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  • Heather B MacIntosh PhD

Attachment Theory 101: Lessons from the Farmyard Instalment Two

Freyja the Icelandic foal—Preoccupied Attachment in a new herd

The Pandemic and Attachment

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world. For those of us working in the mental health field, it’s been an all hands-on decks kind of time. For couples and families living the pandemic in their homes—work, school, life, and love, all bundled into one small space—it has been a time of high stress, zoom fatigue, resurfacing old conflicts, triggered traumas and, for many, a time of richness in connections with that small bubble that is the world inside the home. For others, it has been a time of immense isolation and loneliness. There is certainly no one formula for how the pandemic has affected folks and, for how to manage the stressors and strains that have come along with it.

At times of stress, strain, and global crises, the attachment system is more likely to be turned on to high volume. If one tends to the anxious in relationships, for many, that anxiety has been ramped up, even, and perhaps especially, in the context of close proximity to partners and children. For those who are not bubbling with their significant ones or, who do not have a partner(s) or (chosen) close family, that anxiety can become quite overwhelming and trigger deep feelings of fear and desperation for closeness, often based on experiences of absent or conditional caregivers who made one feel that they were not quite good enough to be loved. For those who tend towards the avoidant (look away, please), the close quarters of living and working and loving all in the same space, with few options for field trips to the big ol’ world, can be exhausting, overwhelming, and triggering of traumas of intrusive caregivers or other relational experiences that made avoiding a very wise and reasonable strategy for attachment.

Preoccupied Attachment Style

In this post, we are going to talk about the Preoccupied Attachment style (for a review of

Attachment Theory take a look at the first blog in this series). For someone whose approach to relationships is Preoccupied, the internal working model is one that says, “I am not good enough or worthy of love” and, “others are to be longed for and desired but can never be fully mine”. For someone with a Preoccupied style of connecting with others in their lives, there is a lot of anxiety in relating and not a lot of avoidance of connection. Attachment relationships can feel desperate and terrifying for the person with this strategy for relating. A person whose strategy for seeking attachments is Preoccupied will also find it very hard to feel calm, safe, and settled in relationships—as though there is always a risk that the person they seek might find out the truth that they are not worthy of love. Not surprisingly, the relationship between Preoccupied and Avoidant partners is the most common couple combo we see in couple therapy.

Freyja the Icelandic foal—Preoccupied Attachment in a new herd

There have been many changes in the herd at MerryMac Farm over the 18 months of pandemic life. As you may remember, from the first blog in this series on attachment, Trissa, our Icelandic mare, was preparing to give birth. Her foal, Fjóla, was born on June 15, 2020 and is a ray of Secure Attachment sunshine. Tragically, however, this past summer, Trissa died and left Fjóla on her own with a herd full of cranky old geldings—and Titan the mini--. We felt we needed to find another filly (the word for a girl horse baby) to be with Fjóla, to play and grow with. As if by universal design, Fjóla’s half-sister, Freyja, became available the day after Trissa died. It seemed like a perfect opportunity for us to bring them together as siblings to play and grow. Freyja is three weeks younger than Fjóla, they share a father, Hrokur, and they are similar in size, shape, temperament, and appearance. The major difference, between Fjóla and Freyja, is the difference between Secure and Preoccupied.

Attachment security grows from consistent and reliable caregivers who send us the message that we matter and that our distress is important, worthy of a helpful response, and that they will be there for us when we need them. So often this is not the experience of infants and young children—or even horses. While Fjóla has lived in the same fields, with the same horses, and the same caregivers, her whole life, Freyja has been moved around a few times, had different caregivers, left her mother at a young age, and then left her “adopted” mom, when she came to us. Additionally, Freyja lived a lot of her young foal life in small spaces with little contact with others, human or animal. Freyja sends the message that she feels that others are very much to be desired as she calls out to me for contact, and as she tries, again and again, to convince Hnaggur—a very cranky old gelding, to be sure—that she is a foal worthy of connecting. It can be heartbreaking watching her spin around in circles trying to remain in contact with the other horses, even those who aren’t so keen on being in contact with her.

Recently, as I was bringing each horse in to the barn, one by one, for a bit of one-on-one grooming, feeding, and generally checking in, before the farrier arrived (farriers are the folks who do horsey pedicures every six weeks—yes, I know, I get a pedicure once every ten years!), I made the error of leaving Freyja to the end. All of the other horses were now in their stalls, after their grooming and chat with me, and Freyja was inconsolable. As I went back to the paddock, to get her, she was running around the paddock, slipping on the mud and sliding around, calling out to her pals, eyes wide open, head shaking, and, clearly, terrified. She charged at the gate, cried out, leapt up over the gate, and launched herself out of the paddock, bringing a lot of fencing—that I spent the next day repairing—with her. As any wise horse owner knows, those are not the moments to get in the way, try to stop what is happening from happening, or to discipline the horse, you and the horse will probably just end up injured. In this moment, Freyja, like others who experience Preoccupation in their attachments, flew into the Flight mode of the fight, flight, flee, phenomenon, and, in that moment, she was not thinking, hmmm, I think if I jump this fence, I’ll find my friends. In that moment, she wasn’t thinking, she was in terror, high arousal, and complete Flight mode—escaping that paddock was a matter of survival.

Once out of the paddock, Freyja took a bite of the deep green, juicy, marvellous grass, just outside the gate, and then, galloped at full speed into the barn, wherein she found her herd-mates, and settled quietly to eat a bale of hay that happened to be open on a bench. Once she had regained contact with her herd, she returned to her sweet, calm, gentle self, she shifted out of survival mode and into grazing and communing with her pals. While she was out of contact with her herd, even though she knew where they were, and they were calling back and forth from paddock to barn, she was completely dysregulated, terrified, and no longer able to know or follow the basic rules of farm life—like, don’t jump over the gate and rip out the electric fence because Heather doesn’t like spending a day repairing fences--.

This is an apt example of what happens to someone whose strategy for self regulation relies on contact with attachment figures, whether those are partners, family members, or caregivers. That self regulation can feel so fragile and so dependent on being in close proximity, feeling safe and loved, feeling responded to by a partner, friend or close one, and when it “fails”, everything can fall apart, like Freyja running through a gate in wide-eyed terror.

The moral of the story, of course, is that it is vital that caregivers be reliable, consistent, empathic, and available. But…what about the Freyjas of the world, can anything be done to help settle and sooth the Preoccupied soul so that as life moves along, it becomes possible to feel safe, sane, and settled without seeking proximity, at least so fearfully, and anxiously? Well, yes, back to the idea of the Earned Secure attachment. Freyja has been at MerryMac Farm for just over two months and I don’t believe we would have a repeat of that incident now. Freyja has been integrated into the herd, she has Patti and Titan, Fjóla and, even, sometimes, cranky old Hnaggur, to comfort her when she is distressed, hungry, tired, or needing contact. Just yesterday, in a stressful moment, I looked out into the paddock and there she was, her muzzle nestled into Patti’s side, Patti sheltering her from the loud machinery coming by, calm and soothed. My partner and I are reliable, responsive, consistent, and available. She never goes hungry, when she cries someone comes to check out what is going on, she is praised and scratched in all the places she loves being scratched, and, yes, when she pushes through the “rules” of being a horse, she is disciplined in loving and gentle ways, to guide her towards growing into the best version of secure horseyness possible. Over these past two months, she has adjusted and grown, learned and changed, and is becoming less anxious, fearful, and, yes, Preoccupied. She no longer gallops up to me, head shaking and afraid, when I enter the paddock. Now she sidles up slowly, says hello, checks for a treat, and, wanders away to play with Fjóla or Titan. She is growing into an Earned Secure horse and, with that, she stands taller, more confident, and runs and plays without keeping an ear and an eye on the others, making sure they are still there.

We can all find places, spaces, and loves, with whom to become our Earned Secure selves. That security, built over time, with reliable, consistent and compassionate others, allows us to love, play, relate, and, find comfort in our people but, not, in desperation. We also learn to also be able to be okay on our own, to enjoy the quiet spaces of life where reflection and curiosity take us when we are not living vigilance for abandonment loss.

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