By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
This past weekend, I attended an interesting presentation by Dr. Dan Hill, director and founder of PsyBC, which provides online continuing education to mental health clinicians. He discussed attachment theory: the idea that mother-infant relationships set the stage for how those infants will feel throughout their lives about themselves and how they relate with other people who are important to them. Infants who feel cared about and can rely on being comforted by their mothers when they are distressed become adults who feel good about themselves and can nurture healthy relationships. In psychological terms, they are securely attached. Those who cannot rely on their mothers to connect with and comfort them struggle later in life with how they feel about themselves and with their relationships. They are insecurely attached.
It is extremely interesting to note that mothers of secure infants are attuned (have an accurate sense of, and empathy for, their children’s emotional state) only 40% of the time. So, they are far from perfect in attending to their children. However, when there is a problem with their connection, they repair it. If part of the problem is that they become caught up in their own emotions, they calm themselves and refocus on their baby. If their baby is highly distressed and disconnected, the mother remains calm and comforting. What’s important is that when the connection between the mother and child is disrupted, the mother can repair the problem; and she is available to do this repeatedly.
For a healthy adult relationship, you must also be able to repair disruptions in your connection with your partner. All emotionally intimate relationships include times when the partners don’t connect or are at odds with each other. So, repairing the connection at those times is essential for the relationship to continue to be safe; and it even strengthens the relationship.
The more secure your attachment was in childhood, the more easily this will come now – though it is rarely easy. But, if you didn’t have such a secure attachment as a child and struggle with maintaining relationships now, you can still choose to do the work of repairing your connection when it is disrupted. Hopefully you have enough of a base of trust, connection, and safety with your partner that you can risk putting yourself in the vulnerable position of coming back to your partner in a caring way.
After some emotional strain between you, choose to be self-aware: You might need to be apart from your partner to do this. Focus on your feelings, such as hurt, angry, or sad. Identify as many emotions as you can. The idea here is to make you (not your partner) the center of your awareness. You want to be able to complete the sentence: When my partner did ______, it made me feel _______.
If you tend to fear being rejected, then you might struggle with this and get caught up in your emotions. Take time away from your partner to calm down. Then approach your partner when you are able to clearly share how your partner’s actions affected you. Make sure to focus more on your feelings than on their behavior. Also, listen carefully to their thoughts and feelings so that you can understand their experience and work toward bridging the gap between you.
When you repair disconnections in your relationship, you will find that you feel closer to your partner. And, over time, you will also find that you feel safer in your relationship. To feel close and safe – safe enough to know in your heart that you can fix problems that arise between you – bodes well for your future as a couple.
The Art of Relationship s blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.