On Love, Belonging, and Attachment.
The lens of attachment therapy offers up a timeless wisdom—that every person wants to love, to be loved and to belong. That we are injured in relationship and that we heal in relationship. Good therapy can alter our most foundational beliefs about our capacity to love and be loved and to belong. It’s an obvious imperative, an underlying urge. This human conditioning is so central to our egoic survival that even if we dislike or even hate each other, we’re still cleaving toward loving and being loved and belonging.
We seek attachment from the very beginning of our existence, hone attachment sensing skills in early childhood, and carry those attachment patterns with us through our lives as individuals. These patterns present as we seek intimate partners and deepen—and in some cases evolve—as we begin to live as couples and parents.
Our intimate partners and family members have the privilege to see our core wounding as non-intimate partners never could. We all have blind spots, and our partner is perfectly situated to see (read: trigger ) these. Our partners can either lovingly or unlovingly point out our blind spots. Either way, we may choose to see these reflections as opportunities for growth or feel hurt and damaged by them.
We enact our past quite linearly. Shockingly so. When we follow the thread, it usually points goes directly back to what we were taught implicitly about relationship as very young people in our foundational years. It’s rare that we’re not enacting our past in some way with our partner. Arguing is one great example of how we enact our past attachment patterning. If, in one’s family of origin, there is a lot of argument and no repair, we subsequently argue without repair. Further, if we don’t know how to do repair, or know that repair should be part of the process, we’re completely blind to it as an option.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Viktor E. Frankl
Longing for Attachment: A Pull at Our Very Core.
Our attachment patterning rests quietly, seemingly dormant, underpinning every relational exchange that we have. Regardless of the relationship—whether we are relating as a parent, romantic partner, business partner, employee, colleague, community member, friend, family member, or child—our attachment personality is habitually engaged. We’re always sensing and tracking attachment, clandestinely, in the background.
We are always in relationship with the various parts within ourselves, with each other, with our pets, with our communities and with our lives overall. We are meaning-making beings, always striving for wholeness, resolution, okayness and harmony. We are constantly scanning for safety, belonging, to feel felt, feel known. We assess how loved we are or aren’t and secretly, often unconsciously, we seek to confirm our deeply-held, fear-based stories—that we are unloved, fundamentally flawed, outcasts, and/or unworthy of love.
These stories of un-loved-ness are visceral, tightly-held beliefs that are ancient in us, they are as old as we are, and sometimes even older. Prenatal development can affect our psychology and mental health. The genesis of our stories may dovetail with our own existence, but the foundations of our attachment personality are laid in our early childhood.
Early Childhood as The Birthplace of Attachment Patterns.
Our first relational bonds are created in early childhood. The relationships we have during that time are foundational and essential (literally) and form the blueprint for how we will tend do relationship forever after.
Our earliest relationships teach us both explicitly and implicitly how relationship works; how love and closeness works, how space and connection happens, how the self and others find connection, distance and intimacy. If we are fortunate, our caregivers will be adept at responding to our needs. They will be adequately proficient in attunement—the act of ‘getting’ the world of another; of causing the other to ‘feel felt’ by paying attention to and appropriately responding emotionally or physically to them—listening, empathy, consoling, holding, feeding, rocking, and more.
As we grow, the foundational patterns of early childhood are re-affirmed time and again across countless encounters with our familiar caregivers, family members and communities. These patterns become neurobiologically hardwired, like well-traveled foot paths and elaborate trail systems through the forests of relationship.
The teachings from these foundational relationships are implicit inside of us, meaning they operate below conscious thought. They were created when we were so young, even pre-verbal, making it sometimes difficult to name or even put a finger on our unexamined convictions about how relationships work. Since these relational lessons are implicit, they are invisible to us. They feel like unquestionable reality and appear simply to be “what life is,” we assume, to not only us, but to everyone else as well.
However, just because they are outside our awareness do NOT mean they are benign or un-impactful. Quite the opposite, really!
Most of us are reenacting unfinished business in our adult relationships. Like the good little children that we each are at heart, we will create our lives from these blueprints. For better or worse, without examination, we’ll most likely either reenact ‘what was’ because it’s familiar or we will do opposite to get as far away as possible from the familiar. We blindly seek resolution by attempting to recreate the past, in how we argue or rationalize any given situation with the same old biases.
Through our personal work—the thorough, systemic examining of ‘what was,’ we can begin to see the water in which we swam, the air we breathed, and how we coped in our unique early childhood environment. We can subsequently employ our neocortex, or logical mind, to examine and challenge our assumptions leading to more choices about how to be in relationship in the present; the ‘what is’.
Awareness is the birthplace of choice. The work we’re doing in therapy — together — is to make the implicit explicit, thereby neutralizing it, in short we wake up and become conscious and learn the tools to become skillfully relational.
For example, if we accept we are monogamous beings destined to live a mainstream Western cultural narrative, we go out in to the world to find a partner to live with, “happily-ever-after.” If we are not aware of how cultural assumptions influence our thinking, we may assume that a relationship with our partner *should* continue easily without further effort.
As we mature, so does our capacity for relationship. We learn to give love as well as receive it. We learn to be generous, empathic, selfless, and collaborative – to live in our ideal state.
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Attachment Programming at Play with Romantic Partners
The second time we see attachment at play is in the romantic partners that we choose. We tend to “hire” partners who are either precisely reminiscent of (familiar) or somehow opposite of our earliest caregivers. We do this because what was familiar to us has a quality of “how it is”.
There’s a “black-or-white” kind of thinking at play here, native to childhood. At a deep level, we feel that the familiar equals safe, or good. It’s our accepted reality, the water we were swimming in, the air we were breathing. We accept this familiarity as “true and valid” whether it was or is healthy, or not.
Subsequently, the familiar, or the opposite of familiar, is what we recognize as valid when choosing a partner. The process of choosing a romantic partner is super unconscious. It goes something like this…
Be unaware that our attachment system is guiding our attraction→ follow your attraction→ fall in love→ become attached (aided by our dopaminergic high) → learn later that we choose said pattern in an enactment of the past → continue to struggle to see it clearly or know what to do with the information → eventually breakup and do it all again with another partner → repeat as necessary until you → → → wake up to you attachment wounding → get support → learn your style and patterning → actively create a relationship that will help you to actually heal.
So, we may choose an incredibly unavailable partner now because our own father was largely absent. Whether the original scenario was painful or not, it was familiar, so it’s felt as safe. Or, we may choose a partner who is emotionally unavailable because our own mother was more than available — she was smothering, overbearing, and always “up in our business.” We choose an opposite partner now because we didn’t like the original situation. And, we may be emotionally unavailable ourselves as we model ourselves after our parents. Without even realizing it, we simply enact what we learned.
As another example, no one knows better how painful it is to have an abusive, alcoholic father than the daughter of that man. However, she’s more likely to choose an alcoholic, abusive husband because that’s what’s familiar to her.
Remember that familiar is perceived as safe and good, even if it is unhealthy.
Conversely, the unfamiliar may feel terrifying, even if it is really good for us.
We’re Injured in Relationship, We Heal in Relationship.
As holotropic beings, we seek wholeness through corrective emotional experiences. Every relationship is an opportunity to heal and create a more conscious relationship. The number one benefit of a conscious relationship is the healing of childhood wounds (Harville Hendrix. Getting the Love You Want, p 64.). The single worst thing about an unconscious relationship is the exacerbation of childhood wounds.
Since choosing a romantic partner by definition precedes conception and becoming a parent, if we choose a partner while living out of ignorance to attachment wounding, we will bring a baby in to the world in that same ignorance.
Our triggers show us where we are unhealed and issues are unresolved. Conscious, empowered personal work lets the trigger be an alarm bell alerting us of our unfinished business. Through ever-increasing awareness, we become more and more skilled. Navigating our triggers gracefully allows each and every trigger to teach us something essential about ourselves, our partner, and/or our children—so that we can love, better show up for each other, etc.
It is said that when we’re single, and we face a mirror, it is several feet away. When we’re in a relationship, the mirror is about an arm’s length away. When we parent, suddenly the mirror is less than an inch from our nose. We see our imperfections best through close familial relationships.
Fortunately, by creating a healthy relationship with our co-parent and parenting consciously, we can heal and accept ourselves as we are. We can heal ourselves, our partners can heal themselves, and we can heal right alongside our children. In doing so, we protect our kids from the injuries that we were subjected to and sustained in ignorance. (We’re all doing our best — even if our best is inadequate.)
Our kids can be our greatest teachers (if we let them).
Because we love our children fiercely (it’s a biological imperative) we’re extremely motivated to get it right. These innocent beings need us to survive.
Likewise, a child’s natural inclination is to love their parent and want to make their parent happy (also a biological imperative).
In some ways, children appear as a blank slate, so they unwittingly serve as a projection screen for us. Baked into the nature of parenting, we project our young selves onto our children. We seek to create corrective emotional experiences by offering our kids a better experience than we had.
What comes up in our relationship to them needs to be owned as our own stuff. Despite their personality, they’re never intentionally trying to upset us. A crying baby isn’t trying to make a parent feel inadequate. The parent may feel inadequate because they’ve been wounded in a specific way around inadequacy, independent of the child’s behavior.
Our children love us unconditionally. Therefore, ironically, they hold a healing container for us.
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Relationship as crucible (Couples work)
All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures. – John Bowlby
As Bowlby’s research has shown, what we need remains the same from the cradle to the grave. We need love, security, attachment, and adventure.
When we couple up, we are subconsciously “hiring a partner.” Having children together brings up our rawest emotions — sleep deprivation, physical demands, and communications challenges all trigger our deepest attachment concerns which may unleash our earliest, long-forgotten, fear-based stories. This raw emotion challenges our capacity to feel love and belonging, as individuals, in our relationships, and as a family. Initially, then time and again.
Despite these challenges, in loving our children unconditionally, we have an opportunity to see ourselves and our spouse through more loving eyes. We can notice our spouses looking sweetly at our children. The spouse is in fact manifest in the child—whether through DNA or through giving of themselves to teach and nurture the child.
Similarly, in parenting our partners can also learn to understand us better. We can find relief in that —in seeing what is innate versus what is learned. For example, if your child hates cilantro, refusing to eat it may be a genetic repulsion rather than defiance toward a parent.
Honey. Sweety. Babylove. Sometimes we even speak in a baby-like voice, cooing to our romantic partners. It’s not random that we call our lovers by baby names. It’s a kind of re-parenting, an opportunity to repair past hurts.
Yes, even conscious relationship includes parenting and re-parenting our partners from time to time. When we are the ones being reparented, it feels amazing. As time goes by, when we’re the ones re-parenting our partner, we may come to roll our eyes.
Any strong couple must embrace re-parenting as part of the deal, because as Harville Hendrix has said, the number one benefit of a conscious relationship is the healing of childhood wounds.
Growing apart and coming together.
Where most couples struggle is in adequately understanding each others’ worlds. Couples who do well are un-phased by big life changes and the natural weaving incipience of connection.
Essential at core of a robust partnership is both partners’ capacity to be emotionally honest. Often what we need to share with a partner is messy. Our underlying thoughts may include, “I’m afraid you won’t love me if you knew this…” or “I’m afraid I don’t belong, don’t feel known, don’t feel safe,” and “I want to feel safe, to be known, and to belong.”
Emotional honesty bridges the gap between defensiveness and disconnection. This vulnerability is essential to being on same team and feeling connected.
Non-dual coupleship: “I and thou in the here and now”
Relationship is a healthy dance between self and other. A lot of people get confused when understanding their separateness, their sovereignty. Our wounding leads us to contort ourselves to belong, relationally. Or we may fail to see our partners’ otherness in attempts to find attachment and security. This lack of security and impulse to completely enmesh causes much suffering.
A healthy balance to understand the self and other is “interdependence.” It’s essentially a Physics-informed understanding of in connection at the point of differences. Look at cells and osmosis — they’re not one monozygotic entity — they’re two differentiated cells connected in relationship.
Unhealthy enmeshment causes many couples to lose any sexual charge. Alternatively, if we are too different and don’t get each others’ world at all, it causes problems. Basically, too much sameness or difference results in relational problems, as seen in flashpoints such as sex, fighting, contempt, intolerance, and disgust.
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If we believe that the point of life is self-actualization (as I do), then we must accept we are here to be as skillfully and wholly our selves as possible. It’s through being whole that we can leave the most positive impact on our community and on the generations to follow.
There is no better or more expeditious way to self-actualization than through deep examination of our relationship philosophy and attachments. Through this examination of how we see the world, and where we’re wounded or healed, we better understand and shape our attitudes about humanity, from strangers and bedfellows. Family members especially help us see this in ourselves, if we approach their feedback with a resilient and open mind.
Our process of self-truth is a highly subjective process. Taken to a natural extreme conclusion, it’s quantum physics. We’re each the very center of the universe (our own universe) and its through owning and claiming our highly subjective truth that we find our truest self and can then embody it. Therefore, the exploration of our own suffering is not an indulgence, but an imperative.
The therapeutic relationship is a perfect environment or training ground to understand our wounding, heal our wounding, and make new choices from a more healed place. Therapy gives us an opportunity to practicing healthy relationship without risk, so we can take that self-knowledge out in to our world to live better lives and create healthier relationships, more secure attachments.
There are a million paths to “find God,” and therapy is one.
If enlightenment is attainable you can reach enlightenment through therapy, dance, meditation, devotion, journaling — anything that you give yourself fully to. But go deep, and the results are more profound. If you aren’t seeking God, you can focus on trying to be a healed, whole and skillful human being. There’s plenty of work to do in that domain.
“You can dig 1,000 one-foot-deep holes, or one, 1,000-foot-deep hole.” – expression
Go deep with therapy to get better therapeutic results. What’s amazing about therapy, is that it’s an explicit corrective emotional experience to actively heal the past. It’s a prime place that we heal in relationship.
Unfortunately, we often don’t heal in relationship with the same ones who wounded us. When we can, it’s stunning, a grace. But more often, we will find it in other relationships.
The “Enemy” of attachment is mis-attunement. Being missed, overlooked, misunderstood. We can spend decades, or perhaps our entire lives, being missed in our attempts to find love, belonging, and attachment. There is much to be said about this. Together, we will follow the threads back to your secure attachment. For now, just know that you are here to love, to be loved, and to belong.
Lesley’s Longmont private therapy practice is centered on conscious parenting.
The greatest dedication in my life is to my child, Jude, who enters kindergarten this year. Additionally, after 8 years in private practice seeing both couples and individuals struggle with wounds from their own parenting and issues around raising their own children, I’ve found that helping clients to parent in a more conscious and securely attached manner absolutely lights me up. Following the thread of what is most alive in my personal and professional lives helped me crystalize the idea to introduce conscious parenting as the focus of my practice. ~ Lesley Glenner