Last week, I presented Attachment Theory through the work of Gabor Maté. In a nutshell, healthy attachment is the natural relationship that develops between an infant and caregiver when the caregiver is consistently attuned to the infant's needs, and responds appropriately and reliably to the infant's cues. Leaving aside physical needs such as food, water, shelter and so on, what every child needs most of all is love, as demonstrated through acts of nurturing, comforting, soothing, attention, acceptance, appreciation, understanding, and emotional warmth. As we grow older, these emotional needs don't go away. As adults, we still want to be, in Gabor Maté's words, "seen, understood, empathized with and 'gotten' on the emotional level." When we are in a loving relationship, it is to our partner that we turn for the satisfaction of these fundamental needs.
Many of us have internalized the message that, when we are one half of a couple, it is very important to remain strong, self-sufficient, to some degree independent. We do not want to be consumed by the relationship, we do not want to lose ourselves. When two people lose their own sense of self it is called enmeshment, and yes, it is dysfunctional and ultimately disastrous. But I believe that the popularization of this concept has led people to overreact. While it is extremely unhealthy to become emotionally dependent on one's partner, it is not only acceptable but absolutely essential for a successful relationship that each person perceive and satisfy their partner's attachment needs when they arise.
Sue Johnson, the main proponent of Emotionally-Focused Therapy, maintains that attachment needs are at the heart of most failed relationships.
When an attachment need has been repeatedly neglected, ignored, or dismissed, either by our parents during childhood, or during a past or present romantic relationship, we are certain to feel emotionally deprived or deserted. This results in the kind of hypersensitivity that Sue Johnson calls 'raw spots'. A person who has been burned will carry for some time a wound that is so tender that the lightest touch results in extreme pain. The same is true of emotions.
Say I grew up with cold and distant parents who, though they loved me in their own way, were never able to demonstrate that love. I might internalize the conclusion that they did not care about me, and carry this deep-seated pain into my adult life. Decades later, my wife might act in a way which I interpret - unconsciously and perhaps incorrectly - as meaning that she does not care about me, and this rubs my raw spot. Ancient longings and fears are stirred, default paths of mental wiring kick in, hormones and other chemicals flood my mind and body, my intellect struggles to justify the excessive reaction, and I get set to move in a particular direction, toward, away from, or against my wife. For her part, she is confused by my over-reaction, and perhaps some of her own attachment cues are triggered. Perhaps my aggressive body language pokes one of her old raw spots, a perennially unsatisfied need for physical and emotional safety. The more they are touched, the more tender our raw spots become, the more we are moved to protect ourselves, and the more likely we are to interpret our partner's words and actions as attacks or examples of unforgivable betrayal.
When a person repetitively, albeit unintentionally, touches their partner's raw spots, the damage inflicted is doubled: not only have they become a source of pain, they have also displaced themselves as the best antidote to that pain, the person who is in the best position to offer comfort.
Next week I will discuss what can be done to combat this problem.