Do you trust me?
Attachment in relationships
Do you tend to think you should be self-sufficient? Do you trust too much? Do you swing between trusting too much and too little? Welcome to the wacky world of attachment! If you find relationships confusing (and who doesn’t at times!) understanding attachment can help you make sense of things, and possibly improve your relationship.
Generally, I try to write in as natural language as possible, keeping the jargon to a minimum. However, this part will get slightly more technical because the terms help put a handle on things. And actually, the terms I’ll be using are pretty digestible anyway. Especially once you understand them. So let’s plunge in.
“Attachment” refers originally to the degree of secure connection a baby feels to its primary parental figures. In a previous story (Trust vs. Threat) I mentioned how we each have a kind of baseline trust, or security. This baseline is founded on the quality of attachment we had as infants. Whatever degree of trust or mistrust we developed in infancy tends to stay with us through childhood and adolescence into adulthood.
Babies can be reliably categorized at 2 years of age as either securely or insecurely attached. These attachment styles tend to persist across the lifespan, though estimates of stability vary widely and are influenced by both internal factors like disposition and coping mechanisms, and external factors such as life events and stressors.
If we emerge from the womb into a chronic atmosphere of criticism, contempt, unpredictable violence, or neglect (to name a few), we have to develop what Tara Brach calls our Space Suit Self:
The purpose of this space suit is to protect us from violence and greed and to win nurturance from caretakers who, to varying degrees, are bound by their own self-absorption and insecurities. When our needs aren’t met, our space suit creates the best defensive and proactive strategies it can. These include tensions in the body and emotions such as anger, anxiety, and shame; mental activity such as judging, obsessing, and fantasizing; and a whole array of behavioral tactics for going after whatever is missing — security, food, sex, love.
Our space suit is essential for survival, and some of its strategies do help us become productive, stable, and responsible adults. And yet the same space suit that protects us can also prevent us from moving spontaneously, joyfully, and freely through our lives.
The physical metaphor is especially apt. A space suit protects us from the harsh environment of space, but at a cost of not being able to make direct contact. How close and connected can you be, when you (or most likely, both of you) are enclosed in a protective envelope? To be clear, each of us has a spacesuit to some degree. Those with insecure attachment styles tend to be less aware of the nature of their suits, and these suits have features that make it harder to be vulnerable and close with others.
Studies show that about one out of three people across a breadth of cultures fall into the insecure category. People also tend to associate with like-kinds. Secures generally hang out and partner with other secures, whereas insecures choose insecures. (If you want to get an approximate sense of what your style might be, try this online Attachment Test. It’s not totally reliable, but more-so to the extent that you are brutally honest with yourself in your answers.)
There are two main flavors of insecure attachment which go by various technical terms. To simplify, they are often designated as as “anxious” and “avoidant.” One of the most common combinations we see in couples therapy is a partnership of the two.
At first glance, anxious-insecure partners tend to appear fun and expressive, while avoidant-insecures tend to appear calm and steady.
These are the outward appearances of these particular spacesuits. (Bear in mind that this is not a two-way translation: having those appearances does not necessarily mean one is insecurely attached!) Partners are initially drawn to each other for their complementary qualities. However, beneath the surface both have significant amounts of fear and mistrust. In this way, although one has the “anxious” label, they are both quite anxious. But they experience and express their fears differently. For both types, these feelings of fear and mistrust originated pre-verbally when they were not adequately cared for as infants. As a result, much of their deeper internal experience (even in the present) is hard for them to be aware of and talk about. For example, they might know that they are angry, but not what softer emotions (like fear or sadness) are behind the anger.
The anxious-insecure partner is primarily worried about being disconnected, abandoned, and alone, while the avoidant-insecure partner “avoids” feelings of rejection by seeming to be self-contained and self-sufficient.
Can you see the dilemma of this pairing? The avoidant partner is typically sensitive to rejection and covers his or her feelings of not being good enough with defensiveness and withdrawal. The anxious partner is sensitive to disconnection, so he or she gets triggered by the other’s withdrawal. Although each can point to the other as “the cause” of the cycle, it’s really a circle with no beginning or end.
The anxious partner escalates actions to try to re-establish connection. These are often primarily verbal, and skew towards pointing out what’s missing or what the avoidant person is doing wrong. The avoidant then feels criticized or inadequate, and goes into self-protective retreat. In this fashion they drive each other ad infinitum in what can be a truly vicious cycle. Both are seeking to avoid aloneness and pain. But in tragic irony, they partner in creating more of what they are trying to escape. It is extremely hard to dismantle this cycle from the inside. The distance and aloneness builds over time. Hurt and sensitivity to being triggered build. Compounding things, the relationship itself becomes an additional source of stress instead of the refuge that it is supposed to be.
Parents’ unconscious preoccupations with their own insecurities create insecure offspring after their own images. This is so reliable that children’s attachment styles can actually be predicted before they are born, based on their parents’ attachment styles. The children grow up insecure, then pair up with other insecures, and that baseline mistrust gets passed down across generations.
As mentioned, attachment style can change over time. Positive temperaments and life circumstances tend to push in the direction of more security, and negatives push towards insecurity. Two specific things can move insecure individuals towards what is referred to as “earned security.” One is good psychotherapy (either individual or couples). The other is finding and staying in a stable relationship with a secure partner. Of course, the latter can be hard to do since insecures tend to gravitate to other insecures. It often involves finding someone you wouldn’t normally choose, maybe someone who’s less exciting or charming than you might naturally be drawn to, but by the same token, who is both more stable and emotionally available.