One of my favorite things about EFT is how rooted in science it is. Gone are the days of psychology being seen as a squishy, not-quite-real science. One of the coolest experiments demonstrating the power of attachment on the brain is explained below. Neuroscientists asked women to brave an electric shock while in an MRI machine so they could observe their brains. In some scenarios, the women were alone, in some they were with strangers, and in others, their partners were with them. When those bonds were secure and loving, women actually experienced less pain and anxiety with the shock, demonstrating how critical attachment really is to the optimal functioning of our bodies and brains. Love is an “ancient, wired-in survival code,” indeed.
For so long, behavioral psychologists have told distressed couples that they all they needed was better “communication skills.” The theory was that if people could just use “I” statements and use active listening, that their conflict would stop. According to new research by Ronald Rogge at the University of Rochester, this myth is busted. It’s not that couples don’t have these skills — they do — it’s that they can’t access them when they’re in conflict, when they’re panicking about the security of their attachment to their loved one. Or, as Sue Johnson explained, “distressed partners who constantly break all the rules of good communication in my couple sessions [can] show exquisitely honed listening and empathy skills with my receptionist.” This, of course, can be maddening for partners who wonder, “how come you can be so nice, generous, and emotionally present with this other person, but not me!?”
So, why do skills not work? Sue theorizes that practicing skills requires us to be up in our heads, thinking about the “steps” rather than feeling the beat of the emotional music. A husband may be saying the right things, but the emotional disconnect keeps it from being meaningful, keeps it from really soothing his distressed wife. Without being emotionally present, we might say soft things, but our face, our tone, our body language may still convey distance, anger, or other invulnerability to our partner. As Sue says, “We have to learn, in real interactions, how to send the heart messages that touch our loved one and move them to care.”
Another EFT therapist shared this clip from Star Trek: Into Darkness a few weeks ago, and I just loved how it explained the inner world of a withdrawer. After a few critical shots from his (pursuer) girlfriend, Uhura, Spock explains how he went through such pain at the loss of his planet that he never wanted to feel that again—he numbed out to protect himself. Like most withdrawers, choosing not to feel has nothing to do for him with not caring, it's just the defense he's learned to put up to keep from being overwhelmed with pain.
Dr. Sue Johnson shared this fabulous song by Edie Brickell with us when she was in Davis last month. I just love how the song and the great illustrations explain the experience of the angry pursuer in relationships, how behind the anger there is so much sadness, loneliness, and longing for connection. Wanting that closeness but being too afraid to ask vulnerably for your needs to be met is such a painful, hard place to be in...and such a trap for this little mouse.
One of the most important things that attachment researchers have done is to demonstrate just how much we are wired for deep, emotional connection with the people that matter to us. In the brilliant — but hard to watch — Still Face Experiment, scientists asked a mother to stop responding to her baby for two minutes, to make her face still and neutral. In that short time, the baby becomes very distressed, trying and trying to reconnect with her caregiver, ultimately turning away in despair from her unresponsive mother.
Fortunately, in the video, mother and baby are quickly reunited and able to repair. But what about the baby who is not so lucky, who has — like many of us had — a depressed, neglectful, or otherwise emotionally unavailable caregiver? What might be the long term impact on that baby’s ability to manage and express emotions, to communicate, and to trust in others? Because our need for attachment is lifelong, this experiment also explains why withdrawing behaviors can be so damaging to romantic partnerships. Just as the baby goes into panic and despair at her mother’s lack of response, so might a husband or wife experience terrible pain and confusion in the face of a shut down, emotionally unresponsive partner.
This simple experiment tells us so much about our profound dependence on our attachment figures, a dependence that we never outgrow.
Mary Ainsworth, one of the key figures in attachment theory, was the first person to determine that there are several distinct attachment styles. She determined this by developing an ingenious experiment called the “strange situation.” In this experiment, toddlers were systematically separated and reunited with their primary caregivers. Some children got upset when their parents left, but when their parents returned to the room, these children actively sought reconnection with their parents and were easily soothed by them. These children were labeled “securely attached.”
Other children were extremely distressed when their parent left, had difficulty being soothed and tended to display punishing behaviors toward the caregiver who had left them. These children had an insecure, “anxious” attachment style, a style typically resulting from an inconsistently available primary caregiver. For these kids, sometimes mom is responsive, sometimes she’s not — it’s unpredictable. Other children seemed to be unfazed by the separation from their parent, and actively avoided contact with their parent upon their return. These children were considered to have an insecure, “avoidant” attachment style, a style typically seen in children with parents who very often fail to respond to their children’s cues for needing closeness and comfort.
So, why does this matter? Because as adults, these styles continue with us into our intimate partner relationships. Those of us who may tend to get really distressed by disconnection and tend to pursue our partners in a critical or blaming way — we are demonstrating the grown-up version of the “anxious” toddler’s behavior. Those of us who tend to shut down and dismiss our needs for our intimate partners — we are the “avoidant” toddler. Pretty amazing, huh?
Here’s a video of the strange situation experiment in action, with examples of the different attachment styles: