We want closeness. But all couples fight sometimes. The biggest mistake in a relationship isn’t having arguments. What gets couples in big trouble is avoiding the emotions involved.
Couples can create closer emotional connection with each other, or drive themselves apart. It depends on the way they share emotions. You can make huge positive changes in your relationship by knowing more about emotional attachment.
Couples often seek counseling to stop “fighting all the time about the same stupid things.” The fights usually aren’t just about sex, money, habits, housekeeping, work, or any other topic.
Most couples are really arguing out of desperate isolation and frustration. They feel emotionally starved for connection with each other. They are fighting against something that threatens their need for safe attachment.
The connection between distress and attachment can be hard to see at first. Most couples need a bridge to take them from painful fighting to re-connection so they feel understood, accepted and soothed.
Now, thanks to new knowledge about attachment between adults, we can build that bridge.
Love Comes From Meeting Each Other’s Needs for Secure, Responsive Attachment
Love isn’t just a passing phase. It’s not just for young or naive people. Love isn’t a trick of the reproductive system. When we look at the way people form secure attachments, we begin to de-mystify adult love.
Real, lasting love is about meeting the human need to build a secure emotional connection with another person. When partners learn to talk so they can see, soothe and depend on each other emotionally, they build a foundation for secure, healthy love.
Attachment theory gives us powerful knowledge about the human need for connection. It shows how attention to emotions impacts the health of our relationships.
The Need for Emotional Connection Starts at Birth, and Lasts a Lifetime
The need for a secure emotional attachment starts in infancy. A healthy baby naturally seeks attachment with a primary caregiver. Cries, smiles and eye contact, and many other inborn behaviors all encourage a caring adult to stay attentive and close. Such a relationship is vital for a baby’s survival.
The quality of attention to the baby’s distress impacts the quality of the relationships the growing child develops. This impact can last a lifetime.
John Bowlby (1907 – 1990) was a pioneer of attachment theory. He noticed different ways babies learned to soothe themselves and find confidence to explore. Bowlby found that babies learned to feel calm and secure depending on how mothers responded to the baby’s distress.
If the caregiver responded with love, attention and soothing, the baby developed a capacity for secure attachment. Bowlby noticed babies with responsive mothers kept turning to the mother for comfort in distress, and for assurance to explore the world.
Other caregivers did not tune into the baby’s need for soothing. If the caregiver tended to be unresponsive or to reject the cries of a baby in distress, the child developed an avoidant attachment style. The emotional support system between baby and caregiver was insecure. Insecure babies turned away from the caregiver more often, not toward the caregiver for connection.
Babies with insecure attachment still needed soothing and courage to face the world. But they could find little comfort in their main relationship. So they stopped looking for comfort there. They were left to cope with upset emotions and a strange world with no idea how a secure relationship could help.
Our Childhood Attachment Is Our Relationship Model in Adulthood
Bowlby found children with insecure attachment could be very independent, but often struggled later in life with behavior issues and in relationships.
Bowlby’s breakthrough idea is that people need secure attachment to function well. The need starts in infancy, but does not end there. The baby’s primary attachment becomes the adult’s working model for future relationships.
In working with couples, Dr. Sue Johnson noticed that most adults also want to feel safely attached to a partner who is attentive, responsive and engaged. She developed her own roadmap to secure love for adults, based on attachment theory — Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples.
EFT helps couples learn to notice what they are feeling under their anger and defenses. Then they learn to talk safely in healing conversations.
This approach has had great success helping most couples (over 75%) find loving emotional connection. It helps even couples long stuck in painful patterns to reconnect successfully.
Why Love Triggers So Much Joy And Heartache
When couples first meet, they pay a lot of attention to each other and may feel almost continually connected. As time goes on, that intense focus gets weaker. There will be more breaks in the feelings of connection. These breaks can cause one or both partners to have an intense emotional response inside.
It’s terrifying to anyone — adult or child — to lose a sense of emotional safety and to feel abandoned.
Your brain can interpret the break in connection as a dangerous threat to your emotional wellbeing and survival.
Just as in childhood, each of us needs a person to help us make sense of the world, see our own value and respect our emotional selves. We need a special person to depend on, turn to, respond to, and who will do the same for us.
Deep down, we know we need secure attachment to survive and thrive in our complex world.
Human beings never outgrow the need for secure attachment.
Even if you think you may have an avoidant attachment style, you still need emotional connection. Dr. Sue Johnson believes adults can learn to develop these skills. I fully agree, having had the privilege of working with couples who learn to connect emotionally.
How to Use Attachment Knowledge to Go From Fighting to Connecting
How can talking about distress help couples grow closer?
When you feel disconnected from your partner, your brain sends out strong signals of alarm.
The result is panic.
Unfortunately, people caught in the grip of panic tend to react without thinking. They see the partner as the problem. They often get into fights that Dr. Johnson calls “demon dialogues,” where they go round and round, finding fault, and getting defensive. Patterns of thinking the worst of each other begin to escalate.
They don’t yet understand the real problem is the threat to their need for connection. But what if partners could become aware of the deeper need?
When both partners begin to recognize when they’re in a no-win demon dialog, they have a new power. That’s the power to stop what isn’t working, and slow down enough to explore their emotions.
How to Fight Your Disconnect, Instead of Each Other
Is there anything you can do if you and your partner are driven by panic and caught in a demon dialogue?
The first step is to notice the disconnect. If you are caught in another argument that doesn’t seem helpful, pause and step back.
Instead of focusing on the last thing your partner did or said, turn your attention inward:
- Observe how you feel. Notice the feeling of panic. Don’t try to push it away or deny it. Denial gives fear more power. Admitting to yourself that you are afraid will make you calmer right away.
- Notice what triggered a sense of danger. Was there a moment when you felt unimportant? Did you feel like you did not matter? Did you feel invisible to your partner? Did you try to reach your partner for help, but you could not get your message through? What did you experience, that triggered these feelings?
- Offer to share what you noticed at a quiet time. How might you try to explain what you were feeling when you panicked? Can you find words to share what you thought, what you felt, what you needed? Can you speak for your feelings, to help your partner see your pain without feeling accused? How would you speak your truth to a friend?
Taking the time to go inward stops the immediate damage to your relationship and opens up new possibilities for the future. Facing your own feelings helps you understand your true need for connection.
Whether you grew up with secure or insecure attachment, you can learn to deepen attachment with your partner.
When you stop what isn’t working, you have taken a vital first step. This is the first in a series of steps to exploring and meeting your deeper needs. Working with a therapist skilled in EFT, or in a Hold Me Tight® workshop, you can learn these steps more quickly.
Although many couples can repair their bonds this way, not every relationship can be fixed. Sometimes partners find they are simply unable to meet each other’s emotional needs.
Even so, knowing something about attachment theory gives you tools to be more present for yourself and your partner, and can help you make a future relationship healthier and more loving.
Why We Need to Understand Adult Emotional Attachment
Learning about healthy attachment gives you new insights into yourself, your partner, and how relationships work.
Many of us suffer from a belief that we should be independent. We should keep to ourselves and not ask for help.
But too much emotional independence is isolating. Keeping silent about emotional pain works against building a strong connection. Loving inter-dependence is more than just healthy and good. Our brains and bodies are wired for emotional connection from birth.
With this new understanding, you can shift away from old habits, and share your emotions in new ways that feel safer. However, it takes both of you to be willing to change how you communicate.
Arguments can distract a couple from recognizing their needs for safe attachment. For love to grow when we argue, we need a safe way to notice our more vulnerable feelings, and say what we need.
Focusing on emotional needs helps us talk about the truth of how we feel so it works for our relationship, not against it.
Understanding your need for attachment helps you see your partner in a different light. You realize that your partner may not necessarily be the source of the relationship problem. He or she is not your enemy. In fact, your partner may be the best person to help you co-create a solution.