Tips for getting your Attachment needs met in your adult relationships while managing the attachment needs of your child.
Quick summary: When you are parenting a child with special attachment needs it is very common to feel extremely vulnerable… having a strong connection or attachment to another adult can act as a safe guard during these trying times.
The simplest way for me to explain attachment theory is as so:
Forever we have taken for granted that we have four basic needs in life – we need food, we need water, we need a way to maintain a healthy body temperature (shelter or clothes), and we need air.
Attachment theory proposes that there is a fifth basic need.
We also need a loving, compassionate, trustworthy, secure, and validating relationship in order to survive…
We need to feel attached to another person to function. People in the field of attachment have investigated the biological and evolutionary roots of this primary need while other is the field have studied how to create optimal attachments.
Just as it is important for a child to get their attachment needs met with their caregiver so is it almost equally important for adults to get their attachment needs met with a significant other adult.
Obviously the vulnerabilities of an adult are typically displayed differently than that of a child, yet the truth is that even adults show significant signs of distress when they feel as though an attachment to a significant other is in jeopardy or compromised.
Besides the fear of death, perhaps the other two most significant and seemingly universal fears have to do with meaninglessness and being alone… which are related to attachment.
The process of creating meaning is something done both individually and within the context of other people.
It is important that significant people in our lives offer us a degree of validation every once in a while for us to have security surrounding who we believe that we are and for what we claim our purpose to be.
In short, It is important for adults to feel understood by other adults so that they might feel validated and secure in who they are.
As I mentioned, the other fear that most adults carry is a fear of being alone or a fear of losing those people with whom they share a degree of unconditional love.
A child might cry or throw a tantrum as they experience feeling of fear as thoughts or biological responses encourage them to question whether or not a loved one is going to leave them.
Similarly to a child, an adult will also engage in behaviors (both consciously and unconsciously) to get reassurance that they are not alone and that they still have a secure attachment to another person that can get their attachment needs met.
What is the point of all this? And how does this relate to parenting and getting the attachment needs of a child met?
It is very easy when raising a child with special attachment needs to lose focus on the importance of taking care of your self or of taking care of the adults in the family system in general.
A strong trusting and nurturing adult relationship is a useful way to negate some of the negative impacts of the stress involved in child rearing.
It is easier to meet the attachment needs of your child (or anyone else for that matter) if your own attachment needs are being met by another adult.
The more validating and secure you are within your adult relationship = the better able you will be to manage and grow from the feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, and disappointment etc that generally accompany trying to do something which is difficult and unfamiliar.
Most people have at least a basic awareness of what you can do for yourself independently to live with optimal wellness… you can exercise regularly, engage in a hobby, eat healthy, take time for yourself, practice mindful breathing etc.
For whatever reason we are not quite as aware of how to get our needs met or to meet the needs of our partner so as to achieve optimal wellness within an adult relationship.
In truth I sometimes find myself amazed that it was not until I was in graduate school that I was explicitly taught how to interact in an adult relationship in a way that is advantageous for both partners.
Perhaps most of us then learned from popular media and from our friends and family about how to interact with our partners… the problem is this… what if the suggestions or relationship advice that you picked up was actually detrimental to your relationship?
To encourage secure adult attachment it is important that both partners feel understood, nurtured, trusted, and otherwise loved so that they can present themselves authentically.
Honest emotional expression is important in an adult relationship and it is equally important that your partner be able to offer empathy for your feelings… feelings are not so much irrational as they are inevitable… I would suggest that avoiding those emotions which are inherent in being a human is what is ironically irrational.
We humans have developed many different ways of managing our emotions including a tendency to favor presenting our selves as rational and not emotional… given the negative effect that suppressing our emotions can have on our relationships, our biology, and our self-awareness, and our over all quality of life I would humorously point out that rationalization is entirely irrational.
What you will want to do to maintain a secure attachment in an adult relationship
Be compassionate and give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
- Their jealous “tantrum” or critical “nagging” is likely just a less effective way for them to ask you if you are there for them.
- Some people have had very little experience with emotional expression… these people can have the tendency to ‘put their foot in their mouth’ – it can be helpful to do your best to try and understand them even when their words seem hurtful or don’t seem to make any sense… practice makes us better.
- Everyone has faults and sometimes we all need to know that it is ok for us to not be perfect.
- The more accepting we are of our partners the more we allow them to be who they really are – this generally makes them a whole lot more available.
Work to fix or help behaviors as opposed to fixing people.
- It is really hard for people to avoid being defensive if they feel as though they are being attacked for who they are as opposed to for what they do.
- ex. “when you don’t put your dishes away it effects me…” is better than “you are a messy person.”
Be curious and open-minded.
- The more you allow yourself to try and understand your significant other while limiting your tendency to pass judgment, the easier it will be for your partner to express exactly what they feel in the most authentic of ways.
- Every one has different way in which the enjoy receiving love… let your partner know what you need and ask what they need… often the needs are different so this needs to be talked about openly.
- The question is, “how do you know when you are loved.” example answers: when you tell me, when we have sex, when you get me things, when you give me a hug, when I know you are thinking about me when I’m not there etc.
Listen and only begin to think of what you will say once your partner has finished speaking.
- To feel understood it is often important that we feel heard… most people feel alone and misunderstood when their partner appears to be thinking instead of listening.
Be trustworthy and dependable.
- We all have faults… life is richer when lived honestly.
- And just like a child we all need to feel as though someone is dependable for us to be independent and secure.
Be available and accessible.
- Every one knows when there partner is in the room but feel a million miles away… communication strategies are more of a means to an ends in relation to attachment. Effective communication is a clear way of displaying your availability.
Ask for what you need.
- Again we were never really told how to be in relationships, it is best not to assume that your partner knows what you need. Often times you can even tell your partner and they won’t understand… try again.
- Often a partner will give you the nurturing that they want for themselves though it might not be the nurturing that you need… some people really need you to be as specific as possible… while other people tend to speak in metaphors.
Express gratitude. Catch your partner doing things right.
- It is infinitely more effective to reward positive behaviors than to point out faults.
Try replacing the conjunction “but” with the conjunction “and”
- When people say “no but” the listener generally feels as though what they just said is being debated… often an argument over absolutely nothing will follow. We live in a world filled with disagreements over subjects that were never mutually exclusive.
- Example: one person says, “I would like to go to a movie.” and the other person responds, “But I need to eat some food.” – They argue. The next time the person responds “and I need some food.” the two people now simply engage in two non-mutually exclusive activities and avoid a conflict.
Make time for your adult relationship.
- Most of us have everything on our schedules except unambiguous time for our most important relationship.
Live a healthy life style.
- Our mood, optimism, libido, hope, drive, motivation etc are all related to our biology… keeping the body healthy is a great way to help your mind and your relationships to be healthy as well.
Practice stress reduction or allow yourself to free yourself from excessive stress. (We don’t always have the choice, but often leaving a stressful environment is more of a choice than we allow ourselves to believe.
- If there is too much stress in your life you release too much cortisol in your brain… this encourages you to prematurely enter the ‘fight or flight’ mode… in short if you are too stressed then you will perceive your environment as more threatening than it actually is.
- Spending just 15 minutes a day following your breath can dramatically reduce stress.
- Heart breath: breath in for 5 seconds and then out for 5 seconds… imagine that there is a ball in your abdomen that expands like a balloon when your inhale and contracts when your exhale. Allow your mind to focus on the breath and its’ many sensations. As your mind wanders gently encourage its’ attention back to your breathing.
Build self awareness and an awareness of your partner needs and triggers
- Every one in life has suffered in one way or another; because we have suffered we can have the tendency to react differently to certain things… if an event unconsciously reminds of a time of suffering, we are likely to have a relatively ‘exaggerated’ emotional response.
When this happens many people can have the tendency to react to their partner with less self-control and with greater urgency.
We all have buttons or “triggers,” it is important that we all become aware of our own triggers and the triggers of our significant others so that we can be aware of when an exaggerated emotional response is do partly to the person’s history with suffering.
Once awareness is present it is helpful to allow your partner the space to heal from that suffering when emotional vulnerability is lessened.
Common traps that you can try to avoid
- Being “right” is often wrong.
- If your partner is expressing a feeling that they are holding does it matter if they got some of the “facts wrong?”… Rarely.
- As a couples counselor this is one of the main things that I see… one partner is trying to express a feeling while the other partner is correcting the details of the storyline…believe me the storyline is mostly irrelevant… your partner tends to feel as they do despite your corrections to the plot…
- Empathize with the feeling = your partner will feel more attached and secure = they feel better.
- Correct the plot = your partner will feel misunderstood, not listened to, and alone = they feel worse.
- People can’t always predict or control the way that they are going to react emotionally. Despite this truth it is healthy for people to have a safe place to express whatever emotions that they are carrying. It is very difficult when it appears that you caused the emotional distress in your partner (especially when you feel like there is a misunderstanding or that you are being wrongly accused). If you allow yourself to empathetically listen to your partner without getting defensive you will aid them in their time of emotional vulnerability = this usually makes the situation better.
- There are times to offer corrections when your partner is carrying a strong emotion for something that was perhaps misperceived. The time to do so is always after you have allowed them the safe place to express themselves. In short – the emotion needs to be expressed whether it grew from a misperception or not.
- Note: many misperceptions are not misperceptions – instead they are differing perceptions much like differing opinions.
- it is very common for people who feel as though they are being attacked to counter attack… often one partner will be trying to express feelings about their partners behavior in a constructive way and the other partner will choose the time to point out the other partners difficult behaviors. Focus on one thing at a time… bringing up multiple problems at once is likely to resolve nothing.
- Assigning blame is unproductive… generally no ones emotional needs get met, and no solutions are created… in short it rarely does anything productive and it usually creates more problems.
- Instead of assigning blame you can take the following two steps:
- create a specific solution
- Express the emotional impact that the problem had on you without making generalization and without attacking your partner’s character.
- There is nothing wrong with taking a bit of time for yourself when you feel as though your emotions are at a level which will keep you from engaging with your partner in a safe or helpful way.
- That being said there is a method of just shutting out your partner in an effort to avoid conflict.
This process creates a bigger conflict – your partner will feel isolated and alone.
When your partner feels disconnected from you they are likely to engage in more desperate attempts to reconnect with you… this gives you more to avoid and will tend to make the situation grow out of control.
- “You should not feel that way because…” or “I should not feel this way because…” – ironically both of these statements are irrational or at least misinformed.
- Emotions are related to your own subjective or individual way of perceiving and experiencing the world… rationalizations are based on the false premise that there is one objectively correct way of experiencing existence.
- You feel the way that you feel whether it makes cognitive “sense” or not.
- Resisting an emotion tends to make it worse… allowing yourself to have the emotion tends to make it better.
meeting the needs of your partner is a great way of meeting your own needs… having your partner meeting your needs is a great way for them to meet their own needs… meeting your own needs is a great way to make yourself more able to meet the needs of others… meeting the needs of a relationship meets individual and collective needs at the same time…when the needs of a group and the individuals that make up that group are met, all people involved tend to feel happier and healthier.