million times throughout these blog posts, but I really feel everything begins with awareness. Until you become aware that your perceptions might not always be an accurate representation of the situation, you will keep behaving in ways that you always have. A fish doesn’t know it’s in water, as they say. We often don’t know that there’s any other way to feel or behave, because it's hard to look outside of the reality we construct. I would also recommend learning more about attachment and how it may be playing out in your life. You can find various quizzes online that will help give you an idea of your attachment style and what that means. If you’re in a relationship a great resource is a book called, “Hold Me Tight,” by Dr. Sue Johnson. She is the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, and this book has been filled information on attachment and examples from real couples about how it plays out in their relationships. There are also “Hold Me Tight” couples workshops all over the world, and I will be beginning to run them in San Diego, CA in the coming months.
All of this just barely scratched the surface on the topic, but I hope it got the wheels turning and gave you the feeling that change is possible.
As always, if any of this speaks to you I’d love to hear what you have to say. Feel free to comment below! But, please keep in mind that this blog is for informational and entertainment purposes, and is not intended to treat, diagnose or be interpreted as a substitute for therapeutic services.