The sacred task of a committed partnership is to heal the attachment wounds of our childhood
Whether we are aware of it our not, any time we are with another person, our attachment system is operating, our brains are co-regulating one another.
Attachment is necessary for our survival, it is, as psychologist Philip Flores explains, “an expected experience that the brain is waiting for, and it develops the structure of the brain. A function of the mother-infant interaction is to regulate nervous systems and promote the development and maintenance of synaptic connections and functional circuitry of the brain.”
In other words, how we are parented affects our future relationships and ability to regulate our emotional states. We are innately wired for Secure Attachment.
A Securely Attached person finds relationships easy. We expect to be treated well. We treat others with respect. We trust humanity. We have a sense of humour and playfulness. We can disagree in our relationships, and be resilient with a disconnection. We are able to say ‘no’, and ‘sorry’ as well as forgive others to repair ruptures in our relationships.
Developmentally, we need someone to help us emotionally respond to the world before we can learn to do it for ourselves. Interactive regulation needs to happen before self-regulation can. I learn about my nervous system as it works in conjunction with the nervous systems of those who are care for me at a young age. Alas we don’t always have perfect parents. If my parents do, or do not, respond to my cues, I will adapt to theirs.
When our parents don’t care for us in the ways that we need to be cared for, we develop styles of attaching and relating that compensate for this lack, and we carry these maladaptive strategies forward in our lives. In adulthood, repairing the ruptures of our early childhoods is what allows us to become resilient and return to feeling innately secure.
The Other Adaptive Styles
For whatever reason – trauma, separation (i.e. time in hospital), abuse, neglect – when Secure Attachment is disrupted, our brains and nervous systems adapt to keep us safe. The different strategies we use to cope with imperfect parenting are: Ambivalent, Avoidant, and Disorganized.
All manifest physically, psychically, and emotionally.
When caregivers are loving, but inconsistently present, the child becomes anxious and never relaxes into the relationship. Instead of parents helping with modulation of emotions and feelings, their unpredictable behavior disrupts it. For the person with an ambivalent relational style, neither self soothing nor feeling content in the interactive regulation with another feels satisfying in any kind of sustaining way.
As adults, those who have an ambivalent style generally are people pleasers. They try to get the love they need by being helpful, when people say they love them, the ambivalent never feels it is enough. It is “Too good to be true.”
According to Attachment specialist Diane Poole Heller, the child and later adult becomes obsessively over-focused on external resources and severely under-focused on themselves. They abandon themselves to be seen by another, but when the other person rejects them, they have no internal source for support. They are ‘doubly abandoned’ and are habitually unaware of internal sources of satisfaction and fulfillment.
This style occurs when parents are extremely unavailable, neglectful, or absent. This environment teaches the child to regard relationships as unfulfilling because they do not meet their natural needs. As children they isolate and rely on themselves and dismiss others as not important.
According to Poole Heller, adults with this history often diminish the importance of relationships and focus more on work or hobbies and avoid investing emotional energy in others beyond a superficial level. They eschew connection because it is associated with rejection, abandonment, and lack of presence. By expressing few needs they project that they are better or superior to others. This is a survival based adaptation and not a conscious choice.
In the disorganized attachment style, the primary caregiver is terrifying, or overly chaotic. The child has no safe holding environment in which to process or cope with this terror and pain.
In this way, autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulation and emotional modulation are severely interrupted, leaving the child with multiple disjointed models of self, the other, and the relationship between them. The need for connection found in the attachment system, and fear for survival in the ANS, become entangled which creates great confusion and disorganization. They move towards nurturing only to have the person who is supposed to care for them, scream, shake, or hurt them.
As adults, those with Disorganized style are afraid of closeness or intimacy. Closeness is associated with fear of the original parent who could not be trusted. They become stuck in an approach /avoidance pattern. According to Poole Heller the two systems must get untangled through corrective experiences which establish the essential quality of safety, that was missing as a resource for the inner child.
It is worth noting that we can have more than one attachment style depending on the kinds of relationships we experienced early in life. For instance, one may have developed an Ambivalent style with parents but felt Secure attachment with siblings.
The Good News
Just as any developmental movement patterns that are missed can be re-experienced, since we are hardwired for Secure Attachment, we can move towards it, and re-experience it in adult relationships. Learning to notice your own nervous system responses (and attachment style) while having them modulated and co-regulated with a trusted friend, lover, or therapist, takes practice but will move you towards whole health.
“Human beings are social mammals & social mammals regulate each other’s physiology & alter the internal structure of each other’s nervous system through the synchronous exchange of emotions. This interactive regulatory relationship is the basis for attachment.”