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  • Ayla Garlick

Attachment in Relationships

We have a psycho-biological need for emotional contact and responsiveness from significant others. It's a survival response, the bond of security a baby seeks with it's mother. Research indicates that the need for secure attachment never disappears; it evolves into the adult need for a secure emotional bond with a partner.

Being attached to someone means depending on your partner to respond, to know that you matter, that you are cherished, and that they will respond to your emotional needs. The most basic tenet of attachment theory is that isolation—not just physical isolation but emotional isolation—is traumatizing for human beings. The brain actually encodes it as danger.

The drama of love is all about the human hunger for safe emotional connection,

a survival imperative we experience from the cradle to the grave.

We start out connected to and responsive to our partners. Inevitably, this changes. Losing connection with a loved one jeopardizes our sense of security. We experience a primal feeling of panic. It sets off an alarm in the brain's amygdala, our fear center, where we are highly attuned to threats of all kinds. Once the amygdala sends out an alarm, we don't think— we act. We do and say things that are not within our values and that undermine our relationship. These are automatic and habitual defenses that are often shaped by our unconscious patterns. The mind doesn’t know the difference between threats which come from the outside world or from our own inner world. It's our perception that counts, not the reality.

It's what we do next, after those moments of disconnection, which has a huge impact on the shape of our relationship. Can you turn around and reconnect? If not, you'll start engaging in fights that follow a clear pattern. Too often, what couples do not see is that most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection.

And what's frustrating to people is not knowing how to bridge that emotional distance. Disappointments are always part of relationships. But you can always choose how you handle them.

Will you react defensively, out of fear, or in the spirit of understanding?

Of course, you may not feel you have a choice if your panic button has been pushed and your emotions are boiling over. But just being aware that it has been pushed can help calm you down. Simply accepting your attachment needs instead of feeling ashamed of them is a big and necessary first step. Then you can tell your partner, "I got really scared there—I'm feeling hurt."

Touch is the most basic way of connecting with another human being. Taking your partner's hand when she is nervous or touching his shoulder in the middle of an argument can instantly defuse anxiety and anger.

I used to think that security was boring and stifling. However, in a secure relationship, excitement comes not from trying to resurrect the novel moments of infatuated passion but from the risk involved in staying open in the moment-to-moment, here-and-now experience of physical and emotional connection. Passion is like everything else: It ebbs and flows. But sex is always going to be boring if it's one-dimensional, cut off from emotional connection. Securely attached partners can more openly express their needs and preferences and are more willing to experiment sexually with their lovers.

I use attachment based therapies in both couples counselling and family therapy. Now that we know what love is really about, we can know how to sustain it. With the empathy and courage it teaches us, we can use that knowledge to nurture it with our partners and families, and we can search for ways to take it out into the world and make a difference.

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