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Romantic Relationship Problems: ATTACHMENT

What do romantic relationship problems have to do with attachment theory, attachment style, and attachment needs?

In short, the biological version of love is attachment, and attachment theory is all about love and romantic relationships.

Love begins with birth.

Human babies are born with a lot of needs. Human evolution has created a big brain, which is housed in a big head. Humans also walk on two legs instead of four, so human have evolved to have narrow hips, so humans need to be born before they are fully developed. This also makes birthing riskier for humans (both baby and mom) then other species.

Other large mammals like horses, cows, and elephants can get up and walk away shortly after birth. Humans can't walk for a year or run for almost two years. Human babies cannot feed themselves, cannot clean themselves to prevent infection, and cannot even keep themselves warm.

Babies can't protect themselves from predators. Babies need to be fed every few hours, even in the middle of the night. They need to be carried, and they need time and attention. Someone must address these significant needs, namely the baby's caregiver(s)... and it's a big job.


Emotional Bonding

Given that babies require a lot of work, it's a good thing they are cute. Their cuteness is also part of the evolutionary process; it is one of the mechanisms that elicit a response to care for them. That cuteness floods the caregiver with oxytocin, which is the bonding hormone. The feeling of oxytocin is like having so much love in your heart that it is in someone else's body. That's an attachment. The same thing happens to the baby and caregiver, and that's what it is to be "bonded" to your primary attachment figure.

Attachment

This chemical and biological system is wired to solve the problem of caring for a helpless baby. The biological system bonds the caregiver to the baby so that no matter how hard the baby is to take care of, the caregiver is compelled to take care of the child. Everyone knows that parenthood can be difficult and is long. To protect the baby, the emotional bond must be that strong. You may have heard that a person can lift a car off a trapped child: that is an attachment in action. Feeling protective and defensive of someone else is easy when the attachment is so strong.

In the teen years, the attachment system changes due to the chemistry of adolescence. Typically, the relationship changes from caregiver/infant (child) to peer-to-peer attachment and grows into intimate relationship bonding. There are parallels between them; the attachment is similar.


Behavioral Markers of Attachment

There are four types of behavioral markers of attachment; this is based on the work of developmental psychology and John Bowlby; he and his student Mary Ainsworth who helped us understand that separating parents and children causes distress. It is why we now allow parents to be in hospital rooms with their children.

Attachment Behaviors

Proximity seeking: This is that great feeling you feel when you are close to your person. Being close to your attachment figure, adult caregiver(s), or special person feels good. The child version of this is the parent that wants to go to the bathroom alone. The child wants to be close to their person ALL OF THE TIME and follows the parent everywhere. The adolescent example would be walking past your person's locker at school or reading their Facebook/ Instagram posts. You love to be where they are.

Safe Haven: Finding someone that good to be with is wonderful. It makes sense that when something terrible happens, a person seeks that person out to feel better. When you have a bad day, they are the person to reach out to feel better. In child-caregiver relationships, the child falls and hurts themselves and runs to the caregiver or attachment object to feel better. In adulthood, it looks like when you talk about your difficult day with your partner and snuggle and it feels so good to be comforted by this person when things aren't going well. So having someone special, and then when something threatening happens, I have someone to go to in order to feel safe.

Separation distress: When your person goes away, it becomes a source of distress. Think of sending a child off to school, and they are distressed and cry when the caregiver leaves. Remember that it is wired in that life depends on the attachment figure, and when that person leaves, it is distressing. An infant that is left alone and crying is quite distressed. In adulthood, an example is when a partner goes out of town, and you miss them terribly. This is not a sign of dysfunction or an insecure attachment style, it is completely healthy secure attachment to miss your partner. As an infant, you might not know your attachment figure will come back, but as an adult, you know that they will come back eventually, but you miss them. Even though your body might feel abandoned, your mind knows it is different — this is separation distress.

Secure base: In childhood, an example could be a child playing alone, and they become aware that they are alone. The child may get up, check in with the caregiver, and then go back to playing. Eventually, this turns into the child looking over their shoulder to check in. Finally, the child grows up and remembers the caregiver is there for them. As maturation continues, a child at college knows they are going home at the end of the semester, and they learn to tolerate greater and greater distance and can sustain attachment. Secure base means most of the time when you need your attachment figure, they will be there for you. You know they will be back if they go away. This is what it means to have a secure attachment style. Half people in the USA have a secure attachment style, and there are many positive health outcomes with that attachment style.


Adult Attachment Style (Strategy):

Every person has a particular way of reaching out to their person when they are in need and fearful. You reach for your romantic partner based on what happened to you in childhood and what happened in your current relationship. A person doesn't choose these feelings and behaviors; they are learned. There are four patterns of attachment or strategies to get these needs met. These adult attachment styles are not fixed and can be changed through therapy. There are generally three are insecure attachment styles.


The Four Attachment Styles or Patterns of Attachment:

The first three are considered insecure attachment styles or strategies.

  • Anxious Attachment Style: partners tend to demand and protest to get their needs met.

  • Avoidant Attachment Style: partners disconnect from their needs and may not know how they feel.

  • Disorganized Attachment Style: partners are distrustful because they have been betrayed so often.

  • Secure: partners know to reach out in direct ways. The is correlated with healthy relationships.

If a person's attachment needs are often met, they can move from an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized style into a secure attachment attachment style.


Attachment longings and attachment needs:

These feelings are associated with what makes us feel secure, safe, connected, and close to our loved ones. Conversely, these longings are the feelings that tell us to do something when we don't feel confident, safe, and connected. So we reach our attachment person to get these needs met. As people age, attachment needs become more complex, but the underlying feelings are the same. These needs are the same for everyone insecure attachment style or not, everyone has attachment needs.


Most Common Attachment Needs
  • To know I am trusted

  • To know I am lovable

  • To know my feelings matter

  • To feel accepted

  • To feel appreciated

  • To feel wanted

  • To know that I can get it right

  • To know I won't be rejected

  • To know I won't be left in a time of need

  • To know I won't be abandoned or isolated

  • To know I am good enough

  • To feel seen and heard

  • To know I'm not a burden

If these things feel authentic and are met in your long term relationship, it provides a deep sense of security, emotional safety, connection, and closeness.

When these needs are unmet, it can fuel your negative relationship dynamic.

The good news is that attachment styles can be changed and healed with help and a secure relationship. If you want help with your attachment style, your attachment needs, your therapist can help you identify and communicate clearly to your partner. Emotionally Focused Therapy is based on attachment theory, bonding, and the science of love. Contact us at Evolve Therapy.


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