Our first relationship in life, the one we have with our parents or caregivers provides a blue print for how we view ourselves and connect to others.
Dr. Siegel a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine states that, “When parents are sensitive to a child—when they pay attention to and tune in to the signals sent by the child, make sense of these signals and get a glimpse of the child’s inner experience, and then respond in a timely and effective manner—children are likelier to thrive.”
So it would make sense that we learn how to love by the way we are loved as children.
As we enter into relationships as adults, we each bring with us our early experiences of being loved and connected to our parents/caregivers, or potentially not experiencing a lot of love and connection. In the world of Social Psychology we would call this an attachment style. To keep it simple, there are four attachment styles that we generally develop based on how well we are connected to as children.
- Secure adults are those that were attuned to consistently as infants, they felt safe and secure with their parents.
- Adults who are anxious, felt inconsistently safe and connected to, therefore they develop an anxious view of relationships in which they struggle to trust that they will be loved consistently.
- Adults who become avoidant in relationships were often neglected in childhood, they learned how to not need connection and therefore it becomes challenging as an adult when they become close to their partner.
- And the last attachment style is considered disorganized. Meaning that they were abused as children and learned not to trust or feel safe with others. This creates a paradox for adults with disorganized attachment because as humans we are wired for connection yet the most important connection they experienced early in life was unsafe.
Most couples who enter into relationships don’t really have a deep understanding about how their relationship with their caregiver shaped the way they connect now. Often we are attracted to what is familiar to us, hang with me here, if you break down the word familiar it sounds like family. Yes that’s correct, we are drawn to people that feel like family.
No, I’m not implying we want to date our sister or brother. What I’m saying is that we unconsciously want to correct what we didn’t receive as children. The problem is we often end up repeating the experiences instead of correcting them.
Let me give an example. Jane grew up in a home in which her father was quite busy and didn’t have much time for her, when he was home he was quite attentive but since he was gone so often, she wasn’t sure she could really trust his affection for her. Let’s say her mom was around more often and at times mom was very loving and available, other times she was more focused on her own hobbies or interests, leaving Jane to believe that she had to develop strategies to get their attention, it didn’t come consistently. Therefore, Jane developed an anxiety about herself and in how she related with others. Jane meets Joe and falls in love, at first things seem great but with time Joe starts distancing and spending more time alone. Joe grew up in an environment in which his parents were very high achieving, they made sure Joe was in good schools, got good grades, and had his needs met. However, they didn’t spend much time connecting to Joe, they were more cold and aloof. Joe learned how to shut his feelings off and did well for himself through his achievements where he was most recognized by his parents. Joe developed an avoidant attachment style.
So why would these two partner up you might ask, well because both of them have a need for connection, and a fear of it. Jane fears the abandonment, the inconsistency and Joe’s greatest fear is that he is not enough for someone because he never learned how to get his emotional needs met, therefore he became overwhelmed when Jane wanted to deeply connect. Then Jane felt rejected and became anxious and overwhelming for Joe. This cycle reinforces their earliest relationships and without help or support it might be impossible for this couple to repair. There are many examples of different attachment styles connecting and each attachment style varies in its complexity. Remember this is not about something being inherently wrong in the person. These are strategies people use in order to protect themselves from their early childhood wounds.
Now that you have some idea about how early relationships shape our attachment style as adults, this is where the magic can happen.
We can learn how to create a secure functioning relationship. Even couples who have very opposite attachment styles can learn how to create a relationship Psycho-biological with one another that is secure. As a PACT trained therapist which stands for Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy, I help partners learn how to develop new sills and healthy strategies to connect deeper. Once they become aware of how they are applying their old strategies that they learned as children they can start to practice new strategies that actually create closeness and intimacy verse fear and disconnection. PACT integrates attachment theory, arousal regulation and neuroscience into a simple and concise way that couples start to learn not just about themselves but about their partner.
I know I’ve explained a lot about attachment as the foundation for understanding relationships. What PACT also recognizes is that Neuroscience and Arousal play a huge part in couples inability to manage conflict effectively. By understanding how the brain works (Neuroscience), we can better understand how people react to danger or stress. In PACT sessions we slow down and look at what one partners brain might be reacting to in their other partner. Learning about how the brain functions will let us see why we behave the way we do.
The biology of human arousal helps couples understand how they manage their stress and energy in relationships. When couples are in the middle of conflict it’s happening fast and our nervous system picks up facial cues, body language, eyes, etc. These register as threats and we can become flooded with chemicals in our brain and not be able to fully make sense of whats happening and how to respond, most the time we are reacting from our strategies we learned as children. When we can see our partner through new eyes, and come to understand their painful experiences and how those experiences shaped them, we can have more compassion and understanding.
Building a deeper more meaningful relationship is about learning ourselves and our partners and increasing our empathy and compassion for ourselves and our partners. We can then change the pattern and repair the early attachment wounds in order to create a safer more secure relationship. It can be a harsh world and when you can look at your partner and say I know you’ve been hurt and I’m here for you, that can be the most powerful experience they might have ever had.
When we recite our relationship vows, perhaps we should say, “I take you as my pain in the rear, with all your history and baggage, and I take responsibility for all prior injustices you endured at the hands of those I never knew, because you now are in my care.” – Stan Tatkin