I’ve talked a little bit before about how going to counseling was a huge part of why my marriage has survived and thrived. The counselor that we have seen uses a method called emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). This method focuses on identifying our attachment patterns that were formed in childhood, understanding what is healthy and/or unhealthy about those patterns, discussing how those patterns affect our relationship, and creating new healthier patterns that create intimacy, trust, and effective communication.
What are Attachment Patterns?
The first step in learning new ways to communicate and interact with each other was to identify our own attachment patterns. These patterns are formed in infancy and early childhood. Our counselor told us that most people’s sense of attachment is pretty much set in the first 18 months of life! Whether or not a child has a secure attachment with a primary caregiver can affect their mental health in terms of anxiety, depression, confidence, self-esteem, and more.
The child/caregiver attachment has been studied pretty extensively, but it wasn’t until the mid 1980’s that psychologist began studying how these attachments continued to affect a person’s life through adulthood and into romantic relationships. What they found was that the attachment style that was created in childhood carries into romantic relationships and can help and/or hinder the formation of a healthy relationship. There are four main attachment styles: secure, pre-occupied, dismissing avoidant, and fearful avoidant.
The Four Main Attachment Types
As with any other form of classification people rarely fall entirely into only one specific category. Kelly Brennan, when researching this topic, observed that there were two main factors affecting adult attachment patterns. These factors are attachment related avoidance and anxiety. People can have high or low avoidance and high or low anxiety. Those who are low on both will have secure attachments while those who are high on either one or both will struggle with emotional attachments in relationships. Here is a quiz you can take to identify where you are on the scale.
An adults levels of anxiety or avoidance in marriage are a direct reflection of the type of primary caregiver they had. The fact is that not all mothers and other primary caregivers provide a loving secure place for children to safely bond. Some are excessively overprotective and anxious themselves. Others are cold or detached and unemotional. Then there are those who create an environment of utter chaos where they constantly bounce from loving and attentive to cold or even abusive. As the anxious caregiver seeks to protect and stop their child from taking risks they are then creating this same anxiety within their child. The child grows clingy and the relationship becomes unhealthy interdependent. As an adult this person will be in the preoccupied quadrant of attachment. They will be very needy and demanding of their partner. They will constantly be questioning their partner’s love for them if the partner are not equally enmeshed in the relationship. They will often see problems that don’t exist and demand constant attention and exclusive focus from their partner. These are usually codependant people. The preoccupied partner is so demanding of love that it is practically impossible to fulfill their needs.
When a caregiver is cold or emotionally unavailable then a child tends to retreat inwards. On the surface they may seem like a healthy child. They play independently, they don’t cry when separated from their caregiver. They are quiet and rarely cause trouble. Underneath the surface, however, they are wondering am I lovable? They have low self-esteem and a poor self-image. They often become rebellious and have few friendships. In marriage this person falls into the Dismissive quadrant. They may claim that they are happier alone, and that they don’t need relationships. They don’t show their feelings and are very independent. Just as the child under the surface craved a relationship with their caregiver this dismissive adult also craves a healthy romantic relationship.
The worst attachment scenario for an infant is a caregiver who is completely unpredictable. One moment they are loving and attentive and the next they are dismissive or even abusive. The child never knows what to expect. They are in a constant state of chaos. This chaos causes them to be unpredictable, disoriented and lack the ability to create problem solving strategies. This child becomes the adult in the Fearful quadrant. They are constantly vacillating between pulling their partner close and then pushing them away. “I love you, but I am afraid. Be there for me, no wait too close, this is scary, get away!” Because of the chaos in their childhood they expect, and often create, that same chaos in their romantic relationships.
To make things even more confusing most children have more than one caregiver. As they experience different attachment styles with each they develop different thoughts and behaviors about attachment. In addition how a child perceives a caregiver may not be accurate. For example a father who works two jobs to provide for his family may be viewed by the child as cold or absent when he is simply doing the best he can, is completely exhausted, and desperately desires to have more time with his family.
In their romantic relationships most people are predominantly on one category, but can still jump around in different situations due to their attachments with different caregivers. While we may have a mainly secure attachment if our partner takes an action that reminds us of our chaotic grandmother or cold babysitter we may jump into an unhealthy mindset and react poorly to the situation.
What Does an EFT Therapy Session Look Like?
First we identified where we each primarily fell on the scale and why. Who or what in our past caused those attachment issues that we experienced. We then discussed how they appeared in our relationship. Our counselor asked us to think about a specific issue that would bring out the worst in our relationship/communication. She then helped us to work through that issue. She would ask each of us to talk about how we felt about the issue and why we felt that way. She would help us identify how the way we had approached the issue in the past may have exacerbated the issue rather than fixing it. Once we had really gotten to the root of an issue she would have us turn to each other, make eye contact, and tell the other person how we felt. This was not a time to throw accusations. This was a time to let down the walls and truly communicate “I feel…” She would then ask the partner to respond with how they feel about what you said.
Here is an example. Sunday mornings have been a source of stress for our entire marriage. I would take on the lions share of getting everyone ready for church and out the door on time while my husband would sleep in, take care of only himself, eat the breakfast I had prepared, then mosey out the door ten minutes late. On the mornings where he did get up earlier he usually chose to just get ready slower, take a longer shower, or read his scriptures rather than assisting me. We very rarely walked in the door to church on time and often were at least 15 minutes late. The more children we had the more responsibility fell on my head and the more resentful I became. As we discussed it we were able to realize a few important things.
First was that being late did not bother my husband in the least. I feel that walking in late, especially with a large family, distracts others, draws unwanted attention to myself, and is disrespectful. I felt like I was being rude and therefore judged by others when we were late. It caused a large amount of anxiety and guilt for me. As my husband was able to hear and understand why lateness was such a big deal to me he was happy to agree that being on time was an important goal for our family. I then in tears was able to finally break down and tell my husband how Sunday mornings were leaving me feeling abandoned and alone and therefore unloved. As I worked hard while he relaxed I was building up this picture in my mind of him not caring and taking advantage of me. He was surprised to realize that this struggle had caused these feelings in my mind. He knew that Sundays were often an unpleasant morning, but he had no clue that the dynamic was causing such deep emotional wounds for me. You see–I hadn’t ever told him. I had occasionally asked for help with a specific task on a specific day, but I had never once opened up and told him how important it was to me for him to be there fully supporting me. He thought all of the stress and anxiety was simply related to being late. I was afraid to communicate and ask for his support consistently because I feared rejection. If he rejected me, then those feelings of being unloved and unappreciated would have grown even larger. Rather than risk rejection I just stuffed my feelings and quietly built up a large mountain of resentments. He had simply been content to let me carry on doing what I seemed to do with ease and gratefully enjoy a day of rest after working hard all week.
Contrary to what I had built up in my mind my husband loves me deeply and wants to be there for me, he just had no clue that I needed him in that moment. I had carried on so capably managing everything, always making it look easy, that he really didn’t even know that I needed his help and involvement EVERY week. He was happy to pitch in once he understood my needs. He actively helped me come up with strategies to reduce the Sunday morning workload as well as become an active participant in getting everyone ready. Now every Sunday I am met with his question “What can I do to help?” or “Does Wally have clothes set out yet?” In fact I’ve even been able to write a blog post about successful Sunday morning routines thanks to what we developed in counseling!
Can’t We Just Do This on Our Own?
In short the answer is no. If you are having problems, you need help. The earlier the better. We don’t hesitate to seek out a specialist to care for our medical needs and we shouldn’t hesitate to seek out a professional for our emotional needs either. Families are the building block of society. They are worth fighting for with whatever tools we have available, and marriage counseling, especially using the EFT method, is one of the most effective tools out there. “When couples turn to EFT, 90 percent of them report significant improvements in their relationship. Between 70 and 75 percent of couples who are in distress are able to move into recovery using EFT.” (Does Marriage Counseling Work?)
We did make some pretty awesome and drastic improvements in our communication and intimacy simply by putting our minds to it. There are things that have been brought to our awareness in counseling, however, that we would never have realized on our own. If we did manage to discover them it wouldn’t have been for years down the road. By simply identifying our own attachment styles as well as the ways we acted in another style we were already light years ahead of where we were on our own. In addition, our counselor’s office became a safe zone where we could really open up and dig deep. We had a third-party there to help translate when the communication styles we both have became a barrier to understanding. Having a loving counselor guide us through the process made us both dig deeper into the emotional hurt beyond the surface anger or frustration. She not only pushed us to walk down the road of self exploration, but she took our hands and walked down that road with us.
My husband and I both agree that even presently healthy relationships can benefit by a few sessions with a good counselor. The fact is that we all come from different backgrounds. We have different ways of thinking, communicating, and attaching. At times, even in the best of relationships, it can feel like one partner is speaking Latin while the other is speaking Greek, and there is no one around to translate. The counselor can help bridge that gap and get us both the translation dictionaries that we need. If your relationship is not healthy, a good counselor is absolutely essential.
Very few of us have been taught the necessary skills to truly communicate and create a healthy relationship. Most often, the role models and authority figures in our lives we naturally emulate have weakness and ills in their own relationships. Following the examples we have looked up to in the past may actually be holding us back from achieving the fulfilling relationships we all deeply desire. If this is the case, we have no idea how to have a truly healthy relationship because we haven’t seen them. I can’t think of a single example in the media of a truly healthy romantic dynamic. Those good examples we do see in real life we can’t emulate because we don’t understand the inner workings of their relationship. We need a loving and experienced third-party to help us navigate the creation of healthy secure intimacy.
If you want to read more on this topic here are a few great articles:
Have you been through Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples? What was your experience? Do you know your attachment style? Does understanding attachment styles help you begin to understand some of the negative patterns that may exist in your own relationships?