My wonderful boyfriend recently recommended a book to me called Hold Me Tight. The author, Dr. Sue Johnson, is the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), which is a process that helps fighting couples heal their relationships. In her book, Dr. Johnson describes the outdated way in which couples therapy has worked in the past: partners are encouraged to simply communicate what they’re thinking and feeling to each other. This communication supposedly elucidates hidden problems in the relationship that couples and psychologists can work on fixing.
While I’ll never discourage anyone from communicating with their significant other(s), I agree with Dr. Johnson’s assertion that talk alone won’t get couples to the bottom of their issues. In the end, she argues, relationships often end because of issues with attachment.
In the world of psychology, attachment theory posits that the ways in which a very young child relates to their caregivers ultimately determine their ability to create healthy relationships as an adult. If a child has a strong, secure attachment with their caregiver, they trust that adult will be there in times of need. However, an insecurely attached child is more likely to cry as soon as their caregiver leaves the room, because they don’t trust that they’ll ever return. This child is probably clingy and colicky, which means they’re quick to get upset and difficult to pacify.
As a toddler, I was insecurely attached to my mother. When I was two, my crib was in a room at the front of our little house, where our driveway was clearly visible through a window. Whenever my mom drove away to run errands, I would climb out of my crib and stand at the window, crying as she left. Oftentimes, she had to turn around and come back to console me because I wouldn’t calm down, even when my dad tried to comfort me. In my mind, it didn’t matter how many times my mom returned to me: I never believed she would come back from her errands.
My behavior as a toddler, though not unusual, is hard to explain in exact terms. Was there a traumatizing incident in the first two years of my life that made me think my mom would abandon me? My parents were very present early in my life, so that explanation seems improbable. What’s more likely is that I was born with a genetic predisposition to develop borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is often what eventually happens to colicky children.
My boyfriend knows about my BPD diagnosis, which is why he recommended I read Hold Me Tight. The book argues that when people in a relationship are insecurely attached to each other, it doesn’t matter how well they communicate their emotions: they will continue to feel insecure. The solution, then, is to recognize their poor attachment and work on it directly by showing up for each other in healthy ways. For example, in past insecurely attached romances, I was anxious that my partner might abandon me, so I clung to them the way I clung to my mom when I was two. Like a small child, I couldn’t fall asleep until they told me goodnight, and I started to panic when they left the room (even if they just stepped out for a minute). I didn’t trust that they would return, so I demanded more and more of their attention.
Unfortunately, this caused past partners to react oppositely to what I wanted: they ran farther away from me. Afraid that I was too codependent, they took longer and longer to text me back, and became less available to spend time with me. When we did get together, it wasn’t quality time, because they were engaged with something else (usually video games). By running from me, they were expressing their own insecure attachment patterns.
When partners interact in this broken way, it’s called an anxious-avoidant dynamic, and it has led to countless breakups. That’s partially because talking about the problem isn’t enough: it can only be undone through taking action, not exchanging words. Partners in this predicament need to learn how to show each other that they can be relied upon and trusted. They need to set boundaries and stick to them, and they need to meet each other’s needs. Because ultimately, feeling securely attached to a romantic lover is a deep human need that’s shared by almost everyone.
My boyfriend and I recognize that each of us has experienced some flavor of this anxious-avoidant dynamic in past relationships, so we’re reading Hold Me Tight as a preventative measure. We want to learn the signs of insecure attachment so that if it ever infects us, we can recognize it and work on making each other feel safe again. As it stands now, I’m extremely lucky to have a lover with whom I’m securely attached. He lives hundreds of miles from me, and although dropping him off at the airport after a visit is always tough on my heart, I never doubt that he’ll return. No amount of physical distance could make me question his loyalty and devotion to our relationship. For the first time – maybe ever – I have a secure attachment, and it’s worth all the work, therapy, and time I spent trying to find it.