Attachment styles and why they matter to your couples therapy practice

Little Betty loved her parents. And while they loved her, too, they didn’t seem to have time for her. They were always rushing. They were always running out the door.

Betty learned to get their attention. But she had to tug on their clothing, wrap her arms around their legs or cry.

Betty’s parents didn’t like that clingy behavior. Spare the rod, spoil the child, they said.

From cradle to grave, we all need to feel securely attached to those we love.

When natural attachments don’t form during childhood, that deficit can cause big problems later in life. When couples come to me with problems in their relationships, often attachment issues are to blame.

British psychiatrist John Bowlby, known for his pioneering work in attachment theory, said infants and toddlers need strong bonds with adult caregivers and a safe base from which to explore.

Doctors Phillip Shaver and Cindy Hazan took the research a step further — they made the connection between children who grew up with stunted attachments and adult relationship problems.

Today it’s widely understood that many of the topics couples wrestle with in therapists’ offices— the definitions of intimacy and closeness, responses to conflict, feelings, and behavior around sex, ability to communicate wishes and needs, partner expectations — all have to do with their own attachment styles.

If you can recognize your clients’ attachment styles, you can bring awareness and help them make adjustments.

Here are the big four attachment styles:

1. Secure.

Jack and Carol are so secure with each other that they encourage each other’s interests. Carol is not jealous or possessive when Jack plays golf with his buddies. Jack encourages Carol to have a night out with her women friends. But Jack and Carol are best friends as well as lovers. In times of trouble, they go to each other for comfort.

This is the type of relationship successful couples want and you can help them achieve.

2. Anxious, preoccupied.

Betty gets insecure and scared that Todd is going to leave her. She constantly looks to Todd for reassurance. And she gets demanding, he pulls away. “See?” Betty thinks. “Todd doesn’t love me.”

3. Dismissive, avoidant.

Rick and Nancy are fighting all the time. The problem is that Rick is emotionally distant. When Nancy tries to help him or ask why he shuts her out, he refuses to say. He’s like a brick wall. When Nancy gets so frustrated that she threatens to leave, Rick says, “I don’t care.”

4. Fearful, avoidant.

Mary is a bundle of contradictions — a mix of Betty and Rick. She looks to her new boyfriend, Rad, for emotional and physical intimacy, but she’s afraid of getting too close. She tries to control her ambivalence, her neediness, and emotional distance, but she can’t. She is full of fear.

The good news is that in couples therapy you can help clients with attachment issues improve.

The key is to help your clients look clearly at both their strengths and vulnerabilities.

Therapist Sue Johnson, who developed EFT or emotionally focused therapy, suggests that clients look at the patterns that cause friction and stress, discuss them, then work on making the needed adjustments.

As I also tell my clients, identify the negative dance. Understand the coping mechanisms — the screaming, nagging and stonewalling — that are certainly understandable but also destructive.

Instead, encourage your clients to seek closeness. Help them learn and practice being reliable, consistent, and available. There’s a good chance partners will help each other and follow each other’s lead.

To learn more how to integrate attachment theory in your work with couples, please read more about our upcoming Externship in Emotionally Focused Therapy.

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