Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Relationships Matter III: Your Attachment Style

Read the following three paragraphs listed below and indicate which paragraphs best characterize the way you think, feel and behave in close relationships. 
A. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.
B. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don't worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.
C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn't really love me or won't want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.
Researchers by the name of Hazen and Shaver asked respondents to make these same choices in order to learn more about adult attachment styles in their key relationships.  What they found is that 60% of adults categorized themselves as secure (paragraph B) and 20% described themselves as avoidant (paragraph A) and 20% described themselves as anxious-resistant (paragraph C).
Interestingly, these are about the same percentages found when measuring attachment in infants.
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth devised the Strange Situation Classification (in one to two year olds) in order to understand how attachment might vary between children. This research created different scenarios including a mother, stranger and baby in a small room together.  Then the mother would leave the room.  Upon her return, researchers would score and observe the interaction toward the mother by the child.  A child’s temperament might predict how they would react when the mother left.  But what the researchers were observing was the child’s response upon her return. 
Three attachment styles were observed by Ainsworth (1970) and a fourth later identified by Main and Solomon 1990.
1.     Safe and Secure – “I am loveable and others will be responsive.”

One of the greatest predictor of satisfaction in adult relationships is our attachment styles.  Children who were raised with generally consistent attunement and connection grew into adulthood with what is often called “Safe and Secure Attachment.”  They developed a positive working image of themselves and saw others as being helpful.  They saw themselves as worthy of respect and love.

2    Anxious – “I need other people, but I am not sure I can rely on them.”

Those children who experienced nurture, attunement and connection in an inconsistent pattern developed an adult Anxious Attachment Style.  In this pattern, children experienced their caregivers tuning into them in a loving way, but just as frequently also often experienced the vacuum or withdrawal of that connection.  The in and out nature of that important connection from a parent or caregiver resulted in an adult narrative that says “I need other people, but I am not sure I can rely on them.”
3.     
      Avoidant – “I am on my own, all alone and I really don’t need anyone.”

Another group of children were identified that didn’t receive much soothing, emotional safety, security or an experience of feeling seen.  This Avoidant Attachment Style may have had their survival needs taken care of, but received little attuned interaction to help them develop neurological circuitry for social engagement. We have two major brain systems that impact our relationships.  One is all about safety and the other is about connections and social engagement.  This unresponsive primary caregiver taught the child that communicating their needs had no influence on their mother or father.  As adults, Avoidant Attachment Styles often have a core belief that of, “I am on my own, all alone and I really don’t need anyone.” 
4.     
      Disorganized – “Sometimes I fall apart and can’t depend upon myself.”

       A fourth category was also discovered with children that had been abused or experienced ongoing trauma called disorganized attachment.  Adult attachment expert Diane Poole Heller provides this descriptions, When parents set up these interactions that are frightening, disorienting, inherently disorganizing, and which sometimes involve violence, the parents become the source of fear. The disorganized pattern arises in the child when there is a desire to be close to the parent as an object of safety, conflicting with a drive to detach from a dangerous and confusing caregiver. For the Adult this may mean being held emotionally hostage by the conflict of the desire for intimacy and as the fear of it.” 
This Disorganized Attachment Style in adulthood often experiences lifes as “sometimes I fall apart and can’t depend upon myself.”  
The So What and Now What

If this is your first pass through attachment styles, you might like many, a bit defeated.  You may have read this as fate or reinforcement that you or your partner can’t change.  We now know that change is possible.  Our history certainly influences our relationships but it is not necessarily our destiny (by the way "avoidant" folk often believe that the past has no influence on who they are now).  A difficult early childhood has a great influence on your adult attachment style, but it isn’t fate. 

Some folk need to learn how to manage their anxiety and to communicate without the implied or overt criticisms that often flows freely.  Others need to recognize that they do have a need for connection and need to work on learning how to attune and engage more deeply.  If you are interested in learning more about your attachment style I would recommend the ..test on Diane Poole Heller’s web site. Click here for the test.


Therapeutic experiences, couples counseling, understanding our how attachment styles shape our perception, along with being in a healthy relationships can make all the difference in your relational health.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Relationships Matter II: The Negative Dance


When an internal alarm goes off and tells you that something is off  in your relationship, this is when you as a partner can step back and realize that your relationship might be caught up in an emotional gridlock (what I like to call “negative dances”).  These dances are a result of feeling abandoned or dominated by our partner.   Emotional gridlock is when the content can change with each fight and the defensive dance steps remain the same.  Most couples slip into one of these negative dances once in awhile, but when it becomes a persistence pattern that is easily triggered, emotional connection can disappear.

Dr. Sue Johnson, one of the primary developers of Emotional Focused Therapy for couples identifies three negative dances that she calls “Demon Dialogues” (author of Hold Me Tight and Love Sense).  These negative dances disrupt our sense of safety and connection, placing us in a protected defensive emotional state. 

1.     1. Find the Bad Guy
This is a dance of mutual blame and is a dead end pattern that keeps couples miles of apart.  It blocks re-engagement and the creation of a safe haven.  One partner may blame the other for creating a mountain out of a molehill and overreacting.  The other may respond by making an accusation that their partner is emotionally minimizing their feelings and turning a mountain of a problem into a molehill.  These patterns when kept up over time often morphs into the second negative dance, The Protest Polka.  The antidote is to realize that no one has to be the bad guy.  It is the negative dance that is the virus.

I often tell couples that my systems approach to counseling assumes that no one is to blame and that everyone is responsible for their relationship.  Your relationship is greater than the sum of your individual histories and personalities.  There is you, your partner and the interaction in your relationship.  It is your relationship dance or interaction that is the source of the problem.  Blaming only throws gas on the fire of conflict.

2.      2. The Protest Polka
  One researcher calls this the “demand-withdraw, criticize – defend” dance.  In the Protest Polka, one person is reacting to or protesting the perceived loss of a secure connection.  This criticism is often followed by your partner withdrawing and quietly protesting the implied criticism.  Each partner needs to see beyond the issues and view the whole dance.  Both partners need to recognize how the other’s moves pulls them into this dance.  This dance is about distress over the growing distance in the relationship.  It cannot be solved through more logic, emotional outburst, protests or avoidant behavior.

3.      3. The Freeze or Flee or Withdraw 
This dance of withdrawal usually follows the Protest Polka that has been going on for awhile.   Once the relationship begins to feel hopeless, the protesting partner gives up and put their emotions and needs in the deep freeze.  The avoidant/distancing partner is glad to experience a reduction in the attacks or criticisms.  Both partners are now sitting out the dance of their relationship.  They have left the intimate magnetic field of their relationship.  What is leftover is only numbness and distance.  They may look like a cooperative and polite couple at social events, but deep down the couple has lost any sense of intimacy.  The love relationship is over unless some intervention can reboot their connection.

Being able to hold onto and center your-self while observing these negative dances is an important first step towards building a stronger connection.  This requires learning how to calm your-self and effectively manage your emotions in the absence of feeling your partner’s connection.  But this isn’t about holding our breath!  It is about learning to advocate for those parts of us that are freaking out or shutting down without emotionally going from 0 to 60 mph in a split second.

Turning around these negative dances begins with knowing our own part in the dance. 

  •       How do we create the traps that we are caught in?
  •          Do we get anxious and pursue our partner with implied criticism?
  •          Do we get angry and attack someone for their failure to engage? 
  •          Do we go off line and fail to notice our partner’s distress or attempt to engage? 
  •          Do we move through life emotionally numb, as if we don’t need anyone?
It is important to discover that our defenses are rooted in our attachment styles that were fostered in our childhood.  My next blog entry will review these attachment styles and the impact they have on our beliefs and significant relationships.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Relationships Matter

My early education about relationships was influenced by growing up in a small town on the Great Plains.  Life revolved around the interdependence between farmers, businesses, faith communities, public servants and public schools (and of course the public swimming pool).  This interdependence was never more evident than during the summer wheat harvest.  The heart of the community was deeply impacted by the abundance or scarcity of any particular harvest.
     
We had a town siren that would sound off to announce the arrival of noon or an approaching tornado.  This siren could be heard throughout the one square mile community.  The daily blast of the siren seemed to remind us that, “we are all in this together.”
At age five, my N. Webb St. tribe of friends were gathered next door at the Kohart’s, suddenly the wind picked up followed by the town siren.  We knew the drill and scattered for our homes (fortunately it wasn’t a tornado but one of the many big winds that flipped a few trailers and ripped down some trees).
 
Of course there were the constraints that come with being a small town (it wasn’t a utopia), but from an early age I learned about the significance of being a good neighbor and interdependence.  When the Kohart’s oldest son was seriously injured operating heavy machinery, the town rallied to help.  It seemed like entire community got together as they gathered on “Terry Kohart Day” to help raise funds to pay for the exorbitant medical bills.

My early experiences taught me about the importance of community, relationships and having significant others in our life.  It is a need that is “hard wired into our nervous system.”   As adults, we still have the same basic needs that we felt when we were children, the need for nurture, belonging, being cared for and safety.  It may look different as adults, but make no mistake we are hard wired to feel an emotional bond that is safe and reliable.  When that is missing, it is natural to experience an internal siren that tells us there is an emotional disconnection.

Dr. Sue Johnson, witnessed the importance of community and connection during her many hours at her parents pub in England.  In her book (which I highly recommend), “Hold Me Tight,” she writes,

“The need for safe emotional connection to a few loved ones is wired in by millions of years of evolution.  Distressed partners may use different words but they are always asking the same basic questions.
  • ·       Are you there for me?
  • ·       Do I matter to you?
  • ·      Will you come when I need you, when I call?’

 She goes on to write, “The drama of love is all about this hunger for safe emotional connection, a survival imperative we experience form the cradle to the grave.  Loving connection is the only safety nature ever offers us.”

When our loving connections short circuits, we often become anxious or numb as a way to cope with this feeling of relational danger.  Couples that come for counseling are hearing that alarm go off “that something isn’t quite right or that something is dangerously threatening” their relationship.
 

My next post will identify three negative dances than can act like a virus in significant relationships.