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  • Heather B MacIntosh PhD

Attachment Theory 101: Lessons from the Farmyard Putting it Together

In the last four blog posts we have taken a tour of the farmyard to explore and illustrate four Adult Attachment Styles within the four-factor model of adult attachment. We’ve covered a lot of ground so I thought we should use this blog post to recap, summarize, and ask the question—"what’s it all about Alfie?”

So, looking at our four styles of adult attachment we have:

Trissa, my beloved Secure Icelandic horse who died in August in an accident. She was steady as they come and was pretty clear that she was pretty great and others were pretty great. She was able to make good use of her own internal resources to regulate herself and, could turn to others when she needed support. She built strong and reciprocal relationships with humans and animals and could regulate herself in relation to herself and others.

Freyja the Preoccupied Icelandic foal who thinks others are pretty great but she’s not so sure if she’s okay and worthy of love. So, she can frantically seek proximity to others as she can’t rely on her own internal resources to regulate herself. She longs for connection with others who, she imagines, will help her feel safe, secure, and better about herself.

Hnaggur the Dismissing Avoidant Icelandic gelding who thinks he’s amazing but others, well, hmmm…probably not really worth the time and trouble. Hnaggur does not seek proximity, in fact, he turns inwards and relies on himself when he is in distress as he doesn’t entirely trust that others will be useful to him and, in actuality, others might be unhelpful or even hurtful. But…remember, the Dismissing Avoidant can also be a great pretender as, often, these folks don’t think as highly of themselves as they appear and their bravado may be hiding a deep underbelly of insecurity, anxiety and, a longing for connection that they can’t safely let others see.

Maestro the Fearful Avoidant Standardbred gelding who taught me the important lesson—never ride a traumatized horse--alternated between preoccupation and avoidance—are others okay?, do I want connection? Maybe…and then…wham…get me out of here! The Fearful Avoidant can get caught in the approach-avoid tango—come here, come close—no, go away, run away, which can be overwhelming and confusing to partners and others in our lives. And, remembering that the Fearful Avoidant attachment style is the style most closely associated with a history of trauma and disorganized attachments in childhood.

But—What Does it All Mean?

Much of what it means is that attachment theory is simply a way of understanding our default positions in relation to others and our partners. As a person who started out life as fairly Fearful Avoidant and has evolved—with a lot of therapy and a 25 year marriage—into an Earned Secure person with avoidant “tendencies”, it helps both of us to understand that my default position can be to isolate and distance myself from my partner when in distress. This is because my capacity to regulate my emotional distress is somewhat dependent upon my ability to filter out interpersonal signals so that I can regulate my distress inwardly, the only way that was possible for me, in my development. When life is less stressful or when my partners’ upset is not with me, I am more able to look secure and to engage in co-regulation and stay engaged in the dance of daily attachment.

So, for you, if you find you fall into the Secure style, you are likely able to turn to your partner and others in your life, to find the support you need when you are distressed, to co-regulate with others, and to use resources that you find in your life, to manage the challenges that face us in life.

If you fall into the Preoccupied style it will be important for you to understand that some of your anxiety and pursuit of partners, and others in your life, may be fueled by experiences in your development that sent you the message that you will not get what you need from caregivers and that you should be anxious and fearful about whether people will be there for you. It will be important for you to be active in learning strategies for self-regulation where you can rely on yourself and come to understand yourself as capable, strong, and resilient, in and out of connection with others. Breathing techniques, mindfulness, radical self-compassion and other strategies for building internal regulation can be helpful. Feeling stronger and more resilient within yourself will, ironically, build stronger connections and closeness with your partners and other important persons in your life. If you stop chasing folks, they will, perhaps, stand still and a little closer, so that you can connect with them without fear and anxiety, and find new ways of co-regulating and being close and safe with one another.

If you fall into the Dismissing Avoidant style, (well, it’s certainly possible that you won’t be in here reading this!) perhaps you might find a small window into your vulnerable inner world to reflect upon and explore some of the reasons that connecting with others has become so dangerous and such a bad idea. What are the origins of your belief that other humans are not to be trusted and that you should avoid closeness, sharing, and vulnerability with others? What are the origins of your need to stay tucked up in that tight ball of self-preservation that suggests to the world that you feel pretty good about yourself but, underneath, not so much? I know…therapy might feel pretty yucky and impossible but, sometimes, therapy is a place that you can explore these themes in ourselves without feeling the anxiety and vulnerability of taking the risk to dive into these thoughts, feelings, fears, and developmental experiences with a partner or other person with whom you might hope to build a relationship. Or, take the risk, tell someone how terrified you are, someone who you have seen as a person who is able to hear and hold the vulnerable disclosures of others. Perhaps this is someone in your world who you would like to build a friendship or romantic partnership with and that might be a first foray into being fully yourself and honest with another adult human being.

If you fall into the Fearful Avoidant style, it is likely that you have experienced some of the harder things that life has to offer and, many of those experiences were likely when you were a pretty little human being who really needed to be able to trust and rely on your caregivers to keep you safe. These experiences can leave us dancing the approach-avoid tango, which can leave our partners and others feeling overwhelmed and confused and, us, fearful and alone. This can mean that our most important relationships feel unstable and unsafe. So, what do we do? Who are the people with whom you do feel safe? Are you able to turn to them for support and co-regulation in times of distress? Have you been able to find a therapist who is a safe harbour when things feel overwhelming? The approach-avoid tango will only shift out of chaos and into the capacity to be steady in presence if we can find someone who stays steady as we vacillate in and out, up and down, close and far. Sometimes a therapist is the best person to be that person for us and sometimes we are fortunate enough to find a partner, friends, community, or even animals, who can be that for us. Find your safe haven and secure base and do all you can to breathe yourself into feeling safe enough to not drift too far when things get tough.

Earned Security

What is Earned Security and how can you get some of that good stuff? Earned security is the hard earned capacity to feel safe and secure in one relationship with one person that can be generalized, over time, to the larger world. In essence, over time, as one has a safe enough, steady enough, partner in life, one can learn that that person will be there for you, will respond to your needs, will help you when you are in distress and will weather the storms with you. This precious relationship can be a new template for what it means to be in relationships. Instead of those deeply embedded messages of insecurity that came from developmental experiences with caregivers, a new set of messages, perhaps less embedded but deeply meaningful nonetheless, can create a new set of expectations and beliefs. One can come to believe that one’s partner is safe, reliable, loving, and that one can rely upon them to be there, to respond, and to help you to regulate your distress and deal with the slings and arrows that life has for us all. One can also, over time, come to believe that you are capable, competent, loveable, valuable, and worthy of safe and secure connection.

For Freyja, our exemplar of the Preoccupied style, she is building Earned Security with the herd, over time, as she comes to be loved, accepted and, to learn that she can count on them to be there for her. She and Fjóla, Trissa's foal and Freyja's half sister, are building Earned Security together. Fjóla is finding her feet again after losing her mom, and Freyja is coming into her own after some neglect and malnutrition in her first year. They are learning how to engage in co-regulation--in the horsey world that involves taking care of those pesky bugs and itchy spots on each other, in places they can't reach for themselves--learning how to look out for one another and, even, sometimes, give the other the best spot at the hay bale. Their growing relationship shows us all about how healing from trauma and neglect are possible, slow, sometimes hard, but, possible.

Sounds great, right? The one caveat is that this earned security, being a new normal, slowly creates a very nice, well packed, path, next to the deep rut that is the attachment insecurity that we might bring to a relationship. So, when things are going okay, we can rely on that earned security to be there for us, in our relationships, to help us learn about co-regulation and safety in connection. But, that deeply rutted road of the old insecure style of attachment can grab us by the ankles and pull us in when things are particularly stressful or traumatizing in our lives. In these times, we may resort to the old strategies for self-regulation and find ourselves set adrift from our partners. It is in these moments that our partner may need to throw out a rather thick rope to pull us out of that rut and get us back on the earned secure path and into connection.

Couple therapy can be a place where earned security is built but, couples can also consciously work on developing earned security through being aware of how they prime safety and closeness in their relationship. One of the ways to do this would be through engaging in what are called Attachment Priming Sequences. In layperson language, that would be, how do we signal to our partner that we are a safe person to be attached to? An attachment priming sequence would look like:

Partner A signals their distress (crying, upset, turning to partner with anger or hurt);

Partner B receives that signal, is able to hear it, take it in, not get defensive, and respond;

Partner B responds by offering empathy, understanding, responding to the hurt or anger with openness and curiosity, and extends openness to Partner A. Partner B offers to be a safe base for their partner as they go through whatever the distress is, even if that distress is about them;

Partner A receives the response and is able to take it in, continue to stay connected with their partner, and move back into co-regulation, soothing, and settling, with their partner.

This is no walk in the park—it can take all of our resources to remain undefensive and to respond with empathy, understanding, and soothing, especially when the distress is about us.

Be kind to yourself and to each other as you try out new and scary things but, stick to it. Change is possible and the rewards of feeling safe, secure, close, and connected are well worth all of the hard work!

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