A few years ago I honestly didn’t think my marriage was going to survive. One of the biggest reasons we are still together is because we got good therapy. My husband did EMDR in his private sessions and we also did couples therapy. The counselor that we have seen uses a method called emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). This method focuses on identifying our attachment styles that were formed in childhood, understanding what is healthy and/or unhealthy about the patterns of attachment we have, discussing how those attachment styles affect our relationship, and creating new healthier patterns that create intimacy, trust, and effective communication.
What are Attachment Styles?
In order to be able to successfully create an intimate attachment to each other we first had to identify our own natural attachment style. These are the patterns that are formed in our brains as we grow. Interestingly most people’s sense of attachment is pretty much set in the first 18 months of life! Whether or not a child has a secure attachment with a primary caregiver can affect their mental health in terms of anxiety, depression, confidence, self-esteem, and more.
The child/caregiver attachment has been studied pretty extensively, but it wasn’t until the mid 1980’s that psychologist began studying how these attachments continued to affect a person’s life through adulthood and into romantic relationships. As these attachment styles carry on into romantic relationships they can often cause problems. There are four main attachment styles: secure, pre-occupied, dismissing avoidant, and fearful avoidant.
The Four Main Attachment Types
As with any other form of classification people rarely fall entirely into only one specific category. We usually have a predominant type, but can slip into other styles based on the situation. Kelly Brennan, when researching this topic, observed that there were two main factors affecting adult attachment patterns, avoidance and anxiety. People can have high or low avoidance and high or low anxiety. Those who are low on both will have secure attachments while those who are high on either one or both will struggle with emotional attachments in relationships. Here is a quiz you can take to identify where you are on the scale.
The level of anxiety and/or avoidance that one felt from their primary caregiver can color the way one views their partner in romantic relationships. The sad truth is that not all mothers and other primary caregivers provide a loving secure place for children to safely bond. Some are excessively overprotective and anxious themselves, while others can be detached and unemotional. Then there are those who live in a roller coaster of constantly bouncing from loving and attentive to cold or even abusive. As the anxious caregiver becomes overprotective and stops their child from taking risks they are influencing the development of anxiety within their child. The child can become clingy and the relationship unhealthily interdependent. As an adult this child will then become very needy and demanding of their partner. They will constantly be questioning their partner’s love for them if the partner is not equally enmeshed in the relationship. They will often see problems that don’t exist and demand constant attention and exclusive focus from their partner. The preoccupied partner is so demanding of love that it is nearly impossible to fulfill their needs.
When a caregiver is emotionally unavailable then the child can begin to retreat inwards. On the surface they may seem like a healthy child. They play independently, don’t cry when separated from their caregiver, are quiet and rarely cause trouble. This is usually just a cover for the question “am I lovable”? Without a loving attachment they develop low self-esteem and a poor self-image. They can become rebellious and have few friendships because they don’t perceive themselves as worthy or likeable. In adult relationships this person falls into the Dismissive quadrant. They may claim that they are happier alone, and that they don’t need relationships. They tend not to show their feelings and can be very independent. Just as the child under the surface craved a relationship with their caregiver this dismissive adult also craves a healthy romantic relationship. They just don’t feel worthy or capable of creating one.
The most damaging attachment scenario for an infant is a caregiver who is completely unpredictable. One moment they are loving and attentive and the next they are dismissive or even abusive. The child is in a constant state of chaos never knowing which version of their caregiver will appear. This chaos causes them to be unpredictable, disoriented and lack healthy problem solving strategies. They are so focused on merely surviving the abusive stages and trying to figure out how to keep the caregiver in the loving stages that they can’t focus on much else. As an adult this person will appear in the Fearful quadrant. They are constantly vacillating between pulling their partner close and then pushing them away. “I love you, but I am afraid. Be there for me, no wait too close, this is scary, get away!” Because of the chaos in their childhood they expect, and often create, that same chaos in their romantic relationships. In a sense they are addicted to the chaos and don’t know how to function when things are stable or secure.
To make things even more confusing most children have more than one caregiver. As they experience different attachment styles with each they develop different thoughts and behaviors about attachment. To further complex matters the way in which a child perceives a caregiver may not be accurate. For example a father who works two jobs to provide for his family may be viewed by the child as cold or absent when he is simply doing the best he can, is completely exhausted, and desperately desires to have more time with his family.
In their romantic relationships most people are predominantly on one category, but can still jump around in different situations due to their attachments with different caregivers. While we may have a mainly secure attachment pattern if our partner takes an action that reminds us of our chaotic grandmother or cold babysitter we may jump into an unhealthy mindset.
What Does an EFT Therapy Session Look Like?
In our first few sessions we worked on understanding the aforementioned attachment patterns and discussing where we thought we each fell on the scale. We also talked about who or what in our past caused those attachment issues that we experienced. We then began to work on how those attachment patterns cause unhealthy cycles that happened over and over and what we could do to break the cycle. Our counselor asked us to think about a specific issue that would bring out the worst in our relationship/communication. She then asked each of us, one at a time, to talk about how we felt about the issue and why we felt that way. She made sure to focus on one person at a time so that we each felt like we had a chance to be heard and understood. She would ask prodding questions to help us really get to the root of the issue, what were we feeling that made this a big issue? Once we had really gotten to the root of an issue she would have us turn to each other, make eye contact, and tell the other person how we felt deep down. This was a time to let down the walls and truly communicate with “I feel…” statements instead of “you do…” statements. It was about being known and understood. She would then ask the partner to respond with how they felt about what had been said.
There were many HARD issues that we had to discuss, but I’ll share with you one of the issues that was a little easier to work through. For our entire marriage Sunday mornings had been a huge source of stress. I was the one doing the majority of the work to get everyone ready for church and out the door on time. While I was doing that my husband would sleep in, take a long shower, get only himself dressed, eat the breakfast I had prepared, then finally head out the door ten minutes late. Even on the mornings where he didn’t sleep in or the days when we had a later church start time he would just relax and move slower rather than assisting me. We very rarely walked in the door to church on time and more often than not we were 10-15 minutes late. The more children we had the more responsibility fell on my head and the more resentful I became. We almost always ended up fighting about something stupid and went off to church in a huff sitting on opposite ends of the pew not speaking to each other. On the way home we’d both apologize for the rude words said and make up, but then repeat the cycle again the next week.
There were a few important things we needed to understand about this problem. First was that being late did not bother my husband at all. On the flip side I feel that walking in late is disrespectful. I hated drawing attention to myself walking down the aisle to a pew with my large family. I felt like I was being rude and therefore judged by others when we were late causing anxiety and guilt. As my husband was able to hear and understand why lateness was such a big deal to me he was happy to agree that being on time was an important goal for our family. I then started to cry while he looked on completely perplexed. He’d just given me what I wanted so where was the problem?!?! For the first time in almost TEN YEARS I was able to finally tell my husband how Sunday mornings were leaving me feeling abandoned and alone and therefore unloved. Every time I worked hard while he relaxed I was building this story in my mind that said he was just using me and didn’t love me enough to help out. He was rather shocked by this revelation. He knew that Sundays were usually unpleasant, but he had no clue that the dynamic was causing such deep emotional wounds for me. You see–I hadn’t ever told him. I had occasionally asked for help with a specific task, but I had never once told him how important it was to me for him to take the initiative to see what needed to be done and do it without my asking. He thought all of the stress and bickering was simply related to being late. Since lateness didn’t bug him a bit he was every bit as annoyed with me for being high-strung about it as I was with him for not caring. I had been afraid to communicate and ask for his support consistently because I feared rejection. If he didn’t step in to help where I needed him to, then those feelings of being unloved and unappreciated would have grown even larger. Rather than risk that rejection I just stuffed my feelings and instead chose to build up a mountain of resentments. He had simply been content to let me carry on doing what I seemed to do with ease and gratefully enjoy a day of rest after working hard all week. He communicated to me that he had always been grateful thinking that Sunday mornings I was showing my love by serving him after he had worked hard all week in a physically demanding job. He had never actually communicated that to me either, and I desperately needed to know that he did see and appreciate all that I did.
Contrary to what I had built up in my mind my husband loves me deeply and really wants to be there for me. Rather than abandoning me he was feeling loved and served by me. As I carried on so capably managing everything he didn’t know that I needed his help and involvement EVERY week. Once he understood my needs he has been happy to pitch in. He has put his creative engineer mind to work coming up with strategies to reduce my Sunday morning workload. he has also been much more active in getting everyone ready. Now every Sunday I am met with his question “What can I do to help?” or “Does Wally have clothes set out yet?” In fact I’ve even been able to write a blog post on my large family blog about successful Sunday morning routines thanks to what we developed in counseling!
Can’t We Just Do This on Our Own?
You could try, but honestly you probably won’t be very successful. Having a neutral third-party there to keep you on track, teach, and sometimes even referee is priceless. We don’t hesitate to seek out a specialist to care for our medical needs and we shouldn’t hesitate to seek out a professional for our emotional needs either. Stable families are the bedrock of society. They are worth fighting for with whatever tools we have available. “When couples turn to EFT, 90 percent of them report significant improvements in their relationship. Between 70 and 75 percent of couples who are in distress are able to move into recovery using EFT.” (Does Marriage Counseling Work?) Not every counselor is a good fit for every couple. If the first one doesn’t work out don’t give up. Keep looking until you find someone who is a perfect fit to help you repair your relationship.
The skills to truly communicate and create a healthy relationship are not taught in school. Most often, the role models and authority figures in our lives we naturally emulate have weakness and ills in their own relationships. By following the examples of others around us we may actually be holding ourselves back from achieving the fulfilling relationships we deeply desire. We often have no idea how to have a truly healthy relationship because we haven’t seen them. I can’t think of a single example in the media of a truly healthy romantic dynamic. Those good examples we do see in real life we usually can’t emulate because we don’t understand the inner workings of their relationship. We need a loving and experienced third-party to help us navigate the creation of healthy secure intimacy.
Despite the progress we were able to make simply by deciding we needed to fix things there are issues that have been brought to our awareness in counseling that we would never have realized on our own. By simply being educated about and identifying our own attachment styles we were already light years ahead of where we could ever get on our own. Another benefit was that our counselor’s office became a safe zone where we could really open up and dig deep. We had an educated and loving third-party there to help translate when our different communication styles became a roadblock to understanding. She also made us both dig deeper into the emotional hurt beyond the surface anger or frustration. She not only pushed us to walk down the road of self exploration, but she took our hands and walked down that road with us.
If you want to read more on this topic here are a few great articles:
Have you been through Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples? What was your experience? Do you know your attachment style? Does understanding attachment styles help you begin to understand some of the negative patterns that may exist in your own relationships?