According to attachment theory, relationship difficulties signify distress in the security of the bond between partners; that is, their struggle to establish their relationship as a secure base and safe haven (Bowlby).
Our very survival through the evolutionary process, was largely due to the function of seeking and maintaining proximity to an attachment figure.
What is fundamentally at stake in distressed relationships is each partner’s accessibility, availability and responsiveness to the emotional signifiers of the other, as reflected in the sentiment: “I feel like I have been relegated into the margins of your life – everyone’s needs seem more important to you”.
Indeed, the spouse is the primary attachment figure for most adults and as such, their main source of comfort and security.
Couples therapy from an attachment perspective underscores the importance of supporting the couple to nurture the safe emotional engagement and responsiveness which constitutes the core of a secure bond. To be sure, establishing a secure bond is a necessary context for intervention with couples in order to improve communication, etc.
Moreover, the threat or prospect of isolation or separation from an attachment figure is significantly stressful and potentially traumatising. The partners in a distressed relationship, inaccessible and unresponsive to each other, tend to develop symptoms that betray an underlying insecurity which often manifests as anxiety.
How Secure is Your Attachment?
Interestingly, partners who feel insecure are typically more hypervigilant and sensitive to “signs” and “evidence” that their partner is untrustworthy as a reliable, accessible and responsive partner. They either withdraw into a cocoon of social isolation, “numbing-out” as it were or becoming dysregulated. (Dysregulated here means blaming or attacking their partner as the cause or resource of their relationship difficulties.)
The attachment perspective emphasizes that no attachment strategy is dysfunctional in itself. What this means is that young children, for example, may adopt various strategies to ensure proximity with their primary attachment figure. A strategy such as extreme self-sufficiency of a young child can be functional in so far as it ensures stability and security with a specific attachment figure, usually the mother, by diminishing the demands made on the attachment figure which would otherwise threaten the stability of the relationship.
However, it is when such strategies become rigid and pervasively used across all contexts of life that problems arise. Extreme self-sufficiency and independence, while functional in childhood, may cause significant problems in adult relationships. If, for example, the so-called excessively self-sufficient spouse develops a chronic illness, they would have great difficulty accepting the supportive and caring responsiveness of their partner.
From an attachment perspective, patterns of interaction that lead to distress in couple relationships are clearly discernable and distinguishable.
A common example of these aforementioned patterns is when a partner seeks and pursues emotional connection, but often in the form of critical remarks and gestures and incessant complaining; typically, the other partner retreats or withdraws to protect him/herself from critique, attack and hostile blaming. Such patterns become self-perpetuating, reciprocally eliciting and reinforcing feedback loops. In fact, research predicts distressed relationships that are characterised by self-perpetuating negative patterns of interaction such as critical complaining and defensive distancing, will continue deteriorating.
Attachment therapy for couples lends itself to seeing beyond these patterns of interaction, to reveal the desperation and yearning that underlie the coercive demands for connection of the partner pursuing, and the hopelessness and despair that underlies the partner who withdraws and retreats.
To be sure, the anticipation of loss of security and connection and the impending sense of anguish and debilitating isolation, increases the risk of anxiety and depression. Such distress may be the catalyst that triggers a major psychological disorder, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that has its genesis in childhood neglect and relational abuse. Indeed, the attachment perspective suggests a definitive link between relationship distress and psychological difficulties such as depression and anxiety.
Emotion is a word that is derived from the Latin word meaning “to move”. The attachment perspective underscores the importance of emotion as a means of communication, assigning meaning to relationship signals – utterances and gestures – even though they are always ambiguous.
Bringing Emotions to Therapy
By the time a couple presents for therapy, they are besieged by anger, sadness, loneliness, shame, and fear.
The attachment therapist facilitates partners learning to regulate the reactive emotions that perpetuate and exacerbate interpersonal dynamics such as attach/defend, and to access and articulate marginalised emotions that can be used to “move” partners into new forms of emotional engagement. For example, disclosing desperation invites a partner’s closeness and elicits his or her compassion, as opposed to provoking his or her hostile defensiveness.
Evolution has hard-wired our brains to seek and establish secure emotional connections with significant others. There are, to be sure, only a number of ways to deal with the prospective loss of such important connections. These involve:
- Firstly, hyperactivating the attachment system and thus becoming preoccupied with the relationship, monitoring it constantly, and becoming coercive and aggressive.
- Secondly, attempting to deactivate the attachment system by “numbing-out” and “shutting down”. That is, becoming indifferent to the other in order to protect the Self.
- Thirdly, attempting the impossible – trying both of the aforementioned simultaneously – desperately pursuing closeness, and also desperately fearing and avoiding it. Survivors of childhood trauma are typically ensnared in the dilemma of simultaneously avoiding their primary care giver who is being terrifying, whilst seeking closeness and protection from that very same attachment figure from whom the terror is emanating. This predicament is called a biological paradox. The only way to cope with this form of trauma is dissociation.
Attachment in Childhood
The attachment perspective conceptualises the Self as emerging in the context of reciprocal patterns of interaction between the child and primary care giver, usually a parent.
The concept or models of Self and Other arises from these interactions with the caregiver in early childhood. A secure attachment fosters a model of the Self as worthy of love and acceptance and of the Other as reliable, available and trustworthy. These models tends to become stable over time because interactions with others typically confirm and embed these models, hence they become relatively stable.
These working models serve as a blueprint for how to respond to others, thereby shaping interaction sequences and patterns that elicit confirming and validating feedback from others that further embed their respective models of Self.
The therapist drawing on the attachment perspective can help couples to forge interpersonal patterns of relating that engender and foster a sense of security. Securely attached couples typically have a more coherent and flexible sense of Self. Moreover, they are typically more likely to self-disclose, to be vulnerable with their partner and to communicate more directly with their partner.
Attachment theory also helps the therapist to identify, on the one hand, the crucial moments that define the bond as unsafe and therefore insecure; and on the other hand, to facilitate pivotal shifts in the therapy that can redefine the relationship as secure and satisfying.
Transforming an insecure bond into a secure bond entails what emotion focused therapists call “change events”. A change event is emotion-focused, so is often referred to as “softenings”. In softenings, an anxious and vulnerable partner may for example take the risk of directly asking of their now accessible and engaged partner for his or her needs to be met. These pivotal moments serve as an antidote to the self-perpetuating patterns of interaction that define the relationship as unsafe and insecure.
Attachment in Couples
Adult attachment is necessarily reciprocal and representational in the sense that to know that one is held in mind of the other, or to hold the other in mind is comforting, reassuring and a source of support. Adult attachment is also sexual. For many partners sexual encounters may be the only time they are held, reassured, and able to connect with their softer feelings and dependency needs.
Research inspired by the attachment theory affords the couple therapist with a coherent picture of healthy connectedness. A securely attached couple, at the end of therapy, should have the necessary insight and resources to cope with relational scenarios in which a partner’s attachment systems have either been hyperactivated, deactivated, or where a partner has become ensnared in the dilemma of pursuing closeness and fearing closeness simultaneously.
In the first scenario, attachment hyperactivation, impairments in affect (emotional) regulation feature problematically in distressed couples. The challenge for the dysregulated partner is to develop the capacity to contain their reactive, vehement hostile emotions. Once a secure attachment has been established, the so-called hostile partner who is aggressively blaming or attacking should be able to modify their hostile vehemence in order to express other emotions, such as sadness and a yearning for emotional connection.
In the second scenario (attachment deactivation), the partner should be able to access and articulate their marginalized or disavowed emotions. Thus if and when a secure attachment has been negotiated, the so-called apparently indifferent or “stonewalling” spouse can become emotionally attuned, thereby being more able to access their distress in an open, transparent and congruent way that elicits responsiveness from their partner.
As relationships become safer and more secure in the therapy process, partners are able to unravel and dissolve patterns that escalate negative cycles that keep them “stuck” in disconnection. The communication of secure partners tends to be more open and direct as compared with insecure partners: they tend to be more self-disclosing, more attuned and sensitive to the communication of others. They are confident enough to assert themselves but tend to offer more empathic support, and use rejection and threats of separation less. The ability to disclose and confide in a direct way about needs and fears, and to tune in to the other’s experience, is crucial in creating the relational context for defining and redefining the relationship as a secure base.
If you and your partner are experiencing relationship distress, make an appointment with me to discover firsthand how attachment therapy for couples can work.
Author: Cobus Kleynhans, BA (Hons), MA (Clin Psych).
A Clinical Psychologist with over a dozen years’ experience in working with couples and individuals, Cobus Kleynhans has extra training in the techniques and practice of couples therapy. In therapy, Cobus uses mindfulness-based practices to help clients become aware of their attachment styles; to make visible and revise the way they typically relate to their partners, parents, children, colleagues and even their own experiences of themselves and the world, thereby creating new possibilities for connecting with others.
Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Clinical Psychologist Cobus Kleynhans, try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.
- Bolby, 1969
- This topic paper is based on a set of ideas and themes lifted from Susan M. Johnson and Valerie E. Whiffen, 2003