During my years of study while training for future work in counselling, we looked at attachment theory and it very quickly became one of my favourite theories as it just makes so much sense. So I really enjoyed rereading Chapters 4 and 5 from Safe Haven Marriage as they are all about how we attach and form human bonds.
John Bowlby formed Attachment theory back in the 1950’s. He was interested in the deep connections between a parent and child and later his understandings were applied to the marriage relationship. He likened the attachment system to a thermostat, in that we all regulate the amount of intimacy we share with our mate by keeping distance and closeness at a comfortable level. The attachment system will be triggered into action when we:
1. Experience emotional disconnection
2. Want to help our partner see the emotional disconnection
3. Want to encourage our partner to respond to us in a caring manner
God made us for relationship and deep intimate relationship, so one of our most fundamental human needs is to be and feel loved. When we sense that this is threatened and some type of abandonment is about to take place, certain learned behaviours; some helpful and some not so helpful, will kick in for our survival. You may recognise yourself here but don’t worry so do I! Some of us may scream, nag, criticise, rage, panic, pout, sulk, defend, withdraw, cry or cling to establish reconnection. While others who have learned from their childhood that help was accessible are more able to express their sadness, cry, ask for the attention they need and generally communicate their negative experience in a safe way.
There are four styles of attachment; secure, avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised.
1. Secure attachment is experienced when a child is confident in the care of his parents. When separated or hurt he is distressed but on return he is comforted by them and they are generally reassuring and encouraging allowing him to return to activities quickly.
2. Avoidant attachment is experienced when a child has learnt over time not to trust his parents for a sensitive response when he is separated or hurt. They will generally shut down the child’s cries of distress with shame and so over time displays of emotion are avoided and independence is encouraged. This leaves the child with a sense of insecurity; “It’s not okay to feel what I feel.”
3. Ambivalent attachment is experienced when a child similarly has learnt not to trust his parents for a sensitive response when separated or hurt. They increase their attempts to attract their parent’s attention often using anger as they are deeply frustrated. The parents are inconsistent in their responses but usually only attentive when the volume has been greatly increased leaving the child feeling insecure; asking “How do I get your attention?”
4. Disorganised attachment is often experienced by children who have been abused and is typified by both avoidant and ambivalent attachment.
When we marry we carry these early childhood experiences into our marriage relationship. Having learnt from our early relationships that we are loved or unlovable we will either trust or not trust our spouse respectively. If we grew up in a family where we generally felt that Mum and Dad were there for us then we trust that help is accessible and we believe that the intentions of our spouse are good. When we have not had the privilege of growing up in a house hold where our needs for attention were so carefully met we often go through life asking the constant question, “Am I lovable or will you be there for me when I need you?” Or depending on our attachment style we may deny our need for close relationship and become self reliant guarding against any future rejection.
One can only begin to imagine the impact of such behaviours upon a marriage. We can as men and women come into marriage with an over-riding sense that we can never relax as we will never be loved enough. As a result we can become people pleasers afraid to assert our opinion, focused on high achieving or try and convince ourselves that we don’t need the very love that we so desperately long for. Ultimately no human can ever fill such deep desires to be loved and accepted, only God in His perfect restorative and redemptive love can. However we don’t have to remain stuck in a particular attachment style for the rest of our lives, it can be changed.
In our Safe Haven Marriage group we decided after reading these chapters to identify our attachment style and talk it through in the group. While on one hand that was a very vulnerable activity to engage in, it was also very normalising as most of us realised that we didn’t come from a secure attachment position and we began to wonder if this creature of secure attachment was in fact extinct. One member was brave enough to confess that they had in fact grown up in a secure environment and I think the rest of us were all very envious and secretly coveted their experience; how dare they?! In the safety of the group we shared some of the issues that we as couples had experienced as a result of our anxieties and insecurities about being loved.
As we talked we realised that after twenty years of marriage or more our partners had all in one way or another had a positive or corrective impact upon us. Repeated experiences of proving available, safe or trustworthy had altered our attachment style in some way. This is not to say that we weren’t aware of how we had negatively impacted each other over the years but it was very reassuring to know that through the grace of God, our childhood experience, if lacking, can be transformed by a committed spouse. Thanks be to God!