Consider Dan and Susan. Dan balances work deadlines and kids’ soccer games. Susan juggles a full time job, parenting responsibilities and a passion for community theater. Lately they’ve been arguing a lot. After the arguments silence and sadness sets in for them. Their “attachment” is at risk.
Focusing on Conflict Resolution Doesn’t Work
Until recently, relationship books or marriage counselors didn’t consider “attachment”. Instead counsellors would have taught Dan and Susan to fight fair, plan date nights, and seek out common interests. These approaches suggest that fixing relationships is a matter of getting the technique of marriage right. And it is not as if techniques don’t matter at all. But these days marriage therapists are more likely to help Dan and Susan look at their attachment needs and longings. Here’s how that works.
Dan often comes home from work tired and grouchy. Underneath the fatigue and grouchiness Dan is worried that he can’t do it all. He wonders how good of a husband and father he really is. Dan needs reassurance. Reassurance is an attachment need.
But Dan doesn’t ask for reassurance. Like many of us Dan has been taught that attachment needs are a sign of weakness. So, instead, he becomes quiet and, to Susan, Dan seems distant and non-interested. She tries to snap him out of it by snapping at him. It is a moment of disconnection.
Moments of disconnection happen in every relationship. What happens next makes all the difference in the world for Susan and Dan. If they can stop the withdrawing and snapping and instead take a moment to reach out tenderly to the other with a touch, a look, a word that says something like, “Hey, let’s stop this negativity, we’re here for each other, remember?” they’re on the way to repair and reconnection.
But these days Dan responds to Susan with defensiveness and anger—and Susan’s snappiness of late is indeed something to aovid! Feelings of rejection and panic set in. Losing connection like this endangers Dan’s sense of security and safety. He further retreats into himself and his laptop. Now Susan spins out a negative interpretation in her head, “He always comes home out of sorts, what’s the matter with him anyway? He’s just a miserable man to be around.” She snaps again. Underneath her snappiness and anger Susan is also feeling lonely. Dan does shut her out with his fatigued face and laptop.
Conflict Kicks off Stress Response
If Dan were in an MRI machine, having these feelings, the amygdala, the part of his brain highly sensitive to threat, would light up in a nanosecond. So would Susan’s. Both are feeling threatened. Trouble is, a brain with a highly charged amygdala doesn’t take the time to think, it just reacts. And it reacts in only one of two ways: leave the danger far behind by running from it or tame the danger by fighting it into submission.
Dan and Susan are triggering each other. Dan’s dismissiveness or defensiveness suggests to to Susan that her feelings don’t really matter. Mattering is an attachment need. So, Susan, who yearns to matter to Mike, insists that yes, “It does matter that you’re distant and grouchy so much.” To Dan she looks dangerous. Since his need for safety is not being honored in that moment he protects himself by minimizing (running from) her concerns. His laptop is safer than Susan. Both end up feeling lonely and isolated and unhappy. And lately this negative pattern has become so entrenched in Dan and Susan’s relationship that even little concerns sets off this damaging cycle.
How to Repair: Attachment Focus
When couples don’t take the time–or don’t know how–to repair moments of disconnection, these moments eventually take on a momentum of their own. The couple is trapped in a never-ending negative cycle that unravels their attachment.
Dan and Susan gave me a call. The negative cycle they were caught in when they called had been going on for quite a few years. Each was feeling very wounded and on guard. It took patience and difficult honesty for them to look at how their arguments went deeper than the surface issues. But they persevered. Today Dan and Susan still get into stuck places once in a while, but they’re far better than they used to be in slowing things down and taking the time to really connect emotionally before they go back to tackling the problem of the day.
*The people in the above account have given permission to use their story. For reasons of confidentiality, identifying details are disguised.