Relationship blog part 1
How Did We Get Here?
If you are married or in a committed romantic partnership, the chances are very good that you have had a conflict with your partner that has left you baffled about how and why it became so intense so fast. It started with a seemingly small, “benign” issue such as a dirty dish left in the sink, a small purchase made without prior discussion, or an unexpected work commitment. It may have moved forward with a single comment, look, or even a sigh. And then before you knew what happened the two of you were both arguing as if your life depended on the outcome. You went from zero to 60 in just a few seconds. When the dust settles on moments like these in our relationships we are often left feeling confused, hurt, and discouraged. “What just happened? How did we get here? What on earth even started this? This is ridiculous. Something must be wrong with you, or me, or maybe us? Why do we end up in this crazy conflict pattern so often?”
If these incidents happen often enough in a relationship it can cause us to feel defeated, isolated, and disconnected from one another. Over time these feelings can even lead to depression and despair. What is really happening here? What is all of this about?
The Critical Nature of Secure Attachment
Researcher and psychiatrist John Bowlby pioneered the concept of human attachment theory in the 1950’s by studying the nature and impact of attachment relationships between children and their primary caregivers. From his work we know that attachment bonds are formed starting in infancy by a primary adult caregiver that is consistently attuned and responsive to the needs of the child. Bowlby (1958) proposed that attachment can be understood as an innate response system through which the caregiver provides safety and security for the infant. Attachment is adaptive as it enhances the infant’s chance of survival.
Culturally, it has been accepted that as children mature through adolescence and become increasingly independent from their primary attachment figures for care, they outgrow this emotional interdependency in adulthood. However, recent research by psychologist Susan Johnson and colleagues is expanding and extending our understanding of the importance of secure attachment in primary relationships across the entire lifespan. We now know that security in the bond of our romantic partnership/marriage leads to a multitude of positive outcomes for human flourishing. This research reveals that the security and emotional responsiveness within our primary relationships is one of the predominant factors in emotional health and well-being. Recent research tells us that these same relationships have a significant impact on our physical health as well, including measures such as heart health, blood pressure, gastro-intestinal health, and immune system functioning (Johnson, 2019).
We have a wired-in need for emotional contact and responsiveness from significant others. It’s a survival response, the driving force of the bond of security a baby seeks with its mother. This observation is at the heart of attachment theory. A great deal of evidence indicates that the need for secure attachment never disappears; it evolves into the adult need for a secure emotional bond with a partner. Johnson (2009)
When Negative Reactive Patterns Take Over
If you have had a few zero to 60 moments with your partner, you can probably tangibly recall the physiological distress you felt due to a fully engaged fight, flight, freeze response. Your survival system became fully activated. The good news is that, even though it feels terrible, THIS IS NORMAL and universally HUMAN. The discouragement you feel at being overwhelmed and helpless to these interactional patterns is understandable and it is a result of the reality that this relationship matters so much to your well-being; this person is so important to you.
When these reactive interactions begin to increase in frequency and intensity it can start to feel like the pattern of reactivity is taking over the relationship or that partners are no longer able to find their way out of these moments of conflict. The environment within the relationship can start to feel like a continual state of threat sensitivity and overreaction. Partners usually fall into predictable patterns of blaming and criticizing (fight), withdrawing (flight), or shutting down/going silent (freeze). Each partner has a mostly typical pattern that they default to when coping with the distress of these negative interactions. As these patterns develop and impact interactions between partners it sets up a “dance” or cycle that is predictable and somewhat rigid (Johnson, 2009).
The Way Out of This Vicious Cycle
Susan Johnson has pioneered the study and understanding of these patterns that are so frequent in adult romantic partnerships. Over years of working with couples and observing these patterns of behavior and also patterns of repair, she developed and formalized a treatment approach that is now being utilized in couples’ therapy with great success. This approach, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), is empirically supported as a highly effective treatment protocol for distressed relationships but additionally for individual concerns. A secure, supportive, emotionally responsive partner offers much to enhance the health of each individual within the relationship as well.
In Part 2 of this blog, coming later this month, I will explain the process of Emotionally Focused Therapy and how it helps to repair these painful patterns in relationships.
Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.
Johnson, Susan (2019). Attachment Theory in Practice: Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families. New York, NY. Guilford Press.
Johnson, Susan (2011). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. New York, NY. Little, Brown & Co.
Johnson, Susan (2009, January 1). Hold Me Tight. Retrieved March 9, 2019, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/200901/hold-me-tight