The attachment invasion

The attachment invasion

"We’ve reduced adults to infants, reduced infants to a frail ghost of their resilience, and reduced marriage to providing safety, security, and compensation for childhood disappointments. In other words, we’ve eliminated from marriage those things that fuel our essential drives for autonomy and freedom. Common notions of interdependence emphasize our neediness but not our strengths."

Schnarch (Kindle 757)

It is fascinating to see how out of a marginal and not widely accepted theory, a theory about which even Winnicott said he couldn't understand why it provoked in him such opposition (Bretherton, 1991, p. 20), the Attachment theory has turned into a most crucial paradigm in the way therapists think today, not only in psychoanalytic schools of thought, but also in most approaches which, at least apparently, seemed light years away from it. And not only in treating babies and children, where implementing it makes a lot of sense, but mainly in treating adults in general and in couple therapy in particular (Simmons in Gurman 2008. Kindle).

In its first years, the Attachment theory dealt with disorders in bonding between mother and baby and with the style of attachment a baby develops as result of these disorders. In the last two decades, the Attachment theory and research expanded vastly and startedto include observation of attachment styles between adults in general and between partners in particular.

Gradually, a paradigm that must not ever be challenged, became entrenched among many couple therapists, a paradigm which, even if you have never ever read an article on the Attachment theory, you must certainly already believe in, just by being present in the predominant media world. The basic assumptions of this paradigm are: 1. most adults experienced considerable deficiencies in love, trust and connection in their childhood, 2. the problems that partners experience in the present originate from these deprivations, and 3. the solution to those problems is creating secure attachment between the partners today. The evidence that shows that most adults experienced significant deprivations in love, trust and connection is, of course, the very fact itself that most partners do experience difficulties in intimacy. The circle is closed and there is no way out of it.

This "truth" sounds so self-evident that almost nobody argues with it any more. But I would like to tell you a short story here, and with it pose a question. In my backyard live two adult male cats, which we feed. Every day, at the time of feeding, a female cat appears there too. She comes up to the males, rubs against them, makes pleasant sounds, and they let her get to the food. The female cat is pregnant. Maybe from one of the males or maybe from both, or from neither. But they, of course, cannot know. After eating, the three of them sometimes go on rubbing against each other happily, until the time comes that the female apparently has had enough, and then she bares her teeth, smacks one of the males on the head quite forcefully, and each of them goes on its way. Until the next time.

I would like to ask you: if you wanted to investigate the female cat's behavior and if you wanted to understand thoroughly why her desire to rub herself against the males turns suddenly into violence, what research questions would you ask?  What information would you look for? And where would you look for them?

The cause for the female cat's unstable behavior can probably be found in one of the following explanations:

  1. It is a reaction to a certain behavior of the male cats
  2. This is her way of letting them know to "forget about sex"
  3. It is a hormonal response having to do with her being pregnant
  4. This is how she invites the males to fight for her
  5. It is a battle for control…

And there must be several more possible explanations. I guess most of you would not, at least as a first option, look for the cause of the cat's behavior in her insecure attachment pattern in her relationship with her mother. Right?

Why then would that be the first option for an explanation if we came across a similar story in the case of human partners?  Why has the search for an explanation originating in infancy become so widely accepted among couple therapists?

The Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) approach is probably the best-known among the attachment based therapy approaches. I am going to use mainly quotations from this approach in order to illustrate the huge gap between the differentiation based therapy and attachment based theories.

Healthy relationships, according to the Emotionally Focused Therapy, are relationships based on secure attachment. That is also the goal of the therapy.

"Such a bond is characterized by mutual emotional accessibility and responsiveness. This bond creates a safe environment that optimizes partners’ ability to regulate their emotions, process information, solve problems, resolve differences, and communicate clearly."

Gurman, Alan S. (2008-06-24). Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy, Fourth Edition (p. 112). Guilford Press – A. Kindle Edition.

Accessibility means being available emotionally and physically when the partner is distressed. Responsiveness relates to the willingness to react to the partner's needs and desires. When one of the partners is not accessible or not responsive to the psycho-physical needs of the other, the result may be insecure attachment.

In other words, problems between partners are defined as a result of essential deprivations in the infant's connection with its parents, its mother, which are replicated in the present relationship. Insecure attachment in childhood becomes insecure attachment in between the partners. A problematic relationship in a couple is a relationship that does not allow secure attachment, and secure attachment becomes the goal of the therap

But do we really need this explanation, which relates the present difficulties between partners to past traumas and deprivations? Is this explanation satisfactory? And is this the most effective explanation in our work as therapists?

Let’s take a representative case: Galia and Tomer are a couple in therapy in their 50's. They have been married for about twenty years. She was the love of his life already back in high school, but at that time she refused to be his partner, and agreed only many years later. Galia is a music teacher working from home. Because of her poor health, she does not work much these days. Tomer works as an engineer at a remote and isolated location. For two weeks at a time, he stays at the place where he works, which he detests, and then returns home for two weeks' off work.

When Tomer comes home, he likes to keep busy renovating the house, which he built with his own hands. He also loves talking to Galia and telling her about the interesting things he has read about in magazines and books. He is interested in technical things, such as interesting machines and inventions, as well as in spiritual and psychological topics. Tomer complains that Galia is simply not interested in listening to him. Galia claims that she doesn't like him quoting other people's ideas. She does very much want to talk to him, but she wants him to share his own thoughts about what he has read and not only the ideas from his reading. She feels bored by that. Tomer feels deeply hurt. He withdraws and falls silent when Galia is not willing to listen to him.

We could undoubtedly explain both partners' behavior and reactions by delving into the attachment deficiencies in their childhoods. An attachment based approach would encourage them to discover the connections between the emotions awakened between them in the present and the past experiences that supposedly created them. Afterwards, the attachment based couple therapy would help the partners to develop secure attachment between them, which would include listening to each other, often by repeating or reflecting what the other partner said and a covert, or overt, promise to always remain emotionally responsive and accessible to each other, especially at times of distress.

But is this the only explanation to what goes on between the partners, and is it actually a good explanation at all in terms of its being useful and effective?

I asked Tomer why it was so important for him that Galia should listen to him. He said he had always valued her opinions very highly and he wanted to hear what she thought about things. Galia burst out, "What are you talking about? You don’t appreciate what I have to say at all! You hardly listen to me at all!"

When I look at Tomer and Galia sitting on the sofa, Tomer looks much shorter that Galia, but objectively speaking, he is actually taller than Galia. The way they are sitting, Tomer looks up to Galia, asking for her approval to everything he says. After every sentence he utters, he glances at her and waits for her to react. Galia sits partly turning her back away from him, as if thinking to herself. She won’t give Tomer the approval he seeks.

When I look at Tomer and Galia, I can see that Tomer puts Galia above himself. He turns her into the authority of his life. Just like in the (Israeli?) children’s song about the prettiest girl in the kindergarten, “when she smiles, I smile too, and when she is sad, I don’t understand how you can be sad when you’re the prettiest girl in the kindergarten.” Tomer is completely under the influence of Galia’s moods, especially of the degree of her satisfaction with him. When she is not pleased with him, he feels devastated.

From my experience, I already know that, in general, when one partner turns the other into an authority, he also has to rebel against this authority in some way. Therefore, I was not surprised when Galia said that in her opinion Tomer didn’t listen to her at all. Tomer has to take Galia off the high pedestal where he put her, and when she gives him advice, he has to reject it.

It is also important to understand Galia’s lack of enthusiasm for Tomer’s ideas, not only as an expression of her personal preference, but also as a move in their mutual powerstruggle for intimacy and attention. Should Galia show enthusiasm for what Tomer says and appreciation for his sharing something of himself, it would oblige her, as she sees it, to also share something of herself. To give something in return. When Galia minimizes the importance of what Tomer shares by claiming that it is too general and not personal enough, she is defending herself against exposure and against having to reciprocate.

In order to work with the couple, I already possess quite a lot of information. Through this information, I can identify patterns of power struggle and avoidance of intimacy that both partners exercise on each other. I understand the behavior of one of them as a reaction to the other’s behavior. I don’t need additional explanations. Now, after I have understood how the relationship between them works, I want to help them change it. And the way to change it is by turning to each of them separately, in the other’s presence, and asking them to take responsibility.

I asked Tomer: Tell me, how did it come about that you turned your wife into a measure of your feeling of self-worth?  Why did you give her so much power? Do you value the things that you read and find interesting? Does what you read touch you? If so, why is it that when your wife is not pleased with it, or she doesn’t find it so exciting, it brings you down? Who has got the yardstick by which you want to measure yourself? Is it right for you to let Galia manage your sense of self-worth?

As for Galia, what I said to her was: I understand that it is very important for you to understand how the things your husband talks about touch him personally. You are not so interested in the content of the things as in what is personal about them. Why, in your opinion, does he have to give you this information? Why do you think he has to suit his style of telling his story so that it should please you? Who finds the personal context interesting, you or him? You, right? Then why does he have to be the one who provides you with this personal information? I believe you when you say that the personal context is very important to you, but when you are listening to him can’t you ask yourself and show interest, curiosity, about what it does to him and how it affects him? Is your curiosity about it, your thinking about the personal context of what he is saying, not enough for you?

Obviously, this manner of therapy is essentially different from the attachment based approach. The attachment based approach relies on the basic assumption that these are partners that can and are supposed to satisfy each other’s  closeness and dependency needs. for closeness/intimacy and dependence. The partners must learn to get closer to each other. They must learn to adjust to each other’s emotions. All that will build, so the theory claims, the possibility for a beneficial and intimate connection between the partners.

The underlying assumptions of differentiation based couple therapy are almost the opposite.

Problems between partners, whether they appear in the form of chronic conflict or as chronic silence, always indicate low differentiation levels. Therapy which helps the partners get closer to each other, before raising the differentiation level, will actually help to perpetuate the low differentiation level, the dependence between the partners, and will ultimately prevent the partners from achieving mature intimacy and passion.

Some assumptions underlying differentiation based therapy:

  • The relationship between the partners is influenced by what happens between them, and not by what is missing or does not happen.
  • The relationship between the partners is influenced more by what happens between them at present, and less by what happened or was lacking in their childhood.
  • Most partners are too close to each other. In other words, they are close in a symbiotic relationship. There is no need whatsoever to help them get closer to each other. They need help to get closer to themselves first.
  • It is impossible not to communicate. Even partners who complain about the lack of communication between them, do communicate. The problem does not lie in communication, but in the fact that one or both of the partners are or are not interested in listening to the communication (which does go through), and would prefer to eliminate it.
  • Compromises and concessions in a relationship are not the solution to the problems the partners experience, but rather, in most cases, constitute the problem itself. When one or both of the partners give up essential things in their lives over time, they become bitter, manipulative and punishing. The distance between the partners is a direct result of too many concessions and compromises.

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