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  • Natalie Dressler

Is Your Attachment Style Hurting Your Relationship?

Do you find yourself feeling like your partner won't really be there for you? ​​

Maple ridge counsellor

Or do you close off emotionally in relationships, finding yourself spending more time on work and activities rather than building close connections?

One of the common themes I see in people struggling with their relationship is attachment issues. Attachment is our ability to emotionally connect to another individual, especially to those closest to us. John Bolby and Mary Ainsworth developed and shaped a lot of what we know about attachment today. They discovered that children raised with different styles of emotional caregiving adopted different ways of connecting to their parents, which later on in life shaped their emotional connection and attachment to others.

When we're children our brain goes through many growth periods which is then followed by pruning. Pruning is our brain's way of eliminating neural pathways that aren't used. The ones that are used get wired into our brain. When our early life experiences around relationships do not feel safe, are lacking in emotional connection, or are neglectful, our brain becomes shaped by this. The brain and body form ways of responding that make sure we will survive and move on in life, even if our needs aren't met, or we feel unsafe as a child. These ways of relating to other people become more and more engrained in our brain the more we repeat them.

If we had to adapt our behaviour to get some of our emotional needs met, our brain will remember how we did this and may repeat this behaviour later on in life. We may shut down emotionally around others, because we learned that our emotional needs weren't going to be met by those closest to us. Or we may develop anxiety around our parents emotional availability, because this maximized the chance we would receive emotional care from them.

If we grow up in a home where relationships are not safe or emotionally nurturing, our brain wires in many protective reactions that can be triggered when relating to others. This can still apply even if the closest people around us are completely safe or emotionally available.

If our parents couldn't consistently meet our emotional needs (no blaming here- this often just means that their own emotional needs were not met by their parents in a healthy way) our brain becomes shaped to develop increased anxiety and uncertainty about our partner meeting our emotional needs. Again this anxiety is what often helps us receive more emotional care as a child.

Generally, this is not in our conscious awareness. By the time we have become an adult, we have repeated our ways of connecting to others over and over again, which has made some pretty solid brain connections.

So can be done about this?

Making these relational patterns conscious is a great place to start. Explore a bit of your background. Did your parents meet your emotional needs in a safe, consistent way (not just physical needs such as clothing, putting you into sports, etc.)? Or was this absent?

When you had an emotional problem, who did you turn to? Were there people who were there for you with empathy and support when you were struggling?

Identify what you're feeling before you fall into your old patterns of relating to others, such as shutting off emotionally, or reaching out in anxiety. Start to notice this as your body's way of telling you that you have a need. Once you identify what you need, often you'll be able to take a step back and meet those needs before reacting in old ways.

For example, if anxiety hits when your partner leaves home, this might signal that old relationship history is being triggered and your brain is telling you is that you need reassurance that your partner will be there for you and not leave you. Perhaps asking your partner to write you a note that explains how he/she feels about you and your relationship that you can read in times like this, may calm some anxiety. You may find that relaxation exercises such as breathing, mindfulness, or grounding help.

If your response is closer to shutting down emotionally, explore the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that come up when you experience this shut down response. Perhaps your brain is signalling that you need to feel safe and accepted in order to express emotion, or to know that your partner can receive how you feel without criticising or shutting you down. Could you share this with them?

Try not to get too frustrated if change doesn't happen overnight. I've yet to see this be a quick process of change for anyone. Remember, your brain has solidified neural connections around how you are in relationships! It will take time to form new neural pathways of connecting in a secure and healthy way.

If you find this process too hard to do alone, reaching out for counselling is a great idea. A counsellor can help you find ways to cope and help you along with the relational "rewiring" process in your brain.


Image by Greg Rakozy


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