Wired for Connection: Attachment in Relationships

Humans are wired for connection and attachment is at the core of our survival in this world.  Triggers elicit the fight, flight or freeze response when we sense a threat to our relationship, which could be having thoughts and perceptions like “She doesn’t care”, “I do not matter”, “I am not good enough”, or “He is pulling away and withdrawing.”  When there a threat, adrenaline and cortisol rush through our bodies and so does our mammalian survival response.  We feel fear, anxiety and insecurity.  What we need and seek is to re-establish safety and security, ideally through our primary attachment (usually a parent or partner) and if we do, this calms our nervous system down, we are grounded and can regroup and breathe.  If we do not reestablish safety and connection with our primary attachment figure, we are left insecure and try to remedy this in one of the following three ways: 1) Fighting, pushing in and towards, often using angry words or criticism to attempt to reestablish connection and safety, 2) Freezing, due to not our heads and bodies not being able to move or respond in that moment, or 3) Fleeing from the perceived threat by shutting down, pulling away, or leaving to protect ourselves in our own little shell.   What we need and are looking for is to be able safely reach for emotional connection and receive it from our most important loved one – to be able to feel our feelings, sink into them, share them and feel seen, heard and held. Our emotions are true, they are not right or wrong, not something we can argue with or debate.  Often when they are seen and heard, that solves the issue by reestablishing a secure connection and secure base from which we can go off and explore the world and function in life.  If the base of our relationship is not secure, we will usually react with anxiety or avoidance, and we don’t feel like we can go out and face the world, conquer our dragons because our “person” is not with us, not on our side.  The essence of secure connection is accessibility, responsiveness and engagement.  An easy acronym for this is A.R.E., which seeks to answer and affirm the question of “ARE you here for me?  Do I matter?  Can I count on you?  Are we in this together?” Another important component of attachment is the physiological and biological response to touch and soothing that occurs when you are receive physical comfort from a safe, secure partner, loved one or family member.  We know that wanted physical touch and affection reduces cortisol levels (the stress hormone), lowers blood pressure, and releases our body’s amazing drug oxytocin (the “love hormone”).  Even 20 seconds of touch (hugging, back rubs, stroking, sex) is long enough to stimulate the release of oxytocin which helps us feel connection and trust.  We also know that physical connection and closeness with your primary attachment figure reduces physical pain if you are securely attached and bonded based on Sue Johnson’s research study (2013). Securely attached adults can typically process and work through their own feelings and thoughts in the world and soothe themselves, but when they have difficulty, they can reach and share this with their partner or loved one and count on them to be there.  Being able to reach for connection emotionally or physically and trust that, most the time, your partner or primary attachment figure will be there and be responsive and engaged with you is fundamental to a secure attachment, connection and healthy relationship.  Knowing this allows us to better respond to our partners when they reach, or reach to our partners when we have anxieties, worries or fears. We weren’t all raised with secure attachment in our primary relationships with our caregivers, but the good news is that you can create secure attachment in your primary relationship as an adult in this time in your life, even if you lacked a model and had an insecure attachment with your primary caregivers as a child.  It does require insight and awareness to change the cycle and interaction pattern, and focus on staying A.R.E. in your relationship and talking to your partner about starting to turn to one another and share what you need, working to create security and safety.  This is what we call co-burdening, sharing the emotional load, making it lighter for you both.   Beautifully described by Sue Johnson, “The strongest among us are those who can reach for others.” Perfection and getting it right 100-percent of the time is not required – research shows us that in most securely attached, connected relationships, partners respond to reaches for connection about 50-percent of the time.  Missing or not responding to bids for connection or reaches half the time does not doom the relationship.  It only takes being there and showing up half the time to create that security.  And when you do inevitably miss or mess up, the key part is whether you can talk about that and reach out to make things right. While a secure attachment history is not a prerequisite for secure attachment in your relationships, it often takes a lot of hard work to change patterns we have learned.  This is where the benefit of family, couples and individual therapy comes in.  As Emotionally Focused Therapists, we create the secure space and base from which you explore, understand and begin sharing in the therapy sessions, and then learn to create this safety between you and your primary attachment figures later on, inside and/or outside of the therapy room.  We also help you understand that negative cycle and pattern of responding in fight/flight/freeze and why your loved one does what they do, which then allows us to slow down the pattern, create flexibility, and begin fostering new interactions that result in secure connection. If you are ready to explore more secure connection, attachment and patterns in your relationships, reach out to me to discuss beginning therapy to work on this today!  Nothing could be more important than investing in yourself and your relationships.   Written By: Athen Fisher, MAS, LMFT Certified Emotionally Focused Therapist