The Trouble With Letting Go Is...
Why some couples stay together despite the pain.
As a therapist I have worked with a variety couples from different backgrounds and recognized two things. Sex and money. Those two areas are key for making or breaking a relationship. When things are not right in the bedroom the relationship becomes strained and couples start to do things that result in the opposite of what they want. They bicker, say hurtful things to each other and stop being nice. Connection is what goes missing, along with communication and physical touch. What they need and want from each other gets drowned out as background noise to their anger, frustration and disappointment in the relationship and each other.
However despite all of the above many couples struggle to let go of each other. Sometimes the love is still there buried under the hurt, pain and resentment. In other cases things get so toxic it’s healthier to split up but that doesn’t always happen. Why is that? What would keep two people who are desperately unhappy together despite all the red flags? Well the psychology of attachment theory comes into play here. How we were raised and how we attached to our parents or caregivers in childhood provides a blueprint for all of our future relationships.
There is a concept that what we know we do, sometimes these behaviors are healthy and for others they can be unhealthy. We are creatures of habit, and often follow learned patterns of behavior on both a conscious and subconscious level. Therefore if we learned from watching our parents as young children that fighting, arguing and aggression is normal in a relationship then this is what we believe growing up. We don’t know any different and have no other lived experiences to compare it to at that stage so we internalize it. These experiences stay with us impacting on our behaviors as adults when in relationships with others. Knowledge and awareness is key here because once you understand your history, attachment style and the reasons why you can then reprogram yourself and change. Your past doesn’t have to define your present or future.
Attachment theory was brought about by the works of John Bowlby, “Attachment and Loss” was published in 1969. He was one of the first psychologists to put forward the idea that informs much of today’s psychotherapy. The theory highlights how a child’s connection, intimacy and sense of safety with their parents or primary caregivers plays an important role in how secure that child will be as an adult. Psychologists have further explored this concept and concluded that early childhood attachment patterns can act as indicators to predict romantic attachment styles in relationships later in life. Essentially the blueprint of life, love and relationships was handed to us by our parents. It is made up of their lessons that we learned through role modelling from a young age on how to connect with others. Effectively they taught us this through their way of parenting us.
Adult attachment styles generally come in four types:
• Secure Attachment style:
- Parental style: Works with the child and in tune with the child’s emotions, understand the child’s needs and meets them in a nurturing way. The child feels safe, loved and secure and is able to explore and express themselves in parental relationships. The child is able to develop healthy ways of regulating their emotions and displays little to no separation anxiety. They feel able to be away from parents and seek closeness upon their return.
- Resulting characteristics as an adult: For a securely attached child that grows up into adulthood being close to another person and maintaining healthy connections comes more naturally. They express emotions easily and feel relaxed alone and when in company with others. They develop loving and meaningful relationships; offer empathy and are able to set appropriate boundaries in close relationships.
- Avoidant Attachment style:
- Parental style: Unavailable or rejecting. When a parent is emotionally unavailable or unresponsive most of the time they may offer inconsistent attention. It is likely children may become anxious and fearful, uncertain of what might happen next, and not know what to expect. They can become distant towards parents.
- Resulting characteristics in adulthood: As adults, you may be available one moment and rejecting the next. You may avoid intimacy or emotional connection; be rigid; inflexible; critical or intolerant. You may struggle to trust others easily and feel threatened by those who express affection and love openly. “Life is much simpler if I don’t get too close to anyone or depend on them. I don’t want them depending on me either, it’s too much effort. Besides they will only leave sooner or later so why waste my energy trying?”
Ambivalent Attachment style:
- Parental style: Inconsistent and sometimes intrusive parent communication. When a young child learns that their parent is unreliable they become wary of strangers and clingy towards parents. The parent often neglects the child and is inconsistent, or emotionally unavailable. This may may cause the child to believe they can’t depend on anybody, the world is not a safe place and nobody can be trusted. It can result in poor emotional regulation with separation anxiety. The child often has tantrums and is there can be a lack of boundaries in close relationships.
- Resulting characteristics in adulthood: Adults may develop a fear of abandonment, be overly needy or clingy towards partners, have difficulty regulating emotions and present as anxious. The insecurity felt may result in being controlling towards others and displaying unpredictable behaviors. There may be little to no boundaries in relationships with others leading to difficult emotional connections. “I really want to build close emotional connections and be intimate with people, but the more I try the less they want to be with me!”
Disorganized Attachment style:
- Parental style: Ignores or fails to meet the child’s needs. Parents may behave in ways that frighten the child and can behave in ways that are physically aggressive and emotionally abusive. Such children may fear their parents and feel unsafe. They they may struggle to express their emotions in a healthy way and display angry, resistant or avoidant behaviors around parents.
- Resulting characteristics in adulthood: Adults may fear intimacy or closeness in romantic relationships, hide vulnerabilities and harbor resentment and anger not trusting others easily. Lifestyles may be chaotic and they can come across as insensitive and abusive. They may lack boundaries yet despite this they crave stability and security. To feel safe but struggle to ask for what they need. “I would love to feel close to someone but I’m so afraid of being hurt or rejected- its safer to keep people at arms length.”
Getting over it- ways to overcome your attachment insecurity
The good news is that your attachment style can be altered. First with awareness that there is an issue, secondly by understanding what the issues are and thirdly by actively and consciously making changes to your life. This could create a positive impact and lead to a more secure attachment across all of your relationships romantic and otherwise:
- Knowledge is power- do your own research on attachment theory, there are plenty of resources online and in Psychology books that detail Bowlby’s attachment theory and how this impacts on your life into adulthood. Understand your own attachment patterns and how they came about historically. Identify where the problems are. Then recognize that you no longer have to think, speak, behave, act or react in the same old ways, you can flip the script and try new ways of thinking, behaving and being.
- Find a good therapist with expertise in attachment theory who is able to help you on your journey of change. Read their testimonials, check their qualifications and ensure they are registered with appropriate regulatory bodies for ethical practice. Ask about how they can help and what their success rate has been with similar clients struggling with attachment issues.
- There can be great healing from connecting with healthy partners who have a secure attachment style. It is important to filter and find partners that do not have similar issues to yours even though it may seem to make sense. If you both struggle with similar issues you can help each other right? Well often this can be more harmful because on top of your own emotional issues you may carry your partners problems and clash when needing support.
- Each of you would need individual support but may end up using the other as a ‘therapist’ and not a partner- this places tremendous pressure on the relationship and can cause resentment. Get professional support from a trained Counselor instead. Studies suggest that a positive experience with a securely attached person can, over time, override your insecure impulses.
If you already happen to be in an existing relationship and both have insecure attachment styles you can still make things work. As long as you have identified issues and are prepared to work together to heal. If you feel you are coping then continue to work as a team to overcome your respective problems and grow together. If you are struggling then couples therapy can help you to explore your patterns and ways of relating to one another and any relevant historical issues from childhood. Find a therapist who can help both of you become more secure, together.
Tune in to each other
Relationships in which you are both tuned in to each other’s emotions are called ‘attuned relationships’. They show us that often its the unsaid stuff- the facial expressions, body language etc, that deeply affect our love relationships. Playfulness and humor can help to smooth over blips in communication but exercise caution with this and be mindful of any sensitivities. Arguments and conflicts can actually build trust if they used as ways to clear the air and are not seen as threats but as a way of sharing our reality. To be heard and understood- this encourages us to hear and the other.
Working towards a healthier attachment style not only improves romantic relationships with partners, but also with close family and friends relationships. The positive impact will have ripple effects across the whole of your social connections making all of your relationships more fulfilling. I would actively encourage you all to consider what your attachment style is because if its insecure you have the power to change it to a more secure style. You just have to learn the process and practice it regularly to form an emotionally healthier way of being. Remember what you don’t heal.. you repeat. Break the cycle for a healthier future generation.