Attachment Theory and Marriage

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John Bowlby, a British pediatrician, noticed in his work with jouvenile deliquents in the mid 20th century, that their behavior and way of relating correlated with their home life, this led him to observing mothers and babys together. He discovered he could predict how young children would relate as teenagers and adults based on how they related with their mom. These observations along with research in ethology (the study of mammals) led him and his colleagues to develop attachment theory: the science of relationships. 

Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby’s American colleague and research partner, discovered attachment styles (the four strategies of relating that humans break down into). These styles of connecting have to do with the fundamental questions of: “will you be there for me?” and “what am I worth?”. We’re always asking these questions internally and our earliest experiences of people’s responses to our needs shape our assumptions about ourselves and others.

Attachment Styles

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Secure Attachment Style = I feel good about myself and others. So when my feelings arise I naturally trust them and turn to others with them.  

Insecure Anxious/Pre-Occupied = I feel bad about myself (and sense that others are much better than me) and am ambivalent about trusting others to be there for me. So when my feelings arise I want to go to people with them but am nervous they will see I’m bad and reject me so I hide my feelings through becoming anxious and concerned with what other people think (this could manifest as superficially connecting with others, becoming hyper sexual, overly taking care of others, giving signs that I need connection but never taking help fully in, trying to be perfect, becoming falsely confident, etc.). Often in my anxious state I don’t think as clearly which leads me to making mistakes (which I assume others never make) which often re-confirms to me my badness and their betterness. 

Insecure Dismissive/Avoidant = I feel good about myself but bad about others. It’s hard to believe people won’t overly frustrate me. So when my feelings come up I hide them from myself and others by feeling numb and a lack of interest in others. If the situation is pressured enough I can feel anger or anxiety which may cause me to either totally blow up or double down on smoldering self reliance. In general I turn my thoughts towards my own world and have a hard time reading others. I don’t have a lot of close relationships because of this. 

Insecure Fearful/Avoidant = I feel bad about myself and others. So when my feelings come up I both want to go to people and simultaneously not go to people. This is because I want to have people know my feelings but I get scared that I’m at best a burden and at worst pathetic (or both!) and they’ll reject me. Plus I’m nervous that they’re cruel and will hurt me. I often inadvertently blow up relationships in dramatic ways because I create such tension in people with wanting them and rejecting them.

Attachment styles and their assumptions about self and others are largely unconscious. Since they develop during a time in development before language and explicit thought is online. This results, with insecure attachments, in feeling like repetitive things happen in relationships but you can’t totally understand why.

Marriage 

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What often happens is people get together with one or both unconsciously using insecure attachment styles because that’s how they learned they could get connection. And it feels like connection for awhile until one or both people manage to get in touch with wanting something more genuine (life shifts seem to cause this; like getting married, having children or career shifts, etc.). When that happens it often feels like the rules change and both partners are left frustrated and confused of what to do. Let’s take just one possible combination for example:

An anxiously attached person who felt initially safe by the calming, un-emotional presence of their avoidant/dismissive partner can often can feel burned out by doing all the emotional lifting and un-appreciated for it. As well as  easily guilty that they are now being “selfish” but they can’t help but want to be able to bring their authentic feelings and needs into the relationship and have them supported. An avoidant person who originally enjoyed the aliveness of their anxiously attached partner’s energy and anxiety can feel overwhelmed by that very energy and feel helpless and potentially even humiliated that they don’t know how to support them emotionally (this can often feel more like anger or indignation if they provide for the partner in other faithful and supportive ways like financially or through tasks). 

The task of marriage therapy is to not only educate people on helpful ways of communicating but as the premier researchers in this field, Jon and Julie Gottman, say; its about helping people atone, attune and attach. Couples need to be able tolerate acknowledging how their actions missed or hurt the other (even when it wasn’t their intention to hurt), then learn how to read their partner (what does sadness, loneliness, shame, joy, hurt, anger, etc. look like in their partner and how can they respond to those feelings so their partner can feel loved). Finally, couples need to learn new ways of attaching (recognize their own style of attaching and it’s insecurities and learning new strategies of trust with their partner).

This is difficult because it often requires feeling and displaying emotions that can quickly become overwhelming since they aren’t often felt and haven’t had a chance to be mastered (a task that not only requires personal responsibility but also requires help from others). This is nerve racking because if the other person stumbles in supporting and validating, the vulnerable one is likely going to quickly feel flooded with shame or helplessness. Which often causes the vulnerable person to over accommodate, withdraw and pull away or get angry and push their partner away with problematic rage or blowing up or tantrums. All of these behaviors would be self protective behaviors but problematic for connecting. Staying present with your own feelings and with your partner’s feelings is a learned skill (especially if you aren’t in touch with your own feelings).

Attaching has a lot to do with learning to feel our feelings and bravely trusting others to help us with them and in the process building new assumptions about how valuable and competent we are and competent and trustworthy others are.