Adult Attachment Part 3: Why Did I Fall For You?
posted: May 15, 2020.
Love is one of the most powerful and compelling themes of human experience, cloaked in mystery and enchanting our imagination with longing and desire. Numerous tomes of literature and poetry, infinite canvases and sculpted creations were dedicated to the pleasures and pains of this illusive human experience. Love has always been the wings of human inspiration and its reign over our hearts has always been as unequivocal and undisputable as the reign of gravity over our bodies.
Although love is a constant presence in our human experience, we nevertheless are often perplexed by the question of - Why do we fall in love? As species, we are fully capable of mating without the complexities of love. However, without the parental investment into rearing of the young, our survival would be impossible. During the first few years of life human infants are extremely vulnerable and fully dependent on their caregivers to meet their needs for food, shelter, physical touch and social belonging. The strength of the bond between us and our parents determines the likelihood of our survival. This was the case at the dawn of humanity and it remains so today.
We call this parent-child bond Primary Attachment. Since the primary attachment is a pre-requisite for our very survival, we have a hard-wired Attachment System responsible for bonding with our caregiver. The Attachment System, when activated, serves as powerful internal alarm, propelling us to re-establish closeness and to secure our connection with our attachment figure. In adulthood this Attachment System is still part of our make-up, however the attachment figures change from being our parents to being our partners.
When we fall in love, our beloved acquires the all-encompassing emotional significance for us, similar to the importance of our parent in infancy. They become the center of our experience and our attachment system is activated when we perceive a threat to the intimate bond we share with our beloved. More specifically, our need for closeness with our partner is a permutation of the primary bonding with our parents. The Attachment System is responsible for our capacity and propensity to become attached. This is the “why” of falling in love. Our need for attachment is hard-wired into the very essence of our being.
This, perhaps, answers the question of “Why” we fall in love, but leaves open the question – “Why did I fall in love with YOU?” Ironically, when we joke with our spouses that we married our father/mother, we are not far from the truth. Our parents are our first and most influential attachment figures. The key traits and qualities of our parents become imprinted in our young mind and associated with our need for closeness and bonding. This inner image of the composite attachment figure is an amalgam of the traits of our primary caregivers. It includes both, their positive nurturing traits (availability, warmth, strength), as well as negative wounding ones (criticism, detachment, coldness). As adults we carry this childhood imprint of the attachment figure in the depths of our psyche, unconsciously using it as a Cinderella’s glass shoe, trying each prospective mate for the best match. The moment we perceive a close match, all bells and whistles go off and we fall head over heals.
For example, consider a child who grew up with an anxious and intrusive parent. The parent flooded the child with their apprehension and suffocated their drive to explore the world by failing to provide a secure base for child’s exploration. This child is likely to grow up associating love and closeness with intrusiveness and limitation, potentially developing an Avoidant attachment style as an adult. If and when this person is ready for an intimate relationship, they are likely to find a partner who exhibits similar anxious and intrusive traits of their parents, since they associate those traits with love and closeness.
As you have probably noticed from this example, an individual with an Avoidant attachment style is likely to be attracted to someone with an Anxious one, and vice versa. Absent and unavailable parents, who withhold closeness and affection, contribute to development of an Anxious attachment style in their children. The anxious and intrusive parents are likely to contribute to child developing an Avoidant attachment style. For Anxious and Avoidant attachment styles, mates exhibiting the opposite style are particularly appealing for one simple reason: They embody familiar traits of their respective caregivers.
The cycle can continue through generations. However, our adult attachment style is not our destiny. We are able to consciously and intentionally change our behavior in intimate relationship. For each attachment style the work is different. Securely attached individuals can use some of the ideas below to optimize their relationship behaviors even further. Anxious folks are tasked with learning the skill of Effective Communication to express their concerns and needs directly, rather than acting them out through tantrum-like behaviors. The Avoidants are invited to identify the distancing strategies they use to establish safe distance in the relationship and to learn how to increase closeness while maintaining inner equilibrium. Let’s get started!
Effective communication 101 for Anxious Attachment Style:
Folks with Anxious style have the most to gain out of this work since their often frustrated craving for intimacy causes them intense suffering. The essence of the work is moving from the insecure “Does s/he like me?” to secure “Can s/he give me what I need in intimate relationship?” Understanding the nature and qualities of our personal attachment style and the attachment style of our mate are the keys to answering this question.
Additionally, we have to examine our emotional reactions during our communication and conversations, to slow down and allow ourselves to breathe. During this pause we can prevent our habitual knee-jerk reactions from taking place, and instead, respond intentionally, with the wellbeing of the relationship in mind.
Examine the behaviors you use that replace a direct communication. What do you do when you have hard time telling your partner how you feel? Do you use silence as a weapon? Do you find yourself turning cold shoulder pretending to be busy and disinterested in order to punish your partner? Do you keep score of who did what in the relationship, using it as a leverage in your arguments? Do you find yourself manipulating your partner in order to elicit desired emotional response? Do you use ultimatums and attempting to force your partner to acknowledge your needs?
If you use any of these behaviors with an intent of getting your partner’s attention and securing closeness in the relationship, it is likely that the results you are experiencing are quite the opposite. Acting out behaviors tend to overwhelm our partners and increase their need to distance themselves from a heated situation. The further distancing of our partner is likely to trigger even more anxiety and anger, propelling us to engage in pursuit, hoping to close the gap and restore closeness. This sets the Pursuer-Distancer dynamic in motion: Partner A’s growing frustration triggers avoidance in Partner B, further fueling anger in Partner A, further making Partner B want to escape. A miserable cycle.
The solution is simple. Instead of using the aforementioned acting out behaviors, try Effective Communication:
1.Set a non-critical frame of mind – Focus on improving the connection between the two of you, rather than blaming your partner for misdoings.
2.Ask gently (!) for your partner’s attention and time: “I have something to talk to you about. Is now a good time?”
3.Own the responsibility for your experience and frame your concern in ABC format: “When you do “A” in the context of “B” I feel “C.” Clarify your feelings and the reason for them without criticism or blame.
4.Focus solely on the resolution of the issue at hand. Do not include other grievances, past upsets etc
5.Be specific and do not generalize the argument – exclude words such as Always, Never, etc
6.Engage and remain open to hearing your partner’s response.
In the beginning Effective Communication will feel very uncomfortable, however, it is a crucial part of personal growth and evolution of the relationship. By changing the way we relate to our partner we are contributing to the change in the communication pattern in the relationship, making it more open, direct and secure. Effective communication does not guarantee that your expressed needs will be met, but it absolutely assures that your partner will be aware of what your needs are. This as in of itself is a big step toward creating the relationship you want.
Re-engagement and increasing comfort with closeness for Avoidant Style:
Folks with an Avoidant style tend to push aside their need for closeness, giving priority for their need for self-sufficiency and independence. Consider your reaction to increased closeness with your partner, in such moments as prolonged eye to eye gaze, heart to heart conversation, sexual experience, and such. What do you find yourself doing following these intensely intimate moments? Do you experience discomfort and leave the situation, emotionally disconnect, shift the subject of conversation, use humor to diffuse the situation, use work or schedule to separate you from your partner? Is it difficult to express or receive affection? Does commitment and talking about the relationship make you uncomfortable? What other strategies do you use to sustain the distance between you and your partner?
The previously discussed effective communication can be an excellent tool for you as well. The need for space in the relationship is a valid request and has to be gently discussed. It is important for your partner to know your need for me-time in the relationship, and it is also important for your partner to know it is not about them. You are responsible to explain to your partner that your need for space remains a constant in any relationship, and it is not about them. Talk about ways to create enough distance and enough closeness for mutually acceptable compromise. It may not be possible to create both closeness and space simultaneously, however, sequentially it can easily be arranged, alternating between times together and times apart.
Understanding of the attachment styles and mastering the effective communication will prepare you to tackle many of the relationship challenges. Our intimate bonds are powerful catalysts of personal growth and evolution. With attention and care they have the power to transform our lives.
“Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love” by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A.
“Getting The Love You Want: A Guide For Couples” by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.