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.

Attachment-Bonding

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, Bonding & Couples

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.”

Attachment Injuries

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 it’s impact and it’s 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 it’s 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.”

Photo credit: Pixabay/Taekwondo-am-Tegernsee