Sue and John have come for help with their marriage. In their first session Sue seems desperate and eager to figure out what is going on with them. John has come along but he appears distant and disconnected. As the session unfolds, a not uncommon dynamic becomes apparent: One partner is the one who pursues closeness, the other one distances him or herself.
Sue tries to reach John frantically through her words, her emotions and her body language. One moment, she reaches out to him lovingly and patiently, the next she hurls some strong emotion at him. Nothing seems to penetrate his stoic and unemotional stance. Neither touch, nor loving words, nor angry ones, nor tears, make a difference.
Sue and John are in a vicious cycle that Terry Real calls “stance, stance, dance”. Her stance is to reach out for love and attention, his stance is to resist and retreat, and thus their familiar dance unfolds. The more she asks for closeness and emotional connection, the more alienated he feels. The more he senses her longing for connection, the more he feels “broken” because he is not able to provide the intimacy she seems to need. The more he feels inadequate, the more distant and closed off he becomes. As he retreats further, Sue interprets this as a rejection. She thinks, “there must be something wrong with me that he does not reassure me with loving words”. She tries even more desperately to get through to him. One moment she is loving, the next moment she gets angry or pushes him away. Nothing has an effect.
Reading my description you might feel for either Sue or John, and you might feel inclined to judge the other one as either “too needy” or “too cold”. While both are deep down longing for a secure loving relationship, they clearly have different ways of showing up in relationships. They might draw the conclusion that their partner is just not the right one for them, but a similar dance would most likely occur again with another partner. We have just often not been taught how to get out of our patterns and how to create that secure relationship we all want.
In the 1950s, Psychoanalyst John Bowlby brought our attention to the fact that our early experiences with our caretakers have a profound influence on our relationships. Mary Ainsworth tested Bowlby’s theory in the laboratory with mothers and infants and she distinguished four basic attachment styles.
- Babies who had mothers who were consistently and tenderly responsive to their baby’s needs were able to quickly soothe themselves when separated because they were securely attached. They had learned through the consistent loving parent that life was safe and that they were cared for.
- Infants of mothers who were consistently cold, rejecting, rigid or even neglectful, developed an avoidant attachment style. They showed little emotion and seemed to be indifferent to being separated from their mother. They had learned that it is best not to need or rely on anybody else. Stan Tatkin calls this group of people islands and speaks of people having “island tendencies”.
- Another group of mothers were inconsistent. They were sometimes appropriately nurturing and connected according to the child’s state of mind, at other times not. These children tended to clutch to their mother when they were together, and became inconsolable when they were separated. Stan Takin’s name for this ambivalent attachment style is waves. When we have experienced that our primary attachment figure is unpredictable and inconsistent, we crave their reassurance but learn to be unsure of being able to get it. Like a wave at the shore we might reach out to our partner and then retreat, reach out again and then retreat.
- The final group of children were victims of abuse or highly neglectful and unpredictable parenting. They showed a disorganized attachment style, and when separated from their mothers their trauma manifested as moving in circles, rocking back and forth or going into a frozen state.
The estimates are that only about 50%-56% of children have experienced a secure attachment style. That leaves every second one of us with an attachment style or at least attachment tendencies which can create issues in personal interactions. With these acquired attachments styles, we have also learned specific subconscious beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world. We might for example have learned that we are a burden, not important or lovable. Or that other people can’t be relied on and that the world in general is not a safe place for us. We all have certain attachment injuries. Some traumas are less intense than others but they all affect our relationships, especially our close love relationships.
Maybe you have guessed that John is an island and Sue is a wave. The more she comes crashing onto the shore of the island he has retreated onto, the higher his protective walls become. His history holds the answers to why he avoids attachment. John’s mother died when he was five years old, and he learned to get attention by being the brave stoic little soldier, independent and not needing any help or emotional support. His grandmother, who raised him, was controlling and rigid. That made him even more determined to be independent and play his cards close to his chest.
Sue, on the other hand, grew up with an older mother who was inconsistent. One moment she was overprotective and fearful, the next she was distracted and absent-minded. Sue remembers being very shy as a child and not wanting to part from her mother when it was time to go to school. She got most attention from her mother when she was helpless and needed something. She also had an emotionally distant father whose attention she tried in vain to get.
When our intimate partner does or says something that is similar to what our primary caretaker did, we experience what Richard C. Schwartz calls an “attachment re-injury”. We experience the same betrayal, fear, abandonment or humiliation, and the old limiting beliefs about ourselves, other people and the world seem to be confirmed. When John retreats, Sue experiences the same insecurity she went through as a child. When Sue wants to connect, John feels intruded upon just as he felt as a boy, and fears that his independence is threatened. By learning to communicate better, to resolve conflicts or make compromises, a couple might make some progress, but we are missing the mark because the attachment injuries are not unearthed.
The first step necessary to shift out of a specific relationship dance is conscious awareness of the pattern or patterns and the underlying attachment styles. When we bring attention to what a pattern is, it already slows down the habit loop. The awareness begins to disconnect some of the circuitry of the brain that makes the habit so powerful.
For Sue, the awareness is that she feels abandoned, disconnected, alone and unloved when John retreats. She starts to feel desperate and reaches out. What she wants is to feel safe and loved. For John, the awareness is that he feels intruded upon, smothered and inadequate. His protection is to close down. What he wants is autonomy and to feel good enough. If they connect to their needs and motivations for their individual stance, they are already creating space for something different. Without further interventions, they might still repeat the behaviour but it already weakens the pattern because they are now aware of their underlying motivations.
Becoming aware of the pattern and motivations also shifts our focus from “my partner is the problem” or “something must be wrong with my needs” to ”the pattern is the problem”. Sue and John can both shift into thinking, “how does he/she feel vulnerable in this dance?” Sue can realize that John is scared about being too close and feels inadequate. John can become aware that Sue’s intention is not to encroach on his independence, but that it is about her vulnerable feelings of abandonment. The second step, for both of them, is to work on the original attachment injury.
If you want to know how IFS (Internal Family Systems) offers a way to heal our attachment injuries and childhood traumas, please read my upcoming blog article called “You Are My Valued Tor-Mentor”, which will be posted in a few days.
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I offer sessions for individuals and couples and you can contact me for a free phone consultation.