In the last post I wrote about the importance of attachment styles, and how the science of human attachment is helping couples therapy to achieve an effectiveness of 70 to 90%. But attachment style impacts more than just how we get along with our partner, or the eventual arc of relationship satisfaction. Attachment style also provides a worldview, an understanding of how human intimacy works that even influences which potential partner we are attracted to.
In this brief post, I want to give you a feel for how we look at attachment in the Big Big Book with couples who are planning to have a weekend couples therapy intensive with one of our couples therapists.
Why does it seem that we always appear to connect with a partner who seems ideally suited to pushing our buttons?
Because that was our unconscious hidden agenda all along.
Our attachment style provides us with an “internal working model.” We are most attracted to potential partners who confirm our view of the world, even if that view may sometimes lead to difficulties down the line.
For instance, let’s take Steve and Mary. Mary was the middle child of six kids. Mary never got much attention from her parents because she was always a “good little girl” who was self-amusing and never gave her parents any cause for concern.
Unfortunately, this ongoing deficit of parental attention shaped Mary into having a scorching case of Anxious/Preoccupied Attachment.
For Mary to feel close and connected with her husband Steve, she has an internal working model which tells her that she needs to be constantly with him to feel loved and secure.
Mary, however, was initially attracted to Steve because he is a lone wolf and hard to connect with. She felt an intoxicating rush of excitement and positive self-regard whenever he paid attention to her.
Unlike anxious Mary, Steve grew up in a dysfunctional home with an alcoholic father and a depressed mother. Unlike Mary who was a lost middle child, Steve was an only child. He learned pretty early on that he had to navigate his own way through the world.
As a result, Steve acquired a robust internal working model of Dismissive/Avoidant Attachment.
Steve has the tendency to want to be alone more often than Mary is comfortable with. And Steve’s internal model of how relationships work is that the way to get your needs met is to pretend that you don’t have actually have any.
As a result, Steve was attracted to Mary because she reassures him of his worth, by acting jealous and demanding his constant attention.
So, here is one of the mysteries of life.
We often set ourselves up by choosing intimate partners who confirm the world view of our internal working model of how relationships are expected to work.
Mary grew up with an insecure attachment style and chose Steve to work through the exact issues of emotional neglect that plagued her childhood.
Steve grew up to believe that he would never get his needs met, so he chose Mary who seemed to want to make a career of attending to his every wish and whim.
At Couples Therapy Inc., we have designed an assessment tool which is perhaps the most ambitious instrument used in couples therapy today. When I am studying a couple’s Big Big Book, I always carefully review their complaints about their relationship through the lens of their attachment styles. Attachment styles are a roadmap to understanding not only the emotional makeup of each partner but also the music that the couple is both trying to dance to.
For example, Mary described how hurt she was when she reached out to Steve while he was at work.
“Mary, please, I’m swamped. I’ve got to get this proposal out by the end of the day.”
“I just wanted to say hi because I miss you.”
“Oh shoot. Look…Mary, I can’t talk right now…and I’m probably gonna have to stay an extra hour to get the bid out and to meet with the rest of my team.”
“You never make time for me Steve. I am sick of it!
Mary and Steve got much better.
They learned that little hinges swing big doors. And they acquired the skill to deconstruct their fights and understand how they escalate so painfully.
They make better sense out of a conflicting jumble of feelings and expectations and achieved secure attachment with a lasting intimate bond.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.