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Join Dave S. Anderson and me for this podcast episode as we chat about the main attachment styles, how they affect us as adults, and how we can learn secure attachment skills in adulthood to create stronger and more resilient love relationships and marriages.
Due to our childhood experiences and the experiences, our parents and even grandparents had, we develop specific attachment styles. Even when our main attachment style is more avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized, “we never lose our inherent capacity for secure attachment” (Diane Poole Heller: The Power of Attachment, 27). Secure attachment is always “waiting to be uncovered, recalled, practiced, and expressed” (Poole Heller, 27). Our close, loving relationships, especially our long-term partnership, offer the perfect realm to heal those childhood wounds and develop secure attachment.
We are born in relationship,
we are wounded in relationship,
and we can be healed in relationship.
What is going on in our adult relationships is directly connected to our early childhood attachment experiences. When we get stressed or triggered, we automatically follow the learned beliefs, thoughts, feelings and behaviours from childhood. However, we can heal and shift these old patterns when we experience contingency. We all have an innate desire to be fully seen, heard and understood by another person. This feeling of attunement and deep connection, when we feel that another person truly “gets us,” is called “contingency.” According to Dan Siegel, we are “natural born contingency detectors.” Our brain is hypersensitive to inconsistencies and inauthenticity. We sense the other person’s judgements and the disconnect due to it.
Diane Poole Heller names different Secure Attachment Skills that couples can practice, for example:
1. Listening Deeply
When working with couples, I have made the experience that most of us can learn to listen more deeply. Listening does not just mean not interrupting. It does not mean waiting for the next pause to jump in and share our experience. Instead, active listening is visible in non-verbal cues (e.g. nodding, smiling, other facial expressions), verbal cues, clarifying questions and reflecting on our partner’s experience and feelings. One partner continues listening until the other partner feels completely understood. Only then is it time to take turns.
Sometimes people confuse listening with agreeing. We do not need to believe or agree with our partner’s feelings or thinking. Instead, we need to become curious about their subjective experience and acknowledge their feelings.
When the other person feels heard at that deep level, they feel less alone and more secure. They learn to trust us to be a safe person to share with.
2. Practising to Be Present
With all our modern distractions, especially our smartphones, it has become more critical than ever to be fully present with another. Giving your partner your full undivided attention is extremely important and can utterly transform a relationship.
3. Attunement or Empathy
Attunement describes a combination of listening, being present and compassion. Dan Goleman names three types of empathy based on Paul Ekman: Cognitive empathy is our ability to understand somebody’s take on the world. Emotional empathy means we are resonating with their feelings. Finally, compassionate empathy (Goleman calls this “empathic concern”) means letting them know they are not alone; we feel touched by their joys and want to help when they are struggling.
So when we are listening, we need to be curious about
a) how our partner sees the world
b) and what emotions they are experiencing.
c) We also want to let them know we are by their side, going through an experience together.
4. Engage in Joint Attention
Any activity that you both enjoy doing together increases your bond.
5. Maintain contact
Be responsive to your partner. When you are in person, make eye contact or touch and respond to their bid for connection. And when you are apart, text or call back. Even if we cannot always meet our partner’s needs, we can and need to respond in a timely fashion. It is okay if we have to say no. However, stone-walling or ignoring the other is destructive to the relationship.
6. Be Mindful of Comings and Goings
Rituals are essential for all relationships. Such a ritual is, for example, the six second kiss that Drs. John & Julie Gottman suggest. Everyday routines often revolve around saying goodbye, coming back home, going to bed at night or waking up in the morning. Someone with an avoidant attachment style might not think anything of just leaving the house. However, a partner with an anxious attachment style might be significantly disturbed in that situation. A short ritual of a hug and kiss, letting your partner know where you are going and when you will most likely be back, allows your loved one to relax and feel secure.
Stan Tatkin offers the “Welcome Home Exercise” to regulate each other’s nervous system. When your partner comes home, you drop everything and engage in a full-body embrace. You hold on to each other until you feel both of your bodies relaxing. This ritual is healthy for the entire family as the couple is the core of the household. If they are relaxed and feel calm, every family member, especially the children, benefits.
Rituals to end the day and say good-night to each other are also important. Many couples also have morning routines that they engage in together.
7. Use Your Eyes
In sessions with couples, I guide them to turn towards each other, make eye contact, touch if it feels appropriate, speak to each other instead of me and watch each other’s signals. I do that because eye contact is one of the most powerful ways of connecting and regulating each other’s nervous systems. To listen and speak from the heart and have productive and challenging conversations, we need to feel safe with each other. Just as an angry or hateful look feels like it could kill us, the opposite is also true. Nothing regulates us faster than the loving gaze from our loved one saying, “You are special to me.”
Being playful and having fun together is another way to foster connection and trust, provided the primary object is not to win but to enjoy time together. So make time for fun activities that you and your partner do together, especially during challenging times.
Our brain automates many processes, like walking, riding a bike, writing, etc. According to Stan Tatkin, we also tend to automate our partners by expecting them to behave and respond in a familiar way. We falsely believe we know them when we are all unique individuals constantly growing and changing. Those beliefs create boredom and disconnection. Find new and unusual things to do on your own and together as a couple because novelty creates attention in the brain. It keeps our relationships alive, exciting and passionate.
Dr. John Gottman’s research has shown the importance of repairing as soon as possible after a conflict. We all make mistakes, but a timely and heartfelt apology makes a significant difference in the longevity of a relationship. That includes giving a good apology and receiving it with generosity and grace instead of proudly or stubbornly blocking our partner’s attempts to apologize. Disconnections do not weaken a relationship as long as we know how to repair a rift properly. Repairing builds resiliency.
Fostering secure attachment needs to be practised.
To create stronger relationships, reach out for individual sessions or couples coaching.
Belief Change & Relationship Coaching