Mary Ainsworth, one of the key figures in attachment theory, was the first person to determine that there are several distinct attachment styles. She determined this by developing an ingenious experiment called the “strange situation.” In this experiment, toddlers were systematically separated and reunited with their primary caregivers. Some children got upset when their parents left, but when their parents returned to the room, these children actively sought reconnection with their parents and were easily soothed by them. These children were labeled “securely attached.”
Other children were extremely distressed when their parent left, had difficulty being soothed and tended to display punishing behaviors toward the caregiver who had left them. These children had an insecure, “anxious” attachment style, a style typically resulting from an inconsistently available primary caregiver. For these kids, sometimes mom is responsive, sometimes she’s not — it’s unpredictable. Other children seemed to be unfazed by the separation from their parent, and actively avoided contact with their parent upon their return. These children were considered to have an insecure, “avoidant” attachment style, a style typically seen in children with parents who very often fail to respond to their children’s cues for needing closeness and comfort.
So, why does this matter? Because as adults, these styles continue with us into our intimate partner relationships. Those of us who may tend to get really distressed by disconnection and tend to pursue our partners in a critical or blaming way — we are demonstrating the grown-up version of the “anxious” toddler’s behavior. Those of us who tend to shut down and dismiss our needs for our intimate partners — we are the “avoidant” toddler. Pretty amazing, huh?
Here’s a video of the strange situation experiment in action, with examples of the different attachment styles:
One of the most important things that attachment researchers have done is to demonstrate just how much we are wired for deep, emotional connection with the people that matter to us. In the brilliant — but hard to watch — Still Face Experiment, scientists asked a mother to stop responding to her baby for two minutes, to make her face still and neutral. In that short time, the baby becomes very distressed, trying and trying to reconnect with her caregiver, ultimately turning away in despair from her unresponsive mother.
Fortunately, in the video, mother and baby are quickly reunited and able to repair. But what about the baby who is not so lucky, who has — like many of us had — a depressed, neglectful, or otherwise emotionally unavailable caregiver? What might be the long term impact on that baby’s ability to manage and express emotions, to communicate, and to trust in others? Because our need for attachment is lifelong, this experiment also explains why withdrawing behaviors can be so damaging to romantic partnerships. Just as the baby goes into panic and despair at her mother’s lack of response, so might a husband or wife experience terrible pain and confusion in the face of a shut down, emotionally unresponsive partner.
This simple experiment tells us so much about our profound dependence on our attachment figures, a dependence that we never outgrow.
One of my favorite things about EFT is how rooted in science it is. Gone are the days of psychology being seen as a squishy, not-quite-real science. One of the coolest experiments demonstrating the power of attachment on the brain is explained below. Neuroscientists asked women to brave an electric shock while in an MRI machine so they could observe their brains. In some scenarios, the women were alone, in some they were with strangers, and in others, their partners were with them. When those bonds were secure and loving, women actually experienced less pain and anxiety with the shock, demonstrating how critical attachment really is to the optimal functioning of our bodies and brains. Love is an “ancient, wired-in survival code,” indeed.
It is often hard for withdrawers to see how disengaging and shutting down can be so hurtful to their partners. Compared to the angry protests of pursuers, it can seem like a small thing to go quiet and turn away. This wonderful new video from attachment researchers Sue Johnson and Ed Tronick really clearly depicts how that seemingly small move can be quite devastating to the person on the receiving end of that withdrawal.
Dr. Tronick first shares an example of how a mother failing to respond to her baby for just a few minutes (the still face experiment) causes the baby to despair and protest. Next, in a lovely demonstration of how our adult love relationships parallel the parent-child bond, Dr. Johnson's couple session shows the exact same scenario playing out with a husband and wife. Feeling anxious, the husband (the withdrawer in this relationship) shuts down and fails to respond to his wife's bids for reconnection. As she feels more and more panicked and abandoned, she escalates and protests — just like the distressed child — trying to get back into sync with him.
Another EFT therapist shared this clip from Star Trek: Into Darkness a few weeks ago, and I just loved how it explained the inner world of a withdrawer. After a few critical shots from his (pursuer) girlfriend, Uhura, Spock explains how he went through such pain at the loss of his planet that he never wanted to feel that again—he numbed out to protect himself. Like most withdrawers, choosing not to feel has nothing to do for him with not caring, it's just the defense he's learned to put up to keep from being overwhelmed with pain.
One of my clients just shared this awesome TED talk with me from Johann Hari, explaining that addiction is not so much a chemical reaction as it is a desperate attempt to escape from profound isolation. He shares several fascinating studies from the lab and from the real world to build the case that "the opposite of addiction is not sobriety…it's connection."
LOVE is a sculpture by Alexandr Milov that was displayed at the Burning Man festival. According to Milov, "It demonstrates a conflict between a man and a woman as well as the outer and inner expression of human nature. The figures of the protagonists are made in the form of big metal cages, where their inner selves are held captivate. Their inner selves are executed in the form of transparent children, who are holding out their hands through the grating. As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives."
This is one of my all-time favorite images. It captures our innate, inborn (literally "wired-in" in this image) longing for connection and depicts the cages our defenses can represent. It's also a perfect encapsulation of what we strive to do in therapy: help the vulnerable parts of us make direct and clear contact with a safe and loving other rather than turning away in pain.
A colleague forwarded this clip from The Office. Jim and Pam are running into an awkward patch in their marriage, but they show us here how to keep reaching for each other vulnerably and responding, even (especially) when it's hard.
Happy MLK day! In the spirit of honoring this American hero, I'd like to encourage you all today to do two things:
One, to take a moment to reflect and be grateful for the many privileges and protections we enjoy today thanks to the moral clarity, eloquence, and courage of our human rights heroes. We talk a lot in therapy about practicing gratitude — research tells us it's one of the best ways to improve our felt sense of well-being and reduce depression and anxiety — and as Americans, we have much to be grateful for. The right to free speech, freedom of religion, representative government, ending slavery and segregation, extending voting rights to women, same-sex marriage, etc. These freedoms are a precious inheritance, a gift that, as with Dr. King, often came at the cost of human lives. Let's take a moment to thank the many men and women who labored and sacrificed for us to enjoy these freedoms today.
Two, take a moment to reflect on how we can continue Dr. King's work and leave an even more just and kind world behind for our children and grandchildren. In EFT, we talk so much about attachment and security. And as our love and safety grows within our couple bond, we naturally find ourselves wanting to widen the scope of our love — thinking of ways to repair with family members, grow closer with friends, and nurture our world as a whole. As we continue on our journey toward equality and civil rights in this beautiful, diverse, raucous nation of ours, please think today about what we can do for our fellow citizens so that, in this American family, we all feel safe, accepted, and know we are not alone. In our country, as in our relationships, let's work toward "a more perfect union." With all our many differences, let's strive to hold each other tight.
And with all that said, I'd like to share with you this beautiful video on this couple's journey together. Enjoy!