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.
Dr. Sue Johnson shared this fabulous song by Edie Brickell with us when she was in Davis last month. I just love how the song and the great illustrations explain the experience of the angry pursuer in relationships, how behind the anger there is so much sadness, loneliness, and longing for connection. Wanting that closeness but being too afraid to ask vulnerably for your needs to be met is such a painful, hard place to be in...and such a trap for this little mouse.
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.
Dr. Brene Brown is a researcher who studies vulnerability…who hates vulnerability. Like a lot of us, Dr. Brown struggles with shame, self-judgment, and a sense of weakness when discussing her perceived failings and vulnerable emotions. Her storytelling prowess, hard-won authenticity, and self-deprecating humor make her a powerful advocate for treasuring the parts of ourselves we most want to hide.
These two devastatingly funny, heartfelt TED talks do a wonderful job of explaining how critical vulnerability is to our relationships with our selves and being authentic and how vulnerability and emotional risk is ultimately the thing that creates connection and safety with others.
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.
Another great video from Dr. Brene Brown reviews the costs of avoiding vulnerability. When we're afraid to be vulnerable:
"Joy becomes foreboding—something good happens and we become compelled to beat vulnerability to the punch."
"Disappointment becomes a lifestyle…it's easier to live disappointed than to feel disappointed."
And, of course, we numb out. But as Brene reminds us, "you cannot selectively numb emotion." Numbing our pain and fear also means numbing the joy, love, safety, happiness, pride, and closeness that we could be feeling…and without that, we lose all the good things that can help us hang on through the hard times, all the things that make life meaningful.
I assisted the awesome Jennifer Olden with one of her Hold Me Tight couples' workshops this weekend, and she shared this really wonderful video from Brene Brown on empathy. Although research continues to tell us how incredibly important empathy is to successful relationships, many of us have struggled to define what exactly empathy IS.
According to Brene, empathy has four qualities: perspective taking, staying out of judgment, recognizing emotion in others and then communicating that. "Empathy is feeling WITH people." Someone's in a deep hole, and you say, "hey, I know what it's like down here and you're not alone." An important lesson for all of is that you can't really stop someone's suffering, but you can make sure they don't suffer alone. Empathy, she says, is vulnerable because "in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling."
She also emphasizes how your empathic presence is the antidote to your loved one's emotional pain vs. trying to come up with a solution. "Rarely can a response make something better—what makes something better is connection."
Check out the clip and learn more about the awesome power of empathy…while watching a judgmental antelope eating a sandwich.
This clip explores the toxic pressures on men to hide their feelings and how we (still!!) give boys and men the sense that they must be completely invulnerable in order to be masculine. This seems to be a key reason so many men shut down and withdraw with their partners, out of the fear that they'll be seen as weak or unattractive if they share their vulnerable feelings and needs with their loved ones.
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."
In EFT, we often talk about people as generally falling into one of two categories when they're feeling disconnected — withdrawers (those who shut down and pull back) and pursuers (those who criticize and, you guessed it, blame). That said, all of us have at times used blame as a way to "discharge pain" rather than finding the vulnerability to share hurt feelings or facing the fear of being out of control. Brene Brown's latest video talks a bit about her own experiences with blaming and how dropping coffee on yourself in the kitchen is always your partner's fault.
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.
Here's another amazing animated clip, by the same woman who brought us the Brene Brown empathy video. Spend 2 minutes and learn to meditate, then try to carve out 5-10 minutes a day to add this awesome practice to your life.
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!