relationship

The Key to Satisfying Relationships: Understanding Your Adult Attachment Style

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How do you experience relationships?  Are you confident in your connection with others and able to relate easily?  Do you long for the perfect relationship, but feel dissatisfied once you’re in one and struggle to get out?  Do you feel terrified of being alone or abandoned, and will do whatever it takes to keep your loved ones close, even if it means sacrificing part of who you are?

Whether or not you’ve experienced these yourself, you probably know someone else who has. These patterns in relationships can create despair, hopelessness, or distress.  Often, these patterns are rooted in the theory of adult attachment styles.

What is attachment?

Attachment is an individual’s beliefs about his or her safety, security, and protection in relation to others, formed by early interactions between child and caregiver.  Attachment theory is based on the research of John Bowlby, who was curious about the distress infants showed when separated from their caregivers.  He believed that children use these behaviors in order to get their caregiver’s attention and essentially ask their caregiver, “Can I trust you to respond?  Will you take care of my needs?”  The response of the caregiver forms the foundation of the child’s attachment style.

Building on Bowlby’s research, Mary Ainsworth put this theory into the research lab.  She created the “strange situation,” an environment where a child was brought by their caregiver into a playroom where another adult was present.  The caregiver would leave for a short time and then return.  Researchers observed the response of the infant when the parent left, while the parent was outside the room, and upon the return of the parent.

She observed four different responses in children.  Securely attached children were upset when their caregiver left, but comforted by their return.  This was the most common response (60% of children) and indicated that the caregivers were responsive to the needs of the child.

Insecurely attached children were impacted by lack of responsiveness or inconsistent responses from their caregivers.  They took one of three forms:

  • Insecure-resistant attachment – These children showed high levels of distress when their caregiver left.  They were unable to be soothed upon reuniting with their caregiver, almost as if they were “punishing” the caregiver for leaving.

  • Insecure-avoidant attachment – These children weren’t distressed by their caregiver leaving and ignored their caregiver upon re-entry, often choosing to continue playing rather than engaging with their caregiver.

  • Insecure-disorganized attachment – These children demonstrated an unpredictable response that could not be categorized.  These responses were more commonly correlated with childhood abuse.

Adult Attachment Styles

Later on, researchers Hazan and Shaver extended these findings into adulthood.  They concluded that attachment styles in childhood affected the way adults experienced intimacy and connection in romantic relationships. 

For example, if you experienced insecure attachment as a child, you learned at a young age that important people will not respond appropriately to your needs.  As an adult, you may find yourself in similar relationships that confirm the belief formed early on that you cannot depend on others to meet your needs, or that you are unlovable and aren’t deserving of love or care.  Unfortunately, you can then become trapped in a cycle of relationships where you expect this belief to be true, and (in self-fulfilling prophecy) reaffirm the belief.

Read the descriptions below about adult attachment styles and pay attention to if you relate to any one of them, or if you know someone who does.  You can also take this assessment online to discover your attachment style. 

Secure attachment

These individuals are confident in themselves and in their ability to be loved and cared for by those close to them.  This doesn’t mean that they are always without insecurity – in fact, it is normal for anyone to have some level of hesitation in these areas.  However, at their core, secure individuals believe they are worthy of love and trust that their loved ones will respond to their needs.  They are willing to both depend on others and can also be depended upon by others.

In relationships, securely attached individuals are interdependent.  They can separate from their partner, have their own interests, and encourage their significant other’s interests.  But they can also come back to their relationship feeling connected, loved, and supported with their partner.  They both seek and provide support to their partners, and therefore are the most satisfied.  They tend to have honesty and equality in their relationships.

Anxious (preoccupied) attachment

Anxiously attached individuals long to be loved and worry consistently that they are not.  They become frustrated and angry when their attachment needs aren’t met in their primary relationships, and will attempt to create intimacy when they are feeling this way. Sadly, this often backfires. 

In relationships, anxiously attached individuals are over-dependent. They believe their partner will “complete” them.  They hold to the fantasy that finding a significant other to love them will solve their problems and make their lives better.  This isn’t real love, but an obsession fueled by fantasy.  Rushing into relationships, these individuals don’t allow enough time to build real trust, but instead create a false sense of security with their partner   Love addicts tend to fall into this category.  They desire to be very close, cling to their partners for safety and security, and crave reassurance that they are loved.  Unfortunately, this often causes their partners to withdraw, creating a vicious cycle that reaffirms their beliefs in their own flawed nature and inability to be loved.

Avoidant (dismissing-avoidant) attachment

Those with avoidant attachment styles struggle with the intimacy required for close relationships, preferring to be on their own without any others depending on them.  They dismiss the need for close relationships, having used that behavior to cope with early childhood experiences where they were responsible for caregivers’ emotional needs and learned to deny or shut down their own as a result.  In fact, shutting down emotionally became an adaptive way of protecting themselves.

In relationships, these individuals prefer to be independent, creating emotional distance between themselves and their partners, often as a way to protect against smothering or feeling consumed by their partner.  They learned that the way to get their needs met is to pretend to have no needs.  This can easily detach from relationships because of lack of consideration for their importance.  Sex addiction is more common in these individuals.

Fearful-avoidant attachment

Fearful-avoidant individuals have a strong sense of ambivalence about their relationships, switching between feeling anxious about losing their loved one and avoidance of emotional closeness.  They have difficulty managing their overwhelming emotions.  You might see this type as chaotic and unpredictable, and even they feel confused by the near-constant attempts to balance just the right amount of closeness with someone. 

Often this stems from a caregiver who was too close, enmeshed, or smothering with the child.  They desired to go to their caregivers to get their needs met, but may have received a negative response when they reached out. In relationships, fearful-avoidant individuals exist on a roller-coaster of drama and intensity.  They are both fearful of being abandoned and fearful of experiencing true intimacy with another person. 

Adult Attachment Styles in Relationships

As mentioned earlier, it is common for anxious and avoidant individuals to be drawn to one another and create a cycle of disappointment.  In some ways, being with a partner that reinforces childhood beliefs about the dependability of a caregiver feels familiar and therefore attractive.  While it is better for both to build a relationship with a securely attached individual, those relationships often contain less intensity, which both the anxious and avoidant crave.

Fortunately, your adult attachment style is not a permanent death sentence for your love life.  Understanding your natural tendency in attachment helps you to be aware of it when going into relationships.  It can also be changed by “learned” attachment with corrective experiences in your romantic relationship and/or friendships, relationships in therapy, and other important people in your life.  Being close to a responsive and kind individual can go a long way toward changing the dynamics of insecure attachment in adulthood.

Additional Resources

If you’re interested in learning more about attachment theory, check out these resources:

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Are you tired of repeating the same patterns over and over again in your relationships? Do you resonate with one of the adult attachment styles above? Are you ready to change the way you approach relationships so you can feel more satisfied and happy in your love life? As a mental health therapist, I’m here to help you understand your adult attachment style and learn new ways of relating to others, leading you to improve your relationships. I offer counseling services at my office in Ann Arbor, MI. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up your first appointment.

3 Steps to Argue Your Way to a Stronger Relationship

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Do you often find yourself in the same argument over and over again with your significant other?  Are there certain topics you can’t seem to agree on, no matter how often you talk about them?  Maybe you truly love your spouse and want what’s best for them, but you can’t seem to see eye-to-eye on finances, parenting, or household responsibilities. 

You are not alone.  Every couple faces these types of conflicts.  But there’s some good news: these conflicts are the greatest opportunities you have for increasing intimacy and connection in your relationship.

John Gottman, a marriage researcher who has been studying what makes marriages healthy for over 40 years, has termed this type of conflict “gridlocked.”  He defines gridlock as conflict that doesn’t have a clear-cut solution.  And surprisingly enough, he has found through his research that 69% of all conflicts are gridlocked.  That means over two-thirds of all conflict doesn’t have a right or wrong solution!

But that doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause.  Rather, these conflicts you experience in your relationship can be approached with a heart of compromise and understanding in order to pave the way for more closeness in relationship.

Where do these arguments go wrong?

When you’re in gridlocked conflict, you may find yourself trying to convince your significant other that you are right and they are wrong.  You may not be wiling to see their perspective because you’ve already dug in your heels on your point-of-view.

On the flip side, you might develop bitterness and resentment from avoiding conversations about these tense topics, which spills out into other areas.  Have you ever had difficulty remembering what started your fight?  Little annoyances are magnified by the underlying tension and anger from gridlocked conflict.

What needs to change?

Altering your approach to conflict requires you to reframe the argument as an opportunity to grow in intimacy with your partner.  There are reasons why you feel stuck in these areas.  Often it is because of your own and your partner’s desires and the narratives tied to them. These make it difficult for you to change your position.  The purpose of the next exercise is to understand you partner’s story so that you can see why their position is so important to them. 

This does require some level of vulnerability on the part of each of you in order to grow in intimacy.  If you struggle with vulnerability with your partner, try this exercise out with a smaller gridlocked issue first..

Gottman’s 3-Step Process

Step 1: Discuss (and listen) to each of your perspectives.

Set aside a time for each of you to talk about your personal perspective on the issue.  Use the talking formula: “I feel…because/about…and what I would like is…”  Speak in a respectful and non-critical tone to your partner, believing that they want to hear your side.

The most crucial component of this exercise, however, is playing the role of the listener.  Often we listen with one ear, but our mind is focused on our response and how we might defend ourselves.  When we do this, we’re not truly listening to the other person.  Instead, Gottman encourages you to “suspend persuasion” for a time and seek to understand your partner’s perspective, as if you were an outside observer.  Validate what you hear in your partner’s perspective.  What feelings make sense to you?  Can you understand from their perspective, even if you don’t fully agree? 

Example: In talking about housework, you might say, “I felt abandoned when I asked you to help me clean the garage and you said “no.”  I need to feel like we share responsibility and are working together to keep our home organized.”

Step 2: Identify the “dreams within conflict.”

Look deeper at why the issue is so important to you personally.  Exploring your own triggers is a self-reflective tool that helps you identify your own personal narrative contributing to the issue.

Typically, this narrative has to do with your past.  Describing why you are uniquely triggered helps your partner feel empathy.  As you discuss this narrative, ask open-ended questions like “tell me the story behind that” or “what experience from your past makes this so important to you?” to understand more of your partner’s perspective.

Similar to Step 1, it is essential to listen and understand your partner’s perspective.  Do you see why they might make the connection between the present issue and a past experience?  Does it make sense why they are having a strong emotional reaction? 

Example: “I’m reminded of the importance of my value of equality.  My father made sure that my mother felt as though they carried an equal weight in taking care of the house, and I saw that as a way they loved each other.  When you don’t help me out, I wonder if you don’t see us as equals, and then I feel unloved.” 

Step 3: Choose areas of compromise.

Once you’ve listened to one another’s perspective, asked questions, and helped each other feel fully understood, then you can move into a place of compromise.  Understanding and empathizing with your spouse’s story makes compromise vastly easier.  Where you might have been stubborn before, now that you know their story, you may be more willing to move closer to what they desire.

Make a list of essentials about this area: what do you need?  Then make a list of more flexible items where might you be willing to compromise.  Discuss your lists together and seek overlap.  Where might each of you make some compromise to move closer to your partner’s needs?  How can you practically put this into play this upcoming week? 

Example: “It is essential to me that, in general, you help out with tasks around the house.  I am willing to be flexible about what those tasks are.  If organizing the garage is not your cup of tea, I would feel supported and equal to you if you prepared dinner so I could focus on getting the garage done today.  Are you willing to consider that?”

Know this:  even in using these three steps, you will likely still argue.  Perhaps the compromise will work for a time, but eventually a new trigger will come up that needs to be discussed.  Remember: this is normal!  You will be discussing compromises and seeking to support one another throughout your relationship.  If you look at this as an ongoing conversation that will get easier over time, you’ll be set up well to continue to love one another through compromise in the course of your relationship.

Are you having a hard time finding common ground in your relationship?  Do you constantly feel stuck in your arguments?  At Restored Hope, I offer supportive couples counseling that helps you learn to communicate your dreams and listen with empathy to your significant other.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.

Why We Need People: How Friendships Help You Live Longer

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On any given day, how many people do you interact with?  Take a day this week and count the number of people with whom you have a social interaction, whether they be friends, family, baristas, or coworkers. 

In the past, face-to-face social interactions were more common.  Whether it was a spouse, family member, friend, coworker, or even just a cashier or postal worker, you would have some form of social contact on a daily basis.

Yet in a world where we are more connected through texting, social media, and FaceTime, that face-to-face contact is becoming less frequent.  It’s easier to purchase items online, use the self-checkout at the grocery store, text a friend rather than setting up a meeting, or work from home. 

While the advances in technology that allow us to do these things are convenient and useful, they have the potential to create a roadblock to relationships.

Now, social isolation is the public health risk of our time.
— Susan Pinker

As a therapist working with sex and love addicts, I often emphasize how important relationships are to my clients.  Yes, involvement in support groups and one-on-one relationships foster accountability from destructive behaviors.  But more than that, they provide healing to relational wounds that often form the foundation of the addiction.

Susan Pinker, in her TED talk, shares research she’s discovered about the roles of social contact and friendships in longevity and other health benefits.  She traveled to Sardinia’s Blue Zone, which has the largest concentration of adults over the age of 100 in the world.  Find out what she learned from these interviews in her talk.

What surprised you about this video?  Here were some helpful insights I gained:

People who have more social interactions live longer.

While Susan Pinker was interviewing the centenarians in the Blue Zone, she continually came into contact with family members and friends of these individuals who would stop by to say hello.  Their caregivers felt privileged and grateful to care for their loved ones.  Research about protective factors in relationships reinforces the influence of extended family, friends, neighbors, and daily interactions on longevity.

Online interactions do not have the same impact as face-to-face conversations.

Technology continues to develop to create closer imitations to face-to-face meetings, allowing for a greater sense of connection.  However, in the research on neuroscience cited by Pinker, she notes that oxytocin and dopamine were noticed in higher levels when individuals had face-to-face discussions as compared to viewing a video of a similar discussion.  Oxytocin and dopamine are two neurochemicals involved in the addictive patterns of sex and love addiction, further reinforcing the power of relationships for healing from addiction.

Building your village…and sustaining it is a matter of life and death.
— Susan Pinker

A factor in women’s longer lifespans may be their number of social contacts.

Anthropological research Pinker quoted indicates that research on baboons showed that females were more likely to prioritize social relationships.  Women tend to be more relational and social than men, and the ease with which women are able to maintain social connections may be a significant contributor to their life span.

Social relationships offer health benefits stronger than some medications or other treatment.

Research on support group interventions for breast cancer, chronic illness, or heart disease are shown to create a significant difference in treatment outcomes than those who simply use medication.  This indicates that having social support allows the body to function more effectively and bolsters the immune system.

What are ways to gain more social support?

Make an intentional effort to talk to people on a daily basis.

If you tend to isolate or find that you can make it for days at a time without having any meaningful social interaction, make a purposeful choice to change that pattern.  Choose the checkout line with a cashier at the grocery store.  Say hello to your neighbors the next time you see them.  Chat with your coworkers over lunch rather than eating at your desk.  This may be difficult, especially if you are introverted, struggle with social anxiety, or are simply out of practice.  Regardless, this intentional effort will make a difference over time.

Find a class or group that focuses on a special interest of yours.

What are the things you enjoy in your free time?  Maybe you’re athletic and love to play sports, or you like to read and talk about books.  Perhaps you love to knit or crochet, or you like fantasy football.  Search websites like meetup.com to find groups of people who share your interests.  Join a book club at your local bookstore or library, a club sports league, or a service organization and create relationships with the people you meet there.

Join a support group.

If you’re currently in therapy for sex and love addiction, support group involvement is a crucial step in healing.  Having the support of others through your stages of growth and freedom from addiction is a game-changer.  Sex and love addiction is an intimacy disorder usually stemming from childhood trauma, and healing trauma that comes from relationships requires positive, supportive relationships.  You can find support groups for sex and love addiction at Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA).

If you’re in therapy for another addiction mental health issue, you’ve experienced grief or a significant loss, you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic or life-threatening illness, or you’re just looking for support, join a support group at local church, hospital, or community center that focuses on a topic relevant to you.  Connecting with others who are struggling helps you not to feel alone and provides an extra boost to your immune system. 

Get involved at a church through small groups or Sunday school classes.

If you are a Christian, it can be easy to become so busy with work, family obligations, and other responsibilities that getting involved in church events outside of Sunday services can feel like a burden.  But finding other individuals to support you on your journey of becoming more like Christ can be revolutionary not only in your faith, but also in your friendships.  Seek out a way to get involved with others in your church community through a small group, care group, or Sunday school class and begin to forge relationships based on a common ground of faith. 

Do you struggle with feelings of loneliness?  Is it difficult for you to connect with others due to social anxiety?  Are you struggling with sex and love addiction or another mental health issue that is causing you to feel isolated and alone?  It is essential to have social support through relationships, and at Restored Hope, I’ll help you discover ways to connect with others that work for you.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.