Attachments, Relationships, Uncategorized

Google inadvertently teaches me some very interesting things. For example, as I sit down this morning to write something undoubtedly brilliant hopefully coherent about Schwartz’s application of Internal Family System’s parts theory in relationships, I type the words “love” and “redeemer” or “redemption” into my trusty search engine… and get pages upon pages of religion and faith-speak in return. Not entirely surprising, but given that the premise of “(romantic) love redeems and completes us” is so pervasive in western culture, I am surprised there wasn’t more content tying redemption tropes to romance and our expectations for romantic partners.

“Everyone is born with vulnerable parts. Most of us, however, learn early–through interactions with caretakers or through traumatic experiences–that being vulnerable is not safe. As a consequence, we lock those childlike parts away inside and make them the inner exiles of our personalities.” – Richard Schwartz, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, Trailheads Publications, 2008, pg. 55

“To all of us drowning in this empty, striving, isolated, and anxious [North] American lifestyle, the media throws the biggest life preserver of all. From watching movies or TV, or listening to songs on the radio, you’ll be convinced that everyone, sooner or later, will find their one, true, happily-ever-after relationship. The person who will heal you, complete you, and keep you afloat is out there. If the person you’re with isn’t doing that, either he or she is the wrong person altogether or you need to change him or her into the right one.

“This is an impossible load for intimate relationships to handle. The striving for money and the isolation from a circle of caring people are enough to do in many marriages–not only because both partners are depleted by the pace of life and the absence of nurturing contact, but also because to work and compete so hard, they each must become dominated by striving parts that don’t lend themselves to vulnerable intimacy. To deal with the stress of this lifestyle, we reach for the many distractions that our culture offers, which are also obstacles to, and surrogates for, intimacy.” – Schwartz, pg. 24-5

Esther Perel also talks about how North American ideals of romance often suffer because we trade the passionate, playful parts of ourselves that initially create intimacy as we explore our chosen Other, for security, stability, and comfort over the longer term of settling down together–needful things that make our exiled parts feel safely attached and protected, but which are about as “sexy” as our oldest, softest, most familiar and comfortable pyjamas and slippers. In Schwartz’s language, we surprise the exiles as they start to manifest once the spontaneous, impetuous excitement has either secured the partnership into more fixed states (living together, engagement/marriage, children, house-purchasing), or burned itself out and been supplanted by the requirements of regular life (work demands, family obligations). There is no space for those playful energies, and while the erosion of the welcome that once existed may be subtle at first, eventually it starts to feel like parts of us are being rejected by our partners, and that hurts, so we shut down the vulnerable parts and return them to their places in exile.

Where the ideals of redemption come into play is the initial expectations we place on our romantic partners to be the people who “will heal you, complete you.” This language is inherently problematic for many reasons:

“[P]artners are cut off from their Selves by being raised in a society that is so concerned with external appearances that authentic inner desires are ignored and feared. Into this nearly impossible arrangement is poured the expectation that your partner should make you happy and that if [they don’t], something is very wrong.

“These messages about your partner play into your exiles’ dreams, keeping the focus of their yearning on an external relationship rather than you. Thus, our culture’s view of romantic love as the ultimate salvation exacerbates an already difficult arrangement. Many writers have blamed the unrealistic expectations our culture heaps on [romantic partnership] as a significant reason for its high rate of collapse. I agree with that indictment to the extent that expectations perpetuate the partner-as-healer/redeemer syndrome.” – Schwartz, pg. 18

When I’m addressing with clients their experiences of dissatisfaction and disappointment in a relationship, we look at things like core needs (that, oftentimes, clients have never directly looked at or attempted to identify/define) and the expectations they have for how those needs are to be addressed by their partner. More often than not, the needs and their attendant expectations have never been explicitly articulated or negotiated with the partner, but we see plenty of evidence of the wounded exiles when those needs and expectations go unmet.

Attachment theory suggests that when we connect with others, especially intimate others in romantic partnership, for many of us it is a way of redressing early attachment injuries. These don’t need to be traumatic injuries, but simply moving to meet a craving for warmth and attention that we may implicitly feel was lacking or inconsistent in our earliest care-giving attachments. We exile those needy, unattended parts of ourselves over time, but then look, consciously or unconsciously, to romantic partners to meet that craving need for us, to redeem our wounded exiles and welcome them back into the fold. (This is generally a decent interpretation, from a parts/system perspective for what it means when a partner “completes us”–they nurture ALL our parts and create safety and welcome for the parts we have thrust out of the spotlight for being “ugly,” “damaged,” “too broken to function,” or “too terrifying to allow to surface.”

Harriet Lerner, in her book “The Dance of Intimacy,” describes a kind of dance in which we desperately want someone to rescue us from our own internal sense of unvalued despair and isolation, but as we get closer and closer to true intimacy (vulnerability), we become increasingly afraid of what happens when a romantic partner sees what we mistakenly believe to be our “true selves”, nasty warts, scars, and all. At that point, fear takes over and we inadvertently push partners back to safer distances, or close ourselves off, or sabotage the relationship in unconscious ways to “hurt you before you can hurt me.” We crave closeness that means someone allowing those wounds to surface and heal for once in our lives, but to closer we let those exiles come to the surface, the more anxious dread at “being truly seen” comes along for the ride.

We WANT to be redeemed, and then fail ourselves at the eleventh hour because we fail to let the redeemer actually make use of the all-access backstage pass we thought we wanted them to have.

When we rely on external Others to redeem those wounded exiles, we create this intricate tension rooted in needing someone else to wade in and do something magical to “fix” those wounds; we create a kind of codependent strategy in which we rely on someone else to “complete” us and accept all our parts. But our fears, those protector/firefighter parts of us that come armed with all kinds of saboteur scripts, get in the way pretty much EVERY TIME. And as soon as we start pushing people away, we are in a loop of self-fulfilling prophecy: we get defensive (sometimes aggressively so), partners retreat from us in fear, confusion, disappointment, frustration… sometimes even disgust; we see their withdrawal as validating our internal, unspoken script about how “everyone who is supposed to love us disappoints us/hurts us/betrays us/abandons us”, and we are validated further in our belief that our exiles MUST stay locked down and far, far away from the light of love and acceptance.

The healing work in a therapeutic context, regardless of whether the focus is on an individual or on a relationship, then becomes all about teaching each party to make space within themselves for welcoming their own exiles. Schwartz describes this as moving from a process of talking FROM our activated exiles (or the messy emotional chaos of exiles and protectors all trying to get air-time control in the middle of a triggering argument with another person) to talking ABOUT them. I do some of this work when I ask clients to, in essence, narrate an emotional reaction WHILE THEY ARE EXPERIENCING IT. We talk ABOUT what it’s like to feel triggered and reactive, the physical sensations, the self-observation of emotion, the scripts they hear being spooled up in their heads, rather than allowing the triggered reaction to unleash itself AT the other person or people in the room. Parts language becomes a useful tool in this narrative process especially when it gives the narrating client a way of adding some observational separation and distance: “One part of me is observing how another part really feels hot and angry, like it’s looking for something to attack. It’s angry because it feels attacked, like there’s another part that’s been hurt and needs to be protected.”

Being able to create this separation allows us to dialogue with both the attacker part and the hurt part separately, given the person who is caught up in this momentous experience a chance to unravel what’s going on for themselves, and to figure out what is necessary for calming themselves and re-centering their sense of balance. All of this can be done in the presence of the Other but doesn’t rely on the Other to sooth or validate those chaotic parts. Sometimes we’ve been able to make massive tectonic shifts just by getting one partner to introduce that self-observing narrative perspective while the Other partner bears silent witness, an abiding, compassionate, non-judgmental presence. Sometimes that’s just the starting point for different ways of being with each other that reintroduce independent security, and space to rebuild trust without the codependent fusion that Esther Perel labels the “death of intimacy”.

When we no longer rely on a partner to redeem and validate our exiled parts–when we become more adept at welcoming and managing those hurts without reliance on an external Other to complete us–it’s not that we no longer WANT to be in partnership. Rather, it becomes more about choosing to be in partnership as coherent, whole people in ourselves. We heal our own wounds, we accept our own warts and scars; we rely primarily on ourselves to soothe our internal chaos rather than forcing romantic partners into salvation roles and expectations most of them don’t expect, or have the capacity, to carry for us.

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

“Intimacy is being seen and known as the person you truly are.”
― Amy Bloom

Have you ever wondered how prickly creatures like hedgehogs and porcupines ever manage to get close and snuggly with each other? The punchline to the untold joke is, “Very carefully.” If you can picture in your mind those spikes and barbs intermixing in vulnerable proximity, you’ve got a good working image of human intimacy as well.

It’s rumoured that Freud kept a statue of a porcupine on his workdesk as a reminder of a Schopenhauer fable:

“A troop of porcupines is milling about on a cold winter’s day. In order to keep from freezing, the animals move closer together. Just as they are close enough to huddle, however, they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread out, lose the advantage of commingling, and begin to shiver. This sends them back in search of each other, and the cycle repeats as they struggle to find a comfortable distance between entanglement and freezing.” — from Deborah Leupnitz, Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Intimacy and its Dilemmas, Perseus Books, 2002

There is a vibrant, powerful, push-me-pull-you dynamic to most intimate relationships; this is the Hedehog’s Dilemma. Most humans crave connection with others, regardless of whether you believe it rooted in primal, umbilical attachment or simply a principle of unity; it’s a cliche, perhaps that “no man is an island”. But the truth of our pursuit of intimate connection is a prickly process at best, because the closer most of us get to true intimacy and vulnerability, the more likely we are to push those getting close away from us, but quiet shutdowns or forceful ejections, and many ways and means in between. Perhaps it’s the fear of being seen; for others it’s the craving for close connection rubbing raw our fear of losing ourselves, of becoming something less than autonomous:

“In adulthood, when we find ourselves in an intimate relationship, we each experience again, even if only in attenuated form, those early struggles around separation and unity–the conflict between wanting to be one with another and the desire for an autonomous, independent self… each [adult] brings with her or him two people–the adult who says “I do,” and the child within who once knew both the agony and ecstasy of symbiotic union. […] Of course, as adults we know there’s no return to the old symbiotic union; of course, survival is no longer at stake in separation. But the child within feels a if this were still a reality. And the adult responds to the archaic memory of those early feelings even though they’re far from consciousness. Thus we don’t usually know what buffets us about–what makes us eager to plunge into a relationship one moment and frightens us into anxious withdrawal the next.” –Lillian Rubin, “Fears of Intimacy”, Challenge of the Heart: Love, Sex, and Intimacy in Changing Times; John Welwood, ed. Shambhala Books, 1985

The closer we get to allowing someone to truly “see us” — warts and scars and sabotaging behaviours and thought patterns and insecurities and all — the more terrified many people will become at the idea of BEING seen. We become terrified at the “what if” scenarios to follow someone catching even a glimpse of what we believe to be our core selves, our “hearts of darkness”.

The more fearful we become, the more our native defenses kick on, or into overdrive, to protect that terrified core self. That darkened spot is home to our chiefest vulnerabilities, our quintessential attachment wounds, and must be protected at all costs. Et voila! Prickliness that makes it seemingly impossible for someone to get past our defenses… right around the same time someone is probably erecting defenses against US.

“We long to be seen, understood, and cherished. But so often we have felt betrayed, hurt, and devalued. As a result, we may carry a rawness that we don’t want people to see or touch. We may not even allow ourselves to notice this place when a protective scab has numbed its presence. Confusion and conflict reign when we pull on people to soothe an inner place that we have abandoned. […] Sadly, we often perpetuate a loop in which our fear of rejection or failure or our continued isolation creates a desperation that drives us to attack or shame people to get what we want… Beneath this display of hostility, we are hurting or afraid. But instead of sweetly revealing these tender feelings, we’re on the warpath, although we’re often punching the shadows that linger from our past.” — John Amadeo, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships; Quest Books 2013

The challenge of getting through the spines and barbs of another person’s defensive strategies is developing the patience and willingness to sit in the fire of discomfort: both our own, and our partner’s. This can be made easier or more difficult depending on the shape of those defenses. Patterns of aggressive defensive can break us down over time when we’re on the receiving end, as can the internal cost of maintaining our high-drain defense systems. Intimacy is the result of vulnerability, which itself is the result of developing sufficient trust in both ourselves and our partners (and the attachment systems operating between us) to lower the defensive mechanisms, to let someone get close to our secret, core selves. David Richo refers to “erasing the storyboard” as a metaphor for detaching ourselves from the stories we carry about our personal attachment injuries:

“The more challenging surrender is to a person, to a commitment to a relationship of trust. It is said that we…have problems surrendering to someone because it feels as if we are giving up our freedom, something we may cling to as our most prized possession. This is why we so often feel a fear of closeness and commitment, actually a fear of trusting how we will feel in the midst of those experiences. […] It may take a partner a long time to convince us that it is safe to love… unreservedly. [They] will have to be willing to allow a long series of open-ended experiences, ones in which the door is continually visible and open in case we need to make a fast getaway. It may be hard for us to find someone with that kind of patience, and would we respect someone willing to be that self-sacrificing with no promise of return?” — David Richo. Daring to Trust: Opening Ourselves to Real Love and Intimacy; Shambhala Books, 2010

Learning how to detach from our beliefs about our own experiences, how to “love like we’ve never been hurt”, and to trust that our partners are building connection with us with GOOD intentions, is in many ways the core work of simply being in relationship. For many of us, the exhilaration of discovery and being seen is coloured by the fear of actually BEING SEEN, of recognizing our defensive challenges and knowing it’s going to take work to lower them. Many of us who have grown up in situations where we have learned a desire to have someone else overcome our defenses for us, are missing the opportunity to learn the scope of our own power and agency; to be overpowered still introduces uncomfortable power dynamics and potential boundary issues, whereas exerting personal agency to chose when and how we allow someone to see our vulnerable cores, is all about learning the shape of our own selves. The more we invest in a defensive stance, the more we risk remaining on the outside of powerfully intimate connection. But the intensity of the fear, the intensity of having our raw selves scrutinized by the Other and potentially judged as harshly as we judge our own faults and flaws, is often to much for people; we make an attempt, can’t stand the heat, and flee.

And so the hedgehog’s dilemma persists: we seek the warmth and closeness of others, but we can’t get around the sharp and spiky bits (ours or theirs), and we jerk away.

Intimacy is truly a prickly business.

Attachments, Relationships

[O]ur marriage wasn’t hellish, it was simply dispiriting. My wife and I didn’t hate each other, we simply got on each other’s nerves. Over the years we each had accumulated a store of minor unresolved grievances. Our marriage was a mechanism so encrusted with small disappointments and petty grudges that its parts no longer closed. — John Taylor, Falling: The Story of One Marriage

So go love’s small murders, tiny, everyday escalations of injury reacted to by disconnection, causing more injury, until one fast-forwards to a couple whose initial passion has become so “encrusted” with disappointment that they barely function as a couple any longer. …[I]n relational recovery we are drawn to the cumulative effect of such everyday lesions […] they are also the media through which the couple’s unique downward spiral plays itself out. The degeneration of connection that spans years is made up of tiny incidents of disconnect that span mere moments. — Terry Real, How Can I Get Close to You (pg. 147-8)

Many different kinds of precipitating events might be called “crisis” when it comes to managing the breakdowns in intimate relationships, unmaking love, but comparatively few relational crises actually arrive on the heels of catastrophic events like a death or disclosed infidelity. Perhaps the more heartbreaking stories are the ones achieved by the slow erosion of intimacy in a relationship. Rather than a swift, surgically-precise sword stroke dismembering the partnership, there is a glacially slow process by which the thousand tiny cuts of our daily interactions go unaddressed until the cumulative pain of the unrepaired hurts becomes too much to bear.

Most intimate relationships begin with a degree of delight in responsiveness to each other. There is passionate connection and a willingness to be vulnerable, each to the limits of their own comfort and skill with vulnerability. Sometimes there is a discrepancy in those limits, or the responses aren’t what we anticipate or expect. Someone begins to push a little, and the recipient of the push resists, reacting or withdrawing; Harriet Lerner refers to versions of this dynamic as the “distancer/pursuer” dance, in which one might return the push with something that also stings the initiating partner. Little resistances, little jabs. Things our culture has taught us to shrug off, but not so much how to repair, become over time a pattern of behaviours that “encrust” the relationship so heavily that, as Taylor writes from his own experience, “its parts no longer close”.

Sometimes we allow the gulf to grow because the risk of of failure or pain in a connection attempt is too high, if we anticipate rejection and have no resiliency to hear another “no”. Sometimes we actively withhold connection once the pain of myriad little hurts becomes burdensome. One of the ways this withholding most commonly occurs in partner relationships is the demise of a sexual relationship. As Dr David Schnarch says, “If you’re going to torture your mate, sex seems to be one of the most popular ways to do it, whether it’s by the partner who wants more sex or no sex at all.”

There is a cliche that surfaces from time to time in heteronormative relationships to the effect that, “women need intimacy to feel safe in sexual desire; men need sexual connection in order to feel safe enough to consider emotional vulnerability.” It’s not limited to heteronormative relationships; it’s an endemic behaviour, rooted in simple power struggles, across ALL types of intimate sexual relationships. When the sense of vulnerable connection in a relationship begins to slowly erode, one of the first lighthouse indicators is the slow but pervasive shift in a couple’s sexual activity. That’s not to say it’s the only, or even the strongest indicator; there are a LOT of factors that can impact relational desire and sexuality, especially over time. But the connection between a lack of emotional intimacy and a lack of sex in relationships is extremely common. I’ve been in relationships myself where the dynamic has been a partner saying, “I don’t feel close to you, I need sex to feel like we’re all right”, and me saying, “I don’t really like you right now, so no, sex isn’t going to happen,” but with neither of us doing a particularly great job of circling back to address whatever the initial hurtful cut was. We fixate instead on the pressure for/absence of the superficial connectors instead; we treat the symptoms, rather than the dis-ease.

“We never have sex anymore,” a wife in a couple said to me on intake not too long ago.
“She’s never interested when I offer, so I just stopped offering. I can only hear no so many times before I get the hint,” said the husband. “Rejection’s *SO* not sexy.”

On further discussion, it becomes readily apparent when couples don’t have anything else in their relationship to hold them together, either. Often, they used to do a lot of things together, in the early dating years, but as time progressed other things–work, kids, extracurricular volunteerism or family support commitments–claimed their attention and they had little or no time in which they made an effort to stay *together* as partners. One partner’s distraction or exhaustion became another partner’s sense of rejection, and the unaddressed rejections became the reason why the hurt partner withdrew from the distracted partner, who then had to deal with their own sense of rejection and bewildered hurt…

This is, in a nutshell, the dance of intimacy, as Harriet Lerner describes in her series of relationship books. As partners recognize this sense of disconnect, they might begin to act out in small ways as an ineffective means of hurting their partner as they perceive themselves to have been hurt. Schnarch says: “your partner probably already knows what you want, and the fact you’re not getting it means he or she doesn’t want to give it to you” (as quoted here). There may be a sustained distancer/pursuer dynamic in which one partner pursues the other partner into retreat for a while, then gives up and withdraws themselves, which lures the distancing partner into a pursuing role-reversal. But each retreat, each breach of intimacy, is a small rejection or cut into the body of our attachment. The resulting hurt is cumulative and, by the straw-on-camel’s-back breaking point, utterly catastrophic.

There are a lot of ways in which therapists work to bring this dynamic to heel, hopefully bringing the couple back in intimate connection in the process. The hardest part of reopening connection is the need to recreate vulnerability, something that is acknowledged by clients as their greatest therapeutic struggle. Reopening vulnerability means talking about the pain of those thousand cuts, addressing and validating how much it hurts to be out of the intimate loop, and how much fear is in the picture when it comes time to talk about scrambling over the hurdle towards reconnection. This is John Gottman’s “repair attempt”, writ large across the face of the relationship. We HAVE TO talk about grief, shame, the responsibility for decisions made. I have clients who are looking at 30-40+ years of slowly-dissolving intimacy through a sequence of tiny, silent decisions on both sides of the divide, and struggling to see any value in even trying one more time to make things better. I have clients who are a year or two into dating someone who struggle with the same issues. The work of triggering intimacy is the work of *Romance*, but the work of maintaining and repairing intimacy, like maintenance and repair on a vehicle, is the ongoing work of *Relationship*. That’s the part many people seem to overlook, or forget. Once Romance has sealed us into a pattern, we assume the work is done.

And in those moments of faulty assumption… that’s where the unmmaking of love, the death of a thousand cuts, begins.

In the end, we can look at all the different ways by which a couple can find themselves poised on this brink of catastrophe but the most important choice clients, individually or together, can make here is, “Are we here for marriage counselling, or marriage cancelling?” (Hat-tip to my own therapist of many years, the Satir expert Gloria Taylor, for pinning me on my own intake with that question, a million years ago. It’s been an important tool in my own intake repertoire ever since.) Sometimes the work of re-attaching what seems like a fully-amputated limb is too much to face, and sometimes both parties remain hopeful AND willing AND *capable* of doing the reconstructive, “re-intimating” work. We work with what’s in the room, what the clients bring in themselves. Sometimes it’s rage and pain, sometimes fear and shame, sometimes frustration twined in hope and desire. We start where we are, and to quote Pema Chodron:

When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality. ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Difficult Times

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, self-perception

The more I work with adult clients raised in environments where parental or caretaker love was NOT present, or was inconsistent at best, the more I come to recognize a stance in many of my clients in which they have learned to substitute “being needed” for authentic love. Substituting need for love can manifest in many different ways, but often embodies a significant portion of care-taking for others as a core practice, as if to say, “If I can prove my value to you through taking care of you, you’ll just love me, right?”

What happens instead, however, is a slippery slope of enablement and reinforcing potential entitlements. How this plays out in a lot of relational dynamics (at least insofar as we therapists see it in the counselling office) looks like this:

A caretaker personality is often hyper-attentive, or hyper-vigilant, to the moods of a partner. At the earliest signs of partner distress, the care-taker is *right in there*, sometimes asking explicitly, “What can I do for you? How can I help you? What do you need from me?” More commonly, however, the care-taker often guesses or tries to anticipate what needs are going unaddressed, to take care of them BEFORE the distressed partner can increase distress (either internally at themselves or outwardly at the care-taker or other vulnerable others). While this care-taking practice seems a noble gesture, the problems it introduces are manifold.

First, it removes responsibility for practicing emotional self awareness and self-regulation from the distressed party; they never learn how to manage themselves or their own needs. Secondly, it creates undue stress on the care-taker, not only because they’ve taken on emotional labour that, truthfully, isn’t theirs to manage, but also because it generally encourages care-takers to compartmentalize or bury their OWN needs, anxieties, or distresses without effectively addressing them. Third, it reinforces the codependent fusion by reinforcing the notion that neither can effectively exist without the other, since a care-taker by definitions must have others to care for in order to feel validated, and they believe the Other cannot exist without them to manage every little detail for them (something those Others may often be too willing to accept if it means less work for them to handle on some front or other).

It may be true that very few of us *LIKE* seeing our partners in distress, but there’s a massive difference between being ready to assist, or simply bearing witness, and moving in to “fix” things for another. When I was a teenager taking swimming lessons up to and including training as a lifeguard, the VERY FIRST lesson they teach us about rescuing drowning swimmers is that it’s a REALLY BAD IDEA to get close enough to the drowning swimmer to make contact. The swimmer in their panic will grab on to the rescue attempt and completely overwhelm the rescuer… and they both drown. So lifeguards are trained to use a “reverse and ready” position that lets them push a flotation device to the swimmer and instruct them to grab and hang on until they are calm enough to be assisted back to safety. This analogy is one of the most powerful ones I can give to care-takers who insist on swimming in after distressed partners, then wonder why they always feel so overwhelmed by their efforts, almost to the point of drowning themselves.

This state of emotional enmeshment, where care-takers deflect or defer their own anxiety by hyper-attentively managing others’ distress is something Murray Bowen identified in (family) systems as “fusion”:

“Fusion or lack of differentiation is where individual choices are set aside in service of achieving harmony in the system” (Brown, 1999)

Fusion is where “people form intense relationships with others and their actions depend largely on the condition of the relationships at any given time…Decisions depend on what others think and whether the decision will disturb the fusion of the existing relationships.” (Papero, 2000)

Care-takers come by this fusion through their early training; they learn that they cannot be emotional safe, acknowledged and validated for any reason other than a service they can provide. Parentified children, for example, or displaced children, often internalize early on a strong sense that they are valuable for what they DO, rather than simply for being lovable and worthwhile people in their own right. (The displacement may happen within the family system for a variety of reasons, such as parental preference for a first-born or male child over a female child; or one child is perceived as a “problem” child while other children might be left to manage on their own or manage the family while the parents cope with the “problem”; children may also feel ostracized in a variety of ways by their care-takers for not conforming to or complying with both explicit and implicit systemic values.) They learn to fear what happens if they do NOT provide the service they believe is expected of them. Seeing loved ones in emotional distress may trigger intense surges in their own anxiety; perhaps their own early care-takers tended to act out with violence in distress, so any emotional distress in the adult client is intolerable, for fear of such violences returning. Or the adult client may simply not recognize the value of anything other than performing service; if they themselves have no memorable experience of being loved for themselves, they may be unable to distinguish a difference between “being needed” and “being loved”, and the idea of not being needed to take care of someone threatens their very self-definition and sense of self-worth.

It’s a tricky thing to suss out what’s happening with clients who fall into the category of “substituting need for love”, because the patterns are hard to verify in the light of things like Gary Chapman’s Love Languages identifying “acts of service” as a bone fide love language. Where we start to see the substitution becoming problematic is when the underlying attachments themselves become a struggle to manage; care-takers doing this kind of substitution often have anxious attachments in which any failure of the partner to validate the care-takers efforts become a source of significant distress in the care-taker themselves. There is no healthy sense of differentiation between the care-taker and the target when the smallest bump in this “transference of care” can send one or both parties into distress. It’s too easy for the receiving partner to simply become complacent with being cared for, especially if it means they never have to learn to self-manage their own distress when someone else is always there to take care of things for them. And it certainly seems a common social pattern for individuals to gravitate into relationships with complimentary, familiar care-taking patterns. The patterns in and of themselves may not be problematic, but they bring with them a weighty potential for invisible expectations and unspoken needs around reflecting validation. Care-takers will sometimes chase target recipients even if the relationship as a whole is one they recognize on some level as unhealthy for them; that’s certainly a Big Red Flag in the therapy room that we’re dealing with someone who is potentially chasing validation for being needed, and a historical or Family of Origin snapshot will tell us in very short order whether or not the client recognizes the experience of being loved, or if they respond more to being needed.

To be clear, in healthy intimate relationships, there is generally a balance of love and need, and sometimes there is less need than love. When need overshadows love, however, or subsumes it completely, we stand at high risk for having less stable, less satisfactory relationships overall. In therapy we might find that care-takers who only (or predominantly) identify with meeting needs more than recognizing love as their primary avenue of attachment are insecure not only in their relationships, but in themselves. We see a lot of co-morbid symptoms tied to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and profound exhaustion, with a potential raft of physical/health issues that often come along for the ride with ANY of these mental health challenges. Unraveling this convoluted self-identity can be a lengthy process; there are no “silver bullet solutions” when countering a lifetime’s worth of programming around a person’s sense of intrinsic sense of worth. We start with the basics of Human Worth, and look at how those lessons may have been twisted early on, reinforced by a lifetime’s worth of relationship practices, and how the errant substitution of need for love is probably sabotaging self and self-in-relationship in the client’s current situations. We can unravel understandings and begin the work of creating a new sense of self, but as with all things, it takes time and patience, and a willingness to self-love that can sometimes be every bit as challenging as loving others

But the work is worthwhile, however difficult. We are all worthy of love, not just because of what we DO for others, but simply because as people we have a value all our own. Sometimes we just need to be reminded of that fact, and taught (as we maybe weren’t in early life) to see that in and for ourselves.

Attachments, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

There is a common relational myth that used to float around about how “women marry their fathers and men marry their mothers”. It’s true that many of us unconsciously gravitate towards partners who embody traits and behaviours that feel familiar and therefore comforting (or controllable), whether they be healthy and effective behaviours or not.

Something that *IS* a truism in human behaviour is that we form relationships according to the invisible models we carry forward from our earliest experiences, usually based on what we observe and internalize from our parents’ or adult caregivers’ relationships. These models then show up in our own adult relationships as unconscious influences that can sometimes work against us as much as for us. If we feel like we were emotionally neglected by a parent, for example, we might find ourselves in adult relationship, seeking someone who reminds us of that parent, and trying to prove through that similar-seeming relationship that we ARE worthy of the love we didn’t get the first time around, or that we ARE capable of attracting and holding onto attention from a similar kind of personality. When we use adult relationships to heal early attachment injuries, for example, we’re appropriating an inappropriate platform to act out or address some very unfinished emotional business that often has far less to do withe this current relationship than it does with a degree of accrued pain that predates it.

So what, exactly, is an attachment injury?

“By definition an Attachment Injury (AI) is a relational trauma – an event [that] shatters the attachment bond between intimates. One partner violates the expectation that the other will offer comfort and caring at a time of urgent need. This pivotal event redefines the relationship as unsafe and untrustworthy from that moment on.

In a safe, secure bond, hurts happen and hurts are repaired. Injured partners reach safely to share their pain. Offending partners tune into injured partners’ pain and reach back to them in an attuned way that shows they truly feel the painful impact of the event. Emotionally attuned reaching and responding restores the bond. However, when couples cannot walk the path towards repairing a broken bond and rebuilding trust, they spiral into a distancing dance. Failure to respond to a hurtful event, whether seemingly large (as when an affair with one’s best friend is discovered) or seemingly small (such as when a call for help is ignored) – remains as a pivotal moment that redefines the relationship as unsafe and untrustworthy.”
–Lorrie Brubacher, originally published as a “Toolbox” article in the ICEEFT EFT Community News, Spring 2015; sourced from Carolina EFT

This kind of relational hurt happens all the time, from slights we seem to brush off to catastrophic betrayals such as adultery. John Gottman writes at length about how he determines couples’ success or failure rates based on how well the couple handles these repair attempts and connection bids. But when the repairs and connection bids fail, one or both parties may internalize the disconnect in the relationship as an attachment injury: something that can hurt a great deal in the moment, and if it is perceived as part of a larger pattern, becomes something that at best creates a divisive wedge in the couple, and at worst becomes outright corrosive and destructive when the unacknowledged pain becomes too great to manage and we become reactive and volatile, emotionally or physically.

Something we see with frightening regularity when working with adult attachment issues in clients’ current relationships, is that the holding or nursing of unacknowledged hurts is a pattern that goes much further back in the individual or couple history. Kids who grow up in homes where they perceive parents don’t hear or make time for the child’s experiences, grow up to become adults who don’t know how to express their emotional pains, or already carry the belief that they don’t want to burden a partner with their experiences, so they bottle things up inside. But instead of creating the closeness and vulnerable intimacy most of us crave, or claim to crave, in romantic partnerships, the lack of vulnerability, the lack of trusting partners to hear and assist us, creates only further isolation.

Putting aside the weird and awkward Oedipal/Electra issues that Greek mythology teaches us about killing one parent and marrying the other, most of us don’t LITERALLY go looking to marry a parent. But it’s surprising how many of us fall into familiar patterns of relationship as if *THIS TIME*, we’ll be able to fix the things that hurt us, that we couldn’t address effectively, the last time. This is something I have long suspected (even longer than I’ve been a therapist) underlies the trend in people to “have a type” of person they get involved with; familiarity seems comforting, and we feel we know how to interact safely with “this type” or “that type” of person. (We’ll leave aside for a moment the classic definition of “insanity”, namely doing the same thing over and over and over with the hard-held belief that this time something will somehow magically be different; I digress.)

Sometimes these attachment injuries don’t have to go all the way back to our families of origin (though our patterns of decision making around reactions and responses to these hurts often do). For example, couples dealing with an infidelity may find that the partner who has been cheated on has difficulty “letting go and just moving on with fixing the relationship”. In looking at the situation that enabled the infidelity to occur, we look at the patterns of connection in the couple prior to that point to look for places where the connections have been secure, and where the attachments may have been injured and unaddressed, or inadequately repaired. I often find that if the “injured” half of the couple cannot identify a set of success criteria that would allow them to safely make the statement, “I trust that this will never happen again”, the inability to choose trust is often tied to a series of unaddressed hurts through the relationship history that, on a MUCH BIGGER scope than just the infidelity itself might suggest, prevent the injured party from being able to safely resume the attachment. So it’s not just the one betrayal we need to repair in session, but rather a successive pattern of attachment injuries that probably exists on both sides of the relational rift.

When these patterns of attachment injuries come into any new relationship with us from previous experiences, it’s like bringing the ghosts and skeletons of all our previous relationship hurts along in among all our other baggage. When we are reluctant to openly trust new partners “because I’ve been hurt before”, that’s an example of how we allow our previous attachment injuries to haunt us into our present relationships. When we bring entire laundry lists of hurts and grievances into the latest fight with our partner over not taking the garbage out, that’s another example of how our unaddressed attachment injuries become much bigger than the current trigger (and why we as therapists often reiterate to our clients that “the thing you’re fighting about isn’t really the thing you’re fighting about”).

Emotionally-focused techniques often help clients struggling with attachment injuries find ways of articulating the things that hurt, and the impact of those experiences, as well as helping clients who struggle to remain present with a partner’s emotional Stuff without either taking it personally or being overwhelmed by it. We work to unravel the belief that fixing relationship hurts and attachment injuries is about setting a series of Herculean tasks your partner must perform in order to be deemed worthy of you choosing to return your trust to them, and less about being able to enter some emotionally painful space and have that pain heard and acknowledged, appropriately and effectively, by all parties involved. Sometimes there are change behaviours to negotiate, but often couples in this path find that recovery and repair become less about the actions, and more about the listening and reception of the emotional experiences, that goes further toward addressing the fundamental pain of the disconnection.