A.R.E. You There?

When I heard Dr. Curt Thompson say, “We are born looking for someone looking for us”, that blew my mind. The need to attach to a loving other begins the moment we’re born and this need remains present across our lifetime. We are created and hardwired for connection. The brain’s attachment system prompts the child to seek physical closeness and communication with a few close people, typically starting with Mom. Our attachment style depends upon how our parents and caregivers interacted with us at an early age. These early patterns then determine our adult attachment style. Adult attachment styles help to describe how we attach in our romantic relationships. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth determined that there are four attachment styles; Secure, Ambivalent, Avoidant, and Disorganized. When our caregivers consistently met our emotions needs, that leads to a secure attachment style. However, if how our caregivers related to us was marked by unpredictability and inconsistency, this confuses the child and paves the way for an ambivalent attachment style. Seeking reassurance and affirmation are common behaviors for those with an ambivalent attachment. When someone grows up in an environment where their emotional needs are rarely met, they will develop an avoidant attachment style. Avoidant attachment is marked by emotional avoidance and withdrawing from the relationship in times of distress. Those with a disorganized attachment style grew up in an environment riddled with abuse. I cannot overstate the importance of learning to become aware of your own attachment style and how it interferes with how we relate with others.

While our attachment style impacts all areas of our relationships, it impacts our romantic relationships the most. We often repeat our unhealthy childhood patterns in our adult relationships and have a tendency to remain stuck in familiar dynamics. Through individual work and when both partners are willing to improve and heal their relationship, we can move from insecure attachment to healthier ways of relating; this is known as earned secure attachment. As I reflect on my own healing journey, I feel so grateful to be able to offer this hope to my clients.

Dr. Susan Johnson has a helpful acronym that expresses what most of us ask our partner, even subconsciously; “Are you there?” A.R.E. Are you accessible? Are you responsive? Are you engaged? For a marriage to be healthy, both spouses need to be accessible, responsive, and engaged with one another. When both spouses have a secure attachment style, this typically is not a problem. If one of the partners has an ambivalent attachment style, he can often act out these questions accompanied by high anxiety. This can then overwhelm the other partner, especially if she has an avoidant attachment style. The avoidantly attached partner will then most likely pull back or withdraw. This will then lead the ambivalently attached partner to turn up the heat and clamor for reassurance. The avoidantly attached partner will become emotionally flooded and eventually shut down all together. The couple will stay on this perpetual frantic merry-go-round until something changes. “Closed for my protection; open to your scorn. Between these two directions my heart is sometimes torn.” The late Neil Peart, the drummer and lyricist for Rush, provides us with some powerful imagery.  His words speak to an all too familiar dilemma. We can protect ourselves by raising our defenses, thereby minimizing the risk of emotional pain. However, in doing so, we are closing ourselves off to what we need most, which is safe and soothing connection with our partner.

I have an ambivalent attachment style and my wife, Carrie, is securely attached. Early on in our twenty-one years of marriage, I was too often “closed for my protection” and mistook some Carrie’s nonverbal cues and behaviors for rejection and abandonment. As a result of these perceived attachment injuries, my anxiety would increase leading me to behave in ways that would push her away, further increasing my sense of abandonment and rejection. This pattern continued until I was able to recognize and accept that I was acting out of my own woundedness that had nothing to do with her. I had to learn to take responsibility for my own emotions and emotional reactions. This began the work of changing my ambivalent attachment style to a secure attachment style, which is known as an earned secure attachment.

Healing my attachment style required therapy but the most meaningful healing came through my relationship with Carrie. We took Dr. Susan Johnson’s acronym to heart. I learned to become more accessible, responsive, and engaged. This increased capacity meant that I had to become more aware of my own triggers and how to communicate to Carrie in a healthy and relational way when I was feeling triggered. As I’ve learned to communicate how I’m feeling and what I need in healthy ways, Carrie has responded in ways that show me that she’s accessible, responsive, and engaged. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have misunderstandings or that we’re always available when we need one another. However, when a relationship offers a secure base, it’s far easier to extend grace and think the best of the other when the inevitable ruptures occur. When a relationship is marked by secure attachment, it is also easier to make repair attempts and offer an apology.

One of the most rewarding parts of my job is watching the healing process unfold between a couple. Because I’ve walked this journey both personally and professionally, I want to encourage you to explore how your attachment style might be impacting your closest relationships. This may feel uncomfortable at first, but a more connected relationship is worth the effort.



Chris Ellman

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