Have you ever wondered why some people have such a difficult time sustaining close, personal relationships while others seem to do so with relative ease?
How we manage the balance between closeness and distance with the important people in our lives correlates to our foundational sense of security and attachment.
Our relationship patterns stem from how easily we are able to trust and connect with someone else. Our view of relationships begins with our original relationship with our caregiver(s). This is often referred to as a “primary” or “attachment” relationship. When we are born, our survival does not depend on whether we can outrun a predator, forage for our own food or find a suitable place to hide. Our very survival depends on our caregiver(s). Because survival is fundamental, the risk is tremendous. We are never more vulnerable than when we are infants, totally dependent on our caregiver for everything. However, since a baby does not yet have words with which to process his/her experience, the sensation of need, of risk, of satisfaction and of comfort all occur at a sensory level rather than a cognitive, verbal one.
Attachment is created when a parent is “attuned” to his/her child’s needs and feelings. Attunement communicates two messages - “I get you” and “I’ve got you.” It says to a child, “Even though you may not be telling me with words, I recognize the need you’re communicating and I will respond to meet it.” This secure emotional connection is called “attachment.” Attachment begins with feeling safe; it is what gives a sense of belonging. Whether the world seems like a safe place or a dangerous place to you is largely determined by how safe and secure you felt in your early years.
When a very young child feels as though (s)he has a “safety net,” this is called “secure attachment.” Because (s)he has a “secure base,” (s)he is more able to explore the world around him/her thereby creating an increasing sense of autonomy. The more a child explores and learns, the more (s)he practices and develops critical skills. Empathy, emotional-regulation, critical thinking, decision-making are all executive functioning skills which “live” in the front part of the brain. These skills are not instinctual or automatic; they only develop when they are practiced. The front part of the brain is also the place from which “connection” occurs. In order to connect in a meaningful way, we have to feel safe. Think of this as “connect mode.”
If a child often feels uncertain or anxious in his/her primary environment, this can create “insecure attachment.” The world can seem like a big, overwhelming place to a young child. This is only amplified if a parent is chronically ill, incarcerated, emotionally unavailable, mentally ill or simply absent. These are some of the factors that can contribute to insecure attachment. When a child experiences threat to his/her safety, well-being or sense belonging, this ignites a primal need to protect him/herself. This reinforces the lower part of the brain in charge of survival (often called “fight, flight or freeze”). Think of this as “protect mode.” If a child spends most of his/her energy focusing on feeling safe, (s)he doesn’t take appropriate risks and therefore does not develop the front part of the brain in charge of the skills critical to succeed later in life.
Closeness and distance in adult relationships are rooted in our attachment patterns from our primary relationships (with parents/caregivers). When we encounter difficulties in adult relationships, we can often feel knots in our stomach, tension in our neck or tightness in our chest. But it can be challenging to actually process these issues since they don’t exist solely at a verbal level. This is because attachment “lives” in our visceral experience far more than it does our logical, conscious mind. Therefore, if we experienced wounds in our primary attachment relationship, they don’t necessarily show up in a logical, linear fashion. You might find yourself becoming overly controlling with someone close to you. Or perhaps you feel so vulnerable being close to someone else that you become excessively anxious or avoid any type of conflict or disagreement. You may feel your body tighten, your pulse quicken or your breathing get more shallow without fully understanding why. Your body is “talking to you,” letting you know that something or someone is perceived as a threat. Unfortunately, the more relational trauma a person has encountered, the more likely his/her body is to perceive everyday things as dangerous causing an unnecessary “fight, flight or freeze” response.
Do you function more in “connect mode” or “protect mode?” Do you find yourself reacting extremely emotionally to things that others may find less impactful? This could point back to an automatic tendency to revert to “protect mode.” Do you get deeply and intensely involved with someone very quickly, only to find that the “connection” you thought you had disappeared just as rapidly? This suggests you may have difficulty objectively assessing risks in new relationships. Do close, intimate relationships seem like “a waste of time and energy” to you?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, this might point back to unresolved attachment issues. Therapy is designed to be a safe place where you can explore these possible factors that stand in the way of trusting, connected relationships.
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