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  • Heather B MacIntosh PhD

Attachment Theory 101: Lessons from the Farmyard

When clients enter therapy, one of the first things they want to figure out is why their relationships always seem to turn out the same way, often in an unsatisfying mess of repetitive patterns. Attachment Theory was developed by a British psychoanalyst as a way of understanding the ways in which we all develop expectations of others through our relationships with our earliest caregivers. Over time, the theory was expanded as a way of understanding the ways in which those patterns endure into adulthood and how we come to expect similar things from our romantic partners and friends as we learned to expect from our caregivers.

Internal Working Models

These expectations are called Internal Working Models (IWM) and they guide our expectations of others. An example of an internal working model might be that you had a very cold and distant primary caregiver, let’s say it was your mother. From your earliest experiences, that cold, distant mother was your first experience of intimacy and this gets imprinted as the norm inside of you. So you go through life expecting people to be cold and distant and, maybe even feeling distressed about that and trying to find new people who are different, warmer, more empathic, more connected but, each time you try, you seem to end up with a new version of that old story. This can lead to painful and dissatisfying relationships that feel like a skipping record--if you're old enough to know what that is. Tricky thing, however, is that these internal working models are, for the most part, running on a track outside of our awareness, and…sad to say, we tend to pay more attention to things that confirm those expectations than to those that disconfirm them, a process of selective attention. It makes sense, of course, because, if you’ve been hit by a car, you are going to pay a lot more attention to cars than bicycles, even if there is a bicycle coming straight for you.

Attachment and Adult Relationships

It is only more recently that we have started to think about how those early relationships form an imprint inside of us for the kinds of attachments we may have in adulthood. Even more recently, we have started to think about couple relationships as a form of attachment and that, in fact, the emotional bond in adult romantic relationships serves a similar function to that of the infant caregiver bond, providing a safe base for comfort, security, and exploration out in the big wide world.

Anxiety and Avoidance

Researchers looking at adult attachments in couple relationships have identified two dimensions that can help us understand how we orient ourselves towards others. One dimension is the Self, which can also be conceptualized as Anxiety. The other dimension is the Other, which can also be conceptualized as Avoidance. Different combinations of these levels of Self/Anxiety, Other/Avoidance, result in different adult attachment styles. For instance, for someone who has had a “good enough” childhood with fairly reliable responsiveness from their caregivers and pretty consistent love and care, they would likely develop a secure attachment style. They likely would feel that they are worthy of being loved and cared for (positive view of self) and not feel worried about others (low anxiety). They would also likely feel that others are pretty reliable and that they could be counted on (positive view of other) and they wouldn’t feel afraid of connecting with others and getting close to intimate partners (low avoidance). In future blogs we will look at three other attachment styles, Fearful Avoidant, Dismissing Avoidant and Preoccupied but today we are going to focus on Secure attachment and, in this farmyard, there are a few securely attachment animals among the rescues and the strays. However, for today, we will focus on Trissa the Icelandic horse who is, coincidentally, gazing at me with her big brown eyes and long eyelashes over her stall door, as I write. Trissa is about to go into labour so I have set up office in the barn for the duration.

Secure Attachment

The primary characteristic of the securely attached person is their ability to turn to others to help them with their needs and emotional pain. Remember, they have a positive view of themselves as lovable and worthy of help, and a positive view of others as helpful and available. A securely attached person is one who is low on avoidance or, someone who is not afraid of getting close to others, and low on anxiety or, not fearful that others will let them down when they need them. A person who is securely attached likely had the developmental experiences of being responded to when they were in distress. In their earliest experiences they would have gotten the message that their distress was important and that others are reliable and safe responders and helpers. In adulthood, this translates into feeling that their feelings are valid and valuable, that others will likely respond to them when they are in need of them, and that it makes sense to turn to others. In short, strong feelings and painful experiences can be helped by turning to other humans.

When a securely attached person or couple comes into therapy, it is likely because they have had an experience that was overwhelming and highly distressing. A securely attached person or couple brings very specific concerns and issues into therapy, makes use of the therapist as a resource and uses the therapeutic experience to re-regulate themselves and their relationship back to a state of wellness, cohesion and stability.

Trauma and Secure Attachment

When it comes to trauma and the securely attached person, it is likely that if the traumas a person experienced were in childhood, that child was able to seek help for their traumatic feelings, memories and ongoing fears, to receive the support of a caregiver, therapist, and other safe people in their surroundings and to recover well. It isn’t as though the trauma didn’t happen and it isn’t as though that child wasn’t impacted, it’s more that the response they experienced was healing, helpful, and sent the message to the child that they are important and their distress is worthy of a serious response. If a securely attached child experiences a major trauma in relation to an attachment figure, such as the death of a parent or abuse by a parent, and they do not feel supported, safe, and secure in the response, this child may lose their feelings of safety and security and no longer experience the world as a place where they can safely turn to others in their distress.

When trauma is experienced by a securely attached person in adulthood, similarly, this person is likely to turn to their people, their partner, family, friends and other helpers such as therapists and healthcare providers, to seek out the help that they need. They do not avoid their distress, they do not shirk away from closeness to others and they believe that their healing is important and necessary. So, again, it’s not as though they didn’t experience something horrible but, what they were able to do was experience themselves as worthy of care and turn towards the people, places, and resources that can help and heal.

Trissa the Icelandic Horse—Secure Attachment in the Farmyard

If we look to the farmyard, Trissa the Icelandic Horse provides us with endless examples of what secure attachment looks like.

After I bought the farm—literally, not figuratively, I decided it was time to find myself some securely attached horsies (will review the reasons for only buying securely attached, untraumatized, animals when considering sitting on their backs and riding around in the woods, in the Fearful Avoidant post coming your way soon). I made the decision to buy an Icelandic horse because there are no predators for horses in Iceland, which means that deep in their DNA there is no-RunRunRun-response to problems, it is more like—hmmm, that’s an interesting problem, let me think about that. As someone with some musculoskeletal abnormalities and mobility issues, I needed a horse that wouldn’t take off on me and try to leave me behind the next tree if they were worried about something.

After a long search, I found Trissa. Trissa exemplifies all things securely attached. She was born on an Icelandic Horse breeding farm in British Columbia to breeders who care very much about their horses and who take a loving and positive reinforcement approach to training. At the age of one, Trissa was brought to Nova Scotia with her friend Sina and there she stayed for the next nine years, with a caregiver who was gentle, loving, kind, responsive, and whose goal was to train her for riding in positive and gentle ways. Mostly, she stood in a field eating grass and was loved up each day by her person. This woman’s husband retired and she developed fairly severe arthritis and, with a heavy heart, she decided it was time to find Trissa and Sina a new home. So, Trissa’s earliest experiences of relationships built her expectations that humans were pretty great and she was also pretty great and life could be pretty darned great. She approaches all of her relationships with the belief that she is loveable and worthy of care and that others will help her and care for her when she needs them.

When Trissa came to me, while she was wary, she was also interested, curious, thoughtful and smart. Like a securely attached person, she doesn’t just dive in to new relationships willy nilly but took her time to get to know me and to find out if I was a safe and trustable caregiver; securely attached persons don’t trust without merit, it’s simply that they are wired in the direction of trust. Within a short time, she had realized that I was the person who held the key to the cookie jar and she followed me wherever I went.

Now, secure attachment isn’t the same thing as well behaved and while Trissa definitely had a positive view of herself and others and low avoidance and anxiety, she was also of the opinion that she should be allowed to do what she wanted, when she wanted. She had been loved and limits had been set but she had not been ridden regularly and wasn’t sure she really wanted that to be a part of her life. Again, a fearful avoidant horse would have just chucked me onto the ground, Trissa stood still, unmoving, and looked at me with a —really, why should we do this, I was having so much fun in the pasture?-- look in her eye.

Love and attachment are in my skillset but horse training are not, so off she went for some training and education. Because she is oriented towards secure attachment, she quickly connected with the trainer, learned about how to be safer with a handler, and to be ridden consistently and safely. Because Trissa is not afraid of the world, herself, or the people in it, instead of being afraid when challenged, she gets perky, curious, interested, happy, and excited—you’ll recognize her as the horse on the trails that has her ears forward, her nose pointed towards new things and who is walking with confidence and curiosity—unless there is a butterfly, then, well, all bets are off.

What if I’m not Securely Attached?

Make friends with securely attached people, you will like yourself more and maybe a little of that security will rub off on you. Securely attached people also bring out the best in others. They selectively attend to the goodness, trustworthiness and empathy of others, reinforcing those ways of being together and building up a strong foundation of trust and care in relationships.

In therapy, we work towards the development of something called earned security. While those internal working models tend to be pretty consistent and stable across our lives, they can change. Being in relationships with people who are responsive, empathic, trustworthy, and who genuinely care for us, can help us build a different kind of security in attachment, the kind that is earned, with that person, in that relationship. While we might still default to the old style of relating to others during times of stress, we will be able to turn to that person to feel safe and secure.

Learn More!

If you would like to learn more about your own attachment style, there is a researcher who runs an online research programme evaluating one of the major assessment tools for adult attachment. You can take the test online and learn more about your own attachment from the feedback provided at the end of the test.

Come back next week and we’ll look at Preoccupied attachment and Bear the Great Pyrenees Livestock Guardian Dog.

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