The process of “becoming a couple” is filled with many emotions, feelings, attitudes, risking and identification with another person. Relationship problems happen when these same emotions are injured in any way. When one “sees and hears” much blaming and emotions between a couple, it is clear that there has been an “attachment bond injury” that has to be healed before the relationship can continue and be healed.
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We know that an infant and parent need to develop a close bond of trust if the child is to grow. Without this bond, the child will experience a “failure to thrive” which may even result in the death of the child because they “have no reason to live and reach out to the world.”
The first task in life for the infant is one of “Trust versus Mistrust.” If the child comes to know that the parent will be there, can be depended upon, will feed, cloth, clean, and relate to them as “important” then the child starts to believe that there is “trust” in the world. However, if the child does not feel others are concerned, are unavailable, or preoccupied with other things, then the child learns that the world is cold, distant, lonely, and must be “mistrusted.”
These early attachment bonds are seen as central, and necessary, to the person learning how to handle adult relationships. As a result, attachment bonds are seen as “secure, mixed or something to be avoided.” Once the attachment bond is established, each person in the relationship, whether mother/father and child, or between couples, each person assumes a “pre-eminent status” as “special” in the “attachment hierarchy” (i.e., being first and coming above others). In other words, secure attachment is connected with positive and high levels of trust, commitment and relationship satisfaction resulting in positive relationship functioning.
When one partner is inaccessible and unresponsive to the needs and longings of the other person, or is unavailable, selfish and focuses on themselves, neglects, or hurts their mate psychologically, emotionally, or physically, then “attachment insecurity and relationship distress/trauma” happens!
Attachment and Bonding
Attachment and bounding theories is one of the key concepts in understanding adult love relationships. It relates to the behaviors of human beings to make and maintain powerful affection bonds to significant others. Every aspect of human experience is strongly influenced by the qualities of these bonds. When there is a secure relationship, the bond is one of active, affectionate, give-and-take relationships in which the partners mutually receive and provide closeness, comfort and security. These bonds are “profound psychological and physiological interdependence needs.”
Negative attachment-related events, such as abandonments and betrayals, often cause seemingly overwhelming damage to the close relationship. Adjustment injuries can result in “trauma flashbacks” and “overwhelming surges of emotions” which may come out as attacks, blaming, and a desire to hurt back. As a result, when conflicts occur, partners tend to criticize, complain, attack, while the other partner becomes defensive, distant, and complain that it should be over with. This only makes things worse. Distressed partners often selectively interpret each other’s behaviors and responses in ways that increase the distress. Small disappointments, for an injured/insecure spouse, points back to the original injury and only help to reinforce the relationship distress. When one partner fails to respond in a reassuring, repairing, manner, the injury is compounded. When the other partner is not able to accept the reassurance from their mate, then the injury is compounded.
It is critical to understand that “attachment injury” does not focus so much on the specific event, or content of the painful event, but on the attachment significance of such an event. As a result, attachment theory is called a “theory of trauma” as it focuses on the extreme emotional pain of isolation, separation, particularly at times of increased feelings of vulnerability. As result, partners use “the language of trauma” when describing such injuries. Events are spoken of in “life and death” terms. Terms of “isolation and abandonment” are heard. The injured party takes a stance of “never again.” There is a refusal to risk becoming vulnerable again to the other person. This requires the need to deal with this perceived violation of trust if there is ever going to be any hope of re-creating the positive cycles and bonding events of the relationship.
What is Required?
The focus needs to be on the emotions because this is “the factor” that organizes all human responses to intimate others. These emotions act as an internal compass that focuses people on their primary needs and goals. It is also the key factor that defines the nature of the self and other. It is recognizing that a sudden increase in the emotional intensity of the couple interaction is one of the main signs that should alert others to the fact that the couple is caught in dealing with an attachment injury.
It is understanding that negative emotional responses, such as frustration, if not dealt with and restructured in some therapeutic manner, can undermine the repair of a couple’s relationship and ultimately result in an emotional or real divorce. The use of “softer” emotions, such as being able to express vulnerability, and being heard by the other person, can be used to repair the patterns of interactions. It is restructuring a couples interactional patterns by understanding the emotions underlying the positions taken by each partner. It is not the incident, the specific event, but the emotions related to the trauma, the hurt, the sense of vulnerability and loss, experienced in the relationship.
It is understanding that emotions are the essential factors in the creation of meaning, coloring views and thinking about the self, others and events in life. Emotions are the filters in communication and interactions. They are what orients each of us in life.
The human need for safe attachments is so basic and highly important that a threatened bond “primes the pumps of automatic “flight or fight” responses or they “freeze” responses. It is understanding that men are often stuck in denying their attachment needs and are disconnected from their feelings, robbing both themselves and their partners of a deeper connection. Men tend to connect to work situations, work interactions, and yet avoid intimacy-bonding interactions causing “attachment injuries and traumas” well beyond what they may fully understand. Women feel frustration with this denial of her attachment needy by her partner. Men also have a sense of incompetence at meeting such needs because they lack modeling to help them know what to do “at home.”
It is also understanding that as children enter, grow and leave the family, that attachment needs change. The very nature of the life cycle transitions involves the continuing re-definition of the family, making necessary a revision of the attachment bonds between family members at each of these transition times. This is why families become unstable when a child is born, a child leaves home, etc.
Resolving Attachment Injuries
- First, it is important for the injured spouse to begin to describe the incident in which he/she felt abandoned, helpless, felt trust was violated and how it damaged his/her belief in the relationship as a secure bond.
- Second, the injured spouse must stay in touch with the injury and begin to express its impact and its attachment significance. This allows the anger to evolve to expressions of hurt, helplessness, fear and shame (that this happened to them).
- Third, the “non-injured” partner needs to begin to hear and understand the significance of the injury event and to understand it in attachment terms as a way of understanding its importance to the injured spouse.
- Fourth, the injured mate slowly moves toward a more integrated and complete discussion of the injury while expressing grief a the loss in it and the fear concerning the attachment loss.
- Fifth, the other spouse must become more emotionally engaged and admit responsibility for his/her part in the attachment injury, while expressing feelings, regret, and remorse for what has happened to their mate.
- Sixth, the injured spouse has to risk asking for the comfort and caring from their partner that was unavailable because of the injury event(s).
- Seventh, the other partner needs to respond in a caring manner that can act as an antidote to the trauma of the attachment injury.
- Eighth, once the attachment injury is resolved, the focus needs to be on the fostering of growth and trust and the beginning of positive cycles and connections.
This all takes much work, time, effort, and strong emotions if the couple is to “reattach” in positive bonding–the only way the relationship can survive. We entered the relationship out of strong emotional “pulls of bonding” and any loss of that hurts and injures. Correcting this requires the same “strong emotions” to heal the injuries. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis (who was the first to understand issues of emotional healing) called this “the working through process” with an emphasis on “sweat work” where one has to work it through, work it through, work it through, and over and over again until things are resolved.
We grow through our attachments. We need to do whatever it takes to assure that “positive attachment bonds” are maintained in a relationship. If one partner refuses to do this, then the relationship attachments are injured. This will eventually result in a “relationship failure to thrive syndrome.”
So, How Do I Deal with Relationship Conflict?
The bad news is that everyone, and every family, has problems. We want to live in a society that tries to force us to believe that only bad people have problems. The reality is that we all have issues that we have to deal with and solve if we are to be functional and healthy.
When one member of the family has a problem, it is critical to know that it is something that affects the entire family. We end up getting defensive, avoid dealing with conflict or possibly create more problems by trying to fix it. This happens more frequently when one person suffers from issues of depression, anxiety or perhaps even a chronic illness. In the end, all we end up doing is arguing and avoiding the real issues.
Related to this, withdrawal is the first sign that the couple is heading for a divorce, separation, or more problems. In our efforts to deal with conflict, we end up contributing to our own situation backfiring on us.
Ask yourself how many of these items you and your significant other tend to have in common:
- Approach towards handling finances
- Communication and listening skills
- Sex and intimacy
- Recreation and fun times
- Philosophy of life
- Way of dealing with each other’s parents and family
- How you both handle stress
- Approaches towards child raising
The more you have in common, the better. In fact, the last two items are significantly more important when compared to the other items listed above. You also should consider whether or not you confide in each other, how you handle disagreements and whether or not you would still choose each other if you each had your life to live over again. Finally, remember that with any relationship, you owe it to yourself to find out what can be done to save it given the time you’ve devoted out of your life to it.
Many times we think of our significant other as being a steady constant in our lives. However, relationships are more complicated and almost have a life of their own. Just as children learn things as they grow up, relationship and marital issues also experience their own stages of growth and challenge.
However, crisis and traumatic situations present their own unique challenges to the stability of any relationship. We spend a lot of time trying to keep things familiar, comfortable, and predictable. We work hard to grow to the point where we feel that we can have control over our lives and the events in our lives. We also think that things should just happen with little effort on our part.
Where this falls apart is when these fantasies are challenged by things that happen to us in real life.
Avoiding Conflict is Unrealistic
At some point, conflict in a relationship or marriage is inevitable. The important question to ask is whether or not this is turning things towards a crisis. Waiting too long until things are damaged beyond repair is not the most helpful approach. If the two of you are really in trouble, make a commitment to work on things together regardless of what is needed. Relationships and marriages are a joint business venture that both of you are in together.
If things are not getting better despite your best efforts, it’s time to seek out professional therapy and counseling. Do this no matter what happens and don’t expect a magical solution out of the box. You might even need to let go of your pride if you find that counseling is not easy and at times you don’t feel like you want to return. No matter what, keep going to your appointments and don’t give up on the process if you really want to make your relationship work.
Make the decision that the two of you are going to work on this together. Realize that other tasks, duties, and desires may have to be set aside for a while in order to focus on making things work.
Photo credit: Pixabay/Taekwondo-am-Tegernsee