My deep belief, professional experience, and recent research confirms that any movement towards true health in loving relationships comes through overcoming separateness and creating connection through meaningful attachment. Experiences of love, connection, and intimacy are people’s deepest longings, but they seem to be the very things people sabotage in their lives.
As a therapist there are many lenses from which I practice, however, the lens of attachment theory continues to be one of the most useful approaches to helping relationships heal. Attachment theory basically affirms that connection to a trusted other helps us maintain our emotional balance, promotes a coherent sense of self, deals with stress, and gives us a base from which to engage life in healthy independence. Attachment theory has been primarily applied to parent-child relationships, but research has shown that the need for healthy connection applies to all relationships.
Author, Sue Johnson, in her book Hold Me Tight, argues that we never outgrow our basic need for connection. In fact, her research reveals that without true emotional connection, we will feel unsafe and will be driven to unhealthy ways of coping. It seems counter-intuitive, but to be strong and secure people, we need to feel safe enough with others in order to be vulnerable with them. This safety is experienced when they are available, responsive, and engaged with us. This is what cultivates a cycle of safety which creates true connection.
When a relationship is strained and there is a loss of this sense of connection, an inner alarm bell is triggered within us, and we can experience loneliness, panic, pain, or helplessness. Until this connection is restored, all other concerns will merely exacerbate this loss and will be difficult to address. Often, when an insecure connection is experienced, a reaction is triggered based on a primal fear response. We will react in either a fight, flight or freeze defense. Our inner alarms go off, our brains and nervous systems react out of fear to protect our selves and to avoid the pain of abandonment or rejection. Often, these defensive responses were learned in childhood to keep our selves safe.
The Fight defense blames others, justifies our own actions, attacks the other’s character or behaviour, or dismisses them.
The Flight defense shuts down, ignores others, leaves, or replaces the relationship with other priorities.
The Freeze defense denies self needs and emotions.
All of these are ways that we distance to keep ourselves safe in relationships so we won’t get hurt. Unfortunately, in our love relationships, these responses actually do the opposite of keeping us safe and attached, rather, they move us away from the very connections for which we long and were created.
I find it helpful to look past people’s primary defenses and emotions and try to help them see the underlying fear and pain that may be driving their reactions. The challenge for myself and for my clients is to see the people we love through this more empathetic understanding. We all have attachment needs that were both met and unmet in our childhood. Most of us are working hard to heal past wounds while also being triggered by them. Emotional maturity involves becoming more conscious of these triggers and not allowing them to block our connections to loved ones.
Ultimately, we all have two fundamental responsibilities in loving relationships: to vulnerably be more honest about our own defensive responses, and to generously be safe persons for those we love. These are not easy things. Some of us spend our whole lives learning how to take responsibility for our own distancing behaviours and how to create emotional safety for our loved ones to thrive.
Some of us spend our whole lives in disconnection and loneliness and are not safe people to be around. Most of us engage in a combination of these experiences. Conscious, intentional choices can help us grow in this area.
One basic way to begin taking responsibility for being more honest about our own defensive responses, is by slowing down and paying attention. Though a simple concept, this is difficult to apply and needs constant practice. We can make progress by practicing the following:
Recognizing our freeze or flight, fight responses
Naming our triggers and underlying fears (past wound, trauma,unmet needs)
Choosing to be conscious of our responses and honestly naming what is happening to us.
Naming our feelings and needs, rather than reacting out of fear
A simple example of this might look like this: My loved one announces a plan to go out with some friends, but I had an expectation that we would hang out instead. I make a sarcastic comment about wasting money hanging out with the gang again. My loved one gets upset and starts complaining about how I spend money. The cycle of disconnection begins.
To become more conscious of taking responsibility, I have to first recognize that I was immediately triggered and went into fight response. This obviously did not create connection, which is what I really actually wanted for the evening. I take a few moments to understand what triggered me (worry about finances, fear that I’m not a priority, never feeling like people wanted to spend time with me as a child, etc.). Next, I take responsibility for the response and say something like: “I just attacked you and was sarcastic. I guess I was triggered because I don’t feel like you and I have had enough time together lately, and I’m worried we are losing touch”. Then I name clearly and vulnerably what I need: “I’m really missing you lately and need us to plan some time together soon“.
To be a safe person for those we love, we again need to slow down and pay attention. Here our focus of attention, however, is placed on having an empathic response toward the other’s experience.
We can make progress by practicing the following:
Recognizing the fight, flight or freeze response of a loved one and understanding that it comes from underlying fears
Empathizing with the loved one’s primary emotion (typically anger or emotional shut down)
Exploring with them their underlying feelings
Creating safety through mirroring, validation and empathy
Flipping the above scenario to take the other’s perspective, might look something like this:
My loved one makes a sarcastic remark about me going out with my friends. Instead of reacting out of my own fears, I try to appreciate that some fear has been triggered in my loved one. The lens through which I try to see their behaviour is the lens of their fear. When we are afraid we often need someone to be with us. I don’t have to agree with the fear, but I need to make it safe for that fear to be expressed.
I can respond with some empathy:
“You seem upset that I’m going to spend money hanging out with my friends.” Sometimes a great way to get at the underlying emotions is to simply ask an open-ended question, “What else bothers you about me going out tonight?”
If they say, “You spend way more time and money with them than you do with me”, I can create an immense amount of safety by responding,
“You don’t like how much time and money I spend with my friends.” (mirroring)
“It is really upsetting to you that it seems out of proportion to my time with you.” (validation)
“That must feel like I don’t care about you or don’t want to be with you, and that must feel awful.” (empathy)
Sue Johnson’s book is a very helpful resource if you want to explore these themes at a deeper level. My hope is that in our work and in our lives, our journeys will challenge us to take on the work of creating strong and emotionally attached bonds with our loved ones, freeing us to step into the world with more courage.
References: Johnson, Sue (2008). Hold Me Tight, Little Brown and Company.