Naomi and Ben are both in their late twenties. They are part of a bigger group of friends. On and off they have crossed the line from platonic friends to friends with benefits. Ben seems to be comfortable with this spontaneous commitment-free arrangement, but Naomi is growing more and more dissatisfied with it. Yet, she feels the need to follow popular relationship advice and pretend to be strong and self-sufficient, appear busy and not interested in a serious commitment. Ben can have his cake and eat it too; he gets the excitement of being together intimately while not truly needing to be vulnerable. Meanwhile, Naomi is trying hard to be mysterious and is not expressing her genuine needs and feelings. She has noticed that Ben is more interested in her when she goes out with other guys. Lately, she has half-heartedly started going steady with Rick. All of a sudden, Ben’s interest is really peeked. He wants Naomi to break up with Rick and go steady with him instead. Naomi feels excited, yet guilty. She is confused by Ben’s change of heart as well as by her own feelings. What is at the bottom of this situation?
Attachment theory designates three main “attachment styles”, as well as combinations of them: securely attached, anxiously attached and avoidant of attachment. Stan Tatkin has named these three styles as being an anchor (secure), being like a wave (anxiously torn between attachment and non-attachment) and being like an island (avoiding attachment and favouring independence).
Attachment theory is based in research with children and their primary care-givers, and considers our evolutionary programming. We have been programmed by evolution to single out a few specific individuals in our lives and become attached to them to increase our chances of survival. Our brain has a mechanism that consists of emotions and behaviours that ensure our safety and protection by staying close to our loved ones.
In the 1940s, parenting experts warned that “coddling” would result in needy and insecure children. Parents were told to let their infants cry themselves to sleep, and train them to eat on a strict schedule. In hospitals, the common practice was to separate mothers and babies at birth and keep the babies behind a glass window in the nursery for the first days of their lives. In the 50s and 60s, attachment theory (Mary Ainsworth, John Bowlby) proved that infants who had all their nutritional needs taken care of but lacked an attachment figure failed to develop normally. Their physical, intellectual, emotional and social development was affected.
In fact, attachment is an integral part of human behaviour throughout our entire lifetime. Our learned attachment style is relevant for a variety of relationship situations in adulthood. “We live in a culture that seems to scorn basic needs for intimacy, closeness, and especially dependency, while exalting independence. We tend to accept this attitude as truth—to our detriment” (Amir Levine, Attached). The co-dependency movement and other similar approaches portray healthy adult relationship attachment in a way that is similar to the detrimental views held in the 1920s about child rearing. According to these ideas, we should be able to distance ourselves from our partner and look after ourselves. If you are emotionally attached it is looked upon as “too enmeshed” and “co-dependant”.
As much as I agree that we are responsible for our own feelings, we are also in each other’s care in a partnership. Partners can have a huge stress relieving effect on each other. The assumption that we should control our emotional needs and soothe ourselves in the face of stress is at odds with our biology. “Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood.” (Amir Levine)
If our partner does not know how to reassure us when we are stressed, we are programmed to continue our attempts to achieve closeness and reassurance. That might look like “neediness” or “clinginess”. In reality, we are only as “needy” as our unmet needs!
There is in fact a phenomenon that is called “dependency paradox” in attachment literature. “The more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent and daring they become” (Amir Levine). The ability to step into the world on our own stems from the knowledge that there is someone we can count on for emotional and physical support. If we feel secure, the world is at our feet. We can step into the unknown, take risks, be creative, and pursue our goals and dreams. As adults, we provide the attachment role for our partner. We are able to provide a secure base for each other if we understand our attachment styles and work on being securely attached to each other.
When we flip between feeling insecure, anxious or even obsessive and feeling elated and passionate in our relationship, we might mistake this for love. However, what is most likely going on is an activated attachment system of somebody who has a non-secure attachment style. Jealousy, fear, and mistrust are not signs of love, but signs that we are in a relationship with an insecure attachment.
When we are in a relationship with somebody who has a secure attachment style, our experience is completely different. Securely attached people are
- Great at de-escalating a conflict
- Not threatened by criticism
- Effective communicators
- Not game players
- Comfortable with closeness
- Quick to forgive
- Inclined to view emotional intimacy and sex as one
- Respectful and loving with their partner
- Confident in their ability to improve the relationship
- Responsive to their partner’s needs and well-being
In such a secure relationship the true purpose of our intimate relationships becomes clear. The partners provide a sacred space for each other to be able to be who we truly are with all our needs and desires.
To get back to our couple from the beginning, Ben has a mostly avoidant attachment style. He sends mixed messages about his feelings, doesn’t like girls who are “too needy” or “too dramatic”, he pulls away when things are getting close, and he wants to keep the relationship light and non-committal. He feels most comfortable being aloof and independent. He only misses Naomi when they are apart, or once he realizes he might lose her to somebody else. Naomi, on the other hand, has a relationship history which has turned her from being secure in her affection for her significant other into somebody who longs for closeness but doesn’t dare to hope for a secure attachment. Their vibration matches. Ben mirrors her expectations and fears.
To get out of this painful pattern, Naomi needs to understand his attachment style and be authentic in regard to her own needs, feelings and dreams. We can all learn more securely attached relationship interactions. That shift begins with an honest relationship with ourselves.
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