Unmet attachment needs as a root cause of relationship disharmony
One of the most impactful books in the 21st Century so far, on the topic of couples, is Hold Me Tight by Dr Sue Johnson. First published in 2009, it provides an accessible version of her system, emotionally focused couple therapy (EFT for short). I recommend it for most people in relationships to read, as it is intended for the general public rather than professionals.
It is unfortunate for the author that the acronym EFT is also commonly used for Emotional Freedom Technique, which most people will know as ‘tapping’, a form of therapy that involves a person lightly tapping specific points on their own face or body. Due to the increasing popularity of tapping since its inception in the 1990s, it might tend to eclipse the use of the term EFT in association with Johnson’s work, causing confusion. However, the two systems which call themselves ‘EFT’ are not related.
Before I get into explaining the details of the Hold Me Tight model, you can see that it is described as a form of therapy, but I’m a coach not a therapist, so what’s going on? One of the key aspects of being a coach is understanding and explaining the difference between coaching and therapy.
The ICF (International Coaching Federation) produces guidance on this topic and can be complex in practice with grey areas. Coaches may help people facing problems, but at lower levels. Considering the intensity, duration and frequency of difficult experiences can, in part, help determine whether coaching or therapy is most suitable. For couples that might mean, for example, that those experiencing niggling irritation with each other on a daily basis, in short bursts with a calmer baseline to the relationship may find great value in coaching. It is not suitable for those in persisting crisis or serious conflict.
What relationship doesn’t have any difficult moments? If the quality of your time together is less than you would ideally want, then there is work to be done, and space to improve it. Taking steps to maintain and repair your relationship, with appropriate support where needed, is a sign of strength in my view and an investment in your well-being. The Hold Me Tight book references evidence showing how our relationship attachment needs can even affect physical health down the line.
Some define therapy as focusing more on the past individual history and emotions underlying the issues and coaching on moving practically from where you are at, to where you want to be. Though, ironically, Hold Me Tight does not focus on past trauma, it is more about rekindling emotional connections in the present.
To quote Sue Johnson, “The message of EFT is simple: forget about learning how to argue better, analyzing your early childhood, making grand romantic gestures, or experimenting with new sexual positions. Instead, recognize and admit that you are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing, and protection.”
The book Hold Me Tight has many references and sources to support the ideas, which the more avid reader can seek out and delve into. One of the roots is the work on attachment theory by John Bowlby in the 20th Century (and developed by others). It was based around that special relationship between parent and child, in which the secure well-being of the child and its calm nervous system development is reliant on the quality of the parental response being ‘good enough’. When a baby isn’t feeling emotionally safe and secure it can cry like its life depended on it – because in a sense it does – evolution has given them the means to survive and avoid abandonment and neglect.
But when the cry is not answered routinely, different attachment styles may develop to cope with this. Either giving up on connecting (therefore pushing away), or alternatively clinging desperately for more connection, or maybe confusion (flipping wildly between the first two styles in a state of fear). The importance of the relationship with one’s attachment figure should not be understated.
The next step to this is adult attachment theory. As we grow through being a child and youth, we tend to naturally distance and separate from our parents to a degree. But then we look for love relationships to put our heart into, and effectively we replace our parental attachment figure with that of a partner. Most people would not give thought to what they are taking on when getting involved in love, but if this theory is true then the implication is huge. If both partners are reliant on each other for their emotional safety, like a baby for a parent, then when that safety is missing it kicks in deep survival instincts in our brains (like the amygdala fear response and sympathetic nervous system arousal).
The big problem is that we don’t realise it is happening, and in that state of reactivity we can act in ways that actually damage the relationship further. If we were more aware we might say calmly that we are feeling neglected or uncared for and reach out to our partner productively. But in the heat of the moment, our primal system seems wired to take any emotional interaction as better than nothing, so we fight, shout and argue whilst what we really want is loving connection.
What a crazy situation, that our infant survival instincts end up playing havoc with our marriage or partnership decades later! Hold Me Tight describes a seven-step process to recognise the automatic patterns we get into and step out of them, consciously moving back into emotional connection and secure adult attachment.
Initially, it is about noticing the ‘demon dialogues’ or destructive cycles and patterns that the relationship falls into (step 1): realising that you are both prisoners of this pattern. On a broad level, it might be a dynamic of attack-attack, attack-withdraw or withdraw-withdraw. More than one of those dynamics may occur at different times and there are also the individual specifics of how they play out for you. Then we can start to recognise our triggers or ‘sore spots’, things our partner says or does that upset us (step 2). We can begin to understand how these points have been inflamed by relationships in the past and move towards becoming more vulnerable and open rather than defensive.
With a basic level of security present, we might find a more neutral ground to dissect what happens in our daily interactions with each other (step 3), owning our feelings and behaviours, as well as how we are affecting the other person. If the alarm bells of our nervous system have stopped ringing then we are safer to explore without blaming or denying responsibility.
If this groundwork goes well, then the Hold Me Tight conversation is next (step 4), in which we can dig deep into laying out our deepest fears and being honest about what we need most from our partner. It is about admitting initially to ourselves that we have an emotional dependence that only this special person can satisfy, and having empathy for the needs of the other. Perhaps these are the kinds of deep connection that happened naturally in the beginning of the relationship but became buried due to a lack of safety, and hidden by the patterns of conflict.
A further step involves forgiveness, letting go of resentment and saying sorry for the emotional pain that each person has caused the other (step 5). Hopefully, all of the previous steps can help open the way for bonding further through physical intimacy (step 6).
Finally, there needs to be maintenance and new patterns put in place to avoid slipping back into the old problems (step 7). It can include various approaches: watching out for the triggers and danger points that lead to problems, celebrating when things are good between you, arranging memorable moments that mark your connection to each other, and planning how to defuse potential issues from a calm place. With a firmer base to build on you can create a new narrative about the relationship and its future, this can serve as a guide to how you really want things to be, an antidote to the doom scenarios that can spring up as a narrative when caught in the throes of demon dialogues.
This is the briefest overview of an entire system designed to guide couples back to a secure connection. There is much in the Hold Me Tight book that you could apply yourself, though it might be advisable to have the support of a good relationship coach or therapist (as appropriate to your situation). A key takeaway is to realise that there is often a hidden message there when a partner is attacking or withdrawing from us.
If we take the behaviour at face value then we may react and retaliate. But, if we see the behaviour as a protest against lack of connection, then the real message is ’support me, care for me, connect with me, love me’. Of course, it doesn’t make logical sense to seek love through conflict, but the evolved instincts driving this were not built by logic. It is a radical shift of perspective to hear the attachment cry instead of what appears on the surface.