In this post we talked about how research has shown that couples therapy is becoming more and more effective in helping individual issues. The reason is because everyone needs a support system and everyone needs to feel connected to others, especially to our significant other, emotionally. This need for connection to others is known as the Attachment Theory in psychology.
We also talked about if an individual has experienced trauma, if they have a significant other walk with them through their healing process, then they are more likely to heal and heal quicker than if they had to go at it alone.
Part II will discuss why couples counseling is effective in helping individuals overcome trauma. Susan Johnson, a highly respected couple’s therapist, said, “Isolation and a lack of secure connection to others undermine a person’s ability to deal with traumatic experience. Conversely, secure emotional connections with significant others offer a powerful antidote to traumatic experience (Johnson, in press).”
How does a secure relationship help us heal and deal with trauma? Well, to simplify it, a traumatic experience turns our world upside down and a good relationship with our significant other can turn our world around by soothing us, offering safety, promoting confidence and trust, and helping us to feel comfortable in taking risks and learning new coping mechanisms to name a few.
On the other hand if your relationship is not good then that in-and-of-itself is a traumatic experience. If you have experienced war, past sexual abuse, a life altering accident, or any other sort of trauma, a poor connection with your spouse can actually worsen the trauma from the past.
“A significant portion of clients identified as having borderline personality disorders, most of whom are survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA), improve substantially in later life if they find a positive attachment relationship with an understanding other (Stone, 1990).”
Brad uses the Attachment Theory as a foundation when working with couples. He works with couples to feel and become closer to each other by helping individuals feel comfortable being honest and forthright talking about issues. He also helps each spouse rise to the occasion and teaches them how to become that caring support system their spouse so desperately needs.
So here are the 10 central tenants of attachment theory as described by Susan Johnson in her book Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy with Trauma Survivors (some of this is copied directly from her book and some is my own interpretation in order to best explain attachment):
- Attachment is an innate motivating force. We all desire to be close. It is imbedded in our genetic make up. It isn’t simply an infantile need but is what we all need in order to survive.
- Secure dependence complements autonomy. “There is no such thing as complete independence from others or overdependence (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999). There is only effective or ineffective dependance.” Surprisingly, the more securely dependent we are the more autonomous and separate we can confidently be.
- Attachment offers a safe haven. Even back in the stone age people lived together, worked together, fought together and without one another there surely would be no procreation and death of a population was insured. As a survival mechanism, people need to be securely bonded to one another for safety. If this is not possible stress and uncertainty is the outcome.
- Attachment offers a secure base. It is a spring board for people and a foundation they can refer to. When you know you have a secure place to return to you feel more confident and encouraged to explore the world and take necessary risk, to learn, and continually reinvent yourself.
- Accessibility and responsiveness build bonds. The building blocks of secure bonds are emotional accessibility and responsiveness. It is emotional engagement that is crucial. In attachment terms, any response (even anger) is better than none. If there is no engagement, no emotional responsiveness, the message from the attachment figure is “Your signals don’t matter, and there is no connection between us.”
- Fear and uncertainty activate attachment needs. When an individual is threatened (by traumatic events, the negative aspects of everyday life such as illness, or an assault on the security of the attachment bond itself) emotions arise and the need for comfort and connection become very obvious. People begin to ask “Where am I in proximity to my spouse?” or “Where do we stand?” or “What does my partner think of me?” or “Do they love me?” or “Can I depend on you when I need you?”.
- The promise of separation distress is predictable. When someone reaches out to the spouse for connection but the spouse fails to comfort them and respond to their efforts then the normal response is angry protest, clingy behavior, depression, and despair. Ultimately, this leads to detachment. Depression is a very natural response to a lack of connection in your relationships.
- A finite number of insecure forms of engagement can be identified. There are only so many ways a person can respond to negative answers to the plea for connection. Our responses fit into two different categories: anxiety and avoidance. When the attachment or connection between an irreplaceable other like your spouse, a parent, or a child anxious behavior may increase. You may become more clingy, pursue harder, and even become quite aggressive. Or you may become more detached or avoid the situation or conversations out of fear. These are strategies people use to protect themselves from further pain.
- Attachment involves working models of the self and the other. This is how you view yourself and how you view others. If you view yourself as lovable and worthy of care and as confident and competent this is a secure attachment and can determine your responses to situations. Securely attached relationships can help us grow and become a person who views ourself that way because we look to others to validate our opinions naturally. Securely attached people, who believe others will be responsive when needed, tend to have working models of others as dependable and worthy of trust. These outlooks are formed by thousands of interactions and become expectations and biases carried forward into new relationships. The way we relate to ourselves and our significant other is infused with emotion.
- Isolation and loss are inherently traumatizing. When someone has experienced trauma in their past and the isolation that follows, their personality formation and their ability to deal with other stresses in life is greatly altered.