This article was originally published on Healing Moments Counseling.
I want to explore a topic that holds deep significance in our hearts—the two essential attachment questions that shape the essence of our relationship.
- “Am I enough?”
- “Can I depend on my partner when I need them?”
Doubts regarding our own lovability and worthiness are painful, just as uncertainty about the dependability and responsiveness of our partner(s) can be unsettling. Our answer to these two key questions are shaped by three attachment forces:
- The quality of the care we received from our attachment figures during formative years
- The quality of the relationship that our parents or caregivers had (a model of love for us)
- The quality of security in our own romantic relationships
If you were raised in communities that fostered safety, received supportive care from your family, witnessed healthy relationships between your caregivers, and have experienced a partner who is supportive and dependable, it is likely that you hold positive beliefs about your self-worth and the potential for fulfilling relationships. These are the stories of individuals who have developed secure attachments in adulthood.
Conversely, if the care you received was inconsistent, unreliable, or unsupportive, or if you experienced disappointment and betrayals from previous partners, it is natural to feel uncertain about your worth and somewhat apprehensive in close relationships. Similarly, witnessing unresolved conflict between our caregivers that does not get repaired can influence our expectations of relationships. These are the stories of individuals who, understandably, may feel insecure within their intimate connections as adults.
Exploring Your Attachment World
When I meet with a new relationship for couples therapy, I ask each partner to reflect on their attachment history in their childhood, what they observed from their caregivers interacting, as well as their experiences of security and insecurity in romantic relationships.
The questions below and each partner’s answers give me a glimpse into how they may answer those two essential questions. I am adding the questions below for you to reflect on them, if you want.
- When you were scared, sad, angry, or overwhelmed, who, if anyone, did you go to for comfort as a child?
- How did this person(s) respond to you?
- Could you count on them consistently responding to you?
- What did you learn about connection and comfort from this relationship?
If the answer to question 1 is no, then I ask:
- If no one was safe, how did you comfort yourself?
- How did you learn to not reach out to others for comfort?
Observing Your Caregiver’s Relationship:
- What did you learn about relationships from watching your caregivers relationship or being raised by a single parent or multiple caregivers?
- Did you witness any comfort between them? What was that like for you?
- Did you witness any conflict? If there was conflict, did you witness repair? What was that like for you?
- Did you witness any physical or verbal affection? How was that for you?
Adult Romantic Relationships:
- Have there been times you’ve been able to be vulnerable and receive comfort from your partner? Describe how this went well.
- How do you signal to your partner that you need connection and comfort?
- Have you experienced any traumatic events in your past romantic relationships that make it hard to turn towards your current partner? Anything traumatic in your current relationship that makes it hard to reach for your partner?
- How do you feel about the quality of touch and intimacy in your current relationship?
- When distressed, have you ever turned to alcohol, drugs, sex, or material things for comfort? What was going on in your life and relationships at that time? What did you do to cope?
Reflecting on these personal experiences may elicit complex emotions, yet they can also lead us to a deeper understanding of the events that have shaped our beliefs about relationships and our capacity to both give and receive comfort.
I explore this aspect with my clients to gain a deeper understanding of their attachment history and provide support in recognizing how past experiences of hurt and disappointment can influence their reactions in difficult interactions within their current relationship.
During moments of activation, when emotions are high, our partner’s responses such as reactive anger, minimizing, or withdrawal can feel deeply personal. It is important to acknowledge that these responses often stem from learned protective mechanisms developed to prevent further pain or disappointment.
Unfortunately, these self-protective behaviors tend to activate similar defenses in the other partner, leading to a cycle of disconnection and mutual hurt. In couples therapy, one of my primary goals is to shift the focus away from blaming each other and instead recognize the negative cycle itself as the problem.
Not seeing the cycle as the central issue can prevent us from understanding how partners yearn for safety, security, and love.
Each partner’s past experiences and traumas can significantly impact their coping mechanisms during moments of disconnection and difficulty. By exploring our attachment histories, we begin to glimpse the underlying reasons behind our disconnecting actions, and this understanding paves the way for empathy and compassion. That in itself can foster connection and begin building a bridge to each other’s hearts.
Books to Better Understand You Attachment History:
As a devoted book nerd, I have sought solace in research, therapy, and books to gain a better understanding of my own attachment history and strategies. I believe these resources can also be of great assistance to you, whether you are currently experiencing or have experienced insecure adult relationships. Below, I have compiled a brief list of books that have proven helpful to me and my clients.
Books on Childhood Attachment:
- Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect – This book delves into the subtle ways in which emotional neglect, even unintentionally, can impact our sense of self-worth. Many of my clients have resonated with this book, exclaiming, “I see myself in these pages.” It offers valuable insights into our inner emotional world.
- Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents – Understanding the impact of our parents’ behaviors on our self-perception and relationships is paramount. This powerful book sheds light on the childhood attachment injuries we may have endured and provides guidance on healing through inner child work.
- You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For: Applying Internal Family Systems to Intimate Relationships – Building a secure relationship with our partners includes cultivating a secure relationship within ourselves. During my sessions with clients, I often discuss protective or younger parts that emerge in tense or disconnecting situations. The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, described in this book, serves as a powerful tool for connecting with our wounded parts and integrating them into our present selves.
Books on Adult Attachment:
- The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships – This insightful book explores how our attachment styles develop and provides practices to foster personal security and wholeness.
- Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma, and Consensual Nonmonogamy – If you are engaged in nonmonogamous relationships, this book delves into the research on how attachment styles manifest in nonomongamy relationships. Moreover, it offers practical strategies for building secure and functional attachments with our intimate partners.
I hope you find the above questions and these book recommendations enlightening and supportive in your personal journey towards understanding your attachment system.