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  • Writer's pictureAmos Gdalyahu

You've Got a Friend - Attachment Theory

"When you're down and troubled And you need some loving care And nothing, nothing is going right Close your eyes and think of me And soon I will be there To brighten up even your darkest night You just call out my name And you know wherever I am I'll come running to see you again Winter, spring, summer or fall All you have to do is call And I'll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah" Carole King

The subject of this post is support during difficult times and its critical importance in romantic relationships. This is a central topic in psychology (Attachment theory), which in part is explained biologically and has many implications. It is important to understand it in order to understand our own behavior and the behavior of those around us.

The song demonstrates a partner supports (in presence and touch) during times of distress. This is a central skill in romantic relationships because long-term human relationships are based on the attachment system that can be expressed in two complementary innate behaviors: the emotional support (Caregiving) behavior and seeking help in times of stress. These are behaviors that we are born with and we can see that even infants support each other when one cries and needs help. In adolescence, a second system joins: the sexual passion system. These systems work together, they have interlocking relationships, and they enable long-term relationships, that is, romantic relationships.

Here, I will explain the attachment theory.

The attachment theory When a baby is hungry, he is distressed and cannot help himself - feeding him calms him down and provides him with nourishment. This is the basis for the idea behind the attachment system: stress leads to a need for proximity. Proximity provides security and then one can go out again to play and explore the world.

We look for proximity in figures that usually give us security, our attachment figures. But the goal is not proximity itself but security, to alleviate stress and relieve distress. Proximity to attachment figures provides security.

But even that is not accurate: in fact, the ultimate goal is not security but to be an autonomous and free person. However, the condition for being an autonomous and free person is first and foremost to be secure. When we are not secure, our resources are directed toward defense. Only after there is security can we distance ourselves from our attachment figures and direct our resources toward exploration of the world, play, and sex. When we are secure, we can direct resources toward what we want. In other words, we are free to choose. To summarize: During times of distress, the attachment system pushes us to seek out a support figure and get closer to them. The proximity to the attachment figure provides security that reduces stress and allows us to leave the attachment figure and embark on new adventures.

Unfortunately, this system can be exploited: if we create an experience of threat, of stress, it leads to a desire to approach whoever is perceived as an attachment figure. But let's leave exploitation aside to continue explaining the system. The caregiver Attachment theory speaks about our innate behavior to seek closeness during times of stress from someone perceived by us as an attachment figure. This requires that humans have a complementary system that does not leave the need for closeness unanswered. This is the care system. The supporter needs to respond to needs when there are needs (stress) and not when there are no needs, in order to enable the next stage: independent exploration. The caregiver receives from being supportive meaning which has critical significance to our sense of happiness. However, in the role of the supporter, support is not received: Caregiving is not for copping with the caregiver stress. In the role of the supporter, there is a fulfillment of the supporter's role. It is likely that the support is also mentally difficult for the caregiver, who identifies with the suffering of the supported individual. But the caregiver receives support elsewhere. It's important for therapists to not mix the roles. Attachment figures (caregivers) provide a sense of security during times of distress (come) and a safe base to embark on adventures (go) after the distress subsides. Additionally, roles interchange: sometimes, I am in the caregiver role and sometimes I'm the one who is in stress (for example, with young parents versus elderly parents, or at different times within a relationship, and at the same time, I can support someone while being supported by someone else).

Usually, the caregiver is a parent or a partner, but in any hierarchical relationship system, this system exists: at work, in therapy, in the army, etc. Both God and the group (a sports team/a group of friends) are also supportive figures. It is important to remember that the attachment system developed to create a loving connection, and when support comes from the workplace, for example, it can be exploited because we rely on a workplace which helps us not out of love but out of their own interest. Our connections, including with the workplace, are based on a system which we're born with of creating a relationship with a loving figure who gives us security. The receiver The attachment system exists in all of us, and even in very pathological cases, remnants of it is still found. However, life events shape it, as I'll explain in the next paragraph. Unfortunately, not always when there is stress the attachment figures do respond to the need. When this happens chronically, we may learn that the need in time of stress is not met, that we are not worthy of being loved, there is no one to rely on, the world is cold, mistrust of others maybe created, and a feeling of being a victim may develops. When any of these happens, there is a biological change in the design of the attachment system with behavioral consequences. For example, in the extreme case of parental neglect, it is found that children grow up to be adults with attachment problems.

Not only in children, but also in adults, learning can occur from life experiences leading to changes in the attachment system. Although after adolescence, attachment patterns are quite stable, significant events as well as treatments (hopefully) create change. A significant event can change the belief that it is worthwhile to seek help in order to gain security. This can be a change for the better or for the worse.

By the way, in adults, attachment figures can also operate without their physical presence. In adults the attachment figures undergo internalization, and it is enough to imagine them or see a picture of them, for example, to gain security. Yet physical stable presence still provide better support even in adults. The more physical the presence, the greater the support: a hug, holding hands, these are expressions of support that we are built to rely on in times of crisis.

To summarize so far: In times of stress, we seek security from our attachment figures. Mostly childhood but also adult experiences together with innate characteristics determine patterns of attachment that can, albeit not easily, be changed. So what are attachment patterns?

"When you're weary, feeling small When tears are in your eyes, I'll dry them all I'm on your side, oh, when times get rough And friends just can't be found

Like a bridge over troubled water I will lay me down" From 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', written by Paul Simon

Pattern of attachment are described using two axes that are independent of each other. Each of us can be located somewhere on the spectrum in each one of these axes.

One axis is the anxiety axis, and people located high on this axis (preoccupied) are stuck in the stage of seeking help. It is thought that as their needs were not met they learned they were not worthy of love. They have a negative view of themselves and tend to feel insecure. Even when they have supportive figures with them, it is difficult for them to believe that they will stay or help them. Supporting others is difficult for them because they are busy seeking support for themselves. They are characterized by low and unstable self-confidence, dependence in relationships with others, and high sensitivity to rejection. Additionally, they experience long periods of difficult emotions such as anxiety, depression, and anger, which may lead to pathological conditions. The second axis is the avoidance axis. Those who are high on this axis (dismissing avoidant) deny stress. "Everything is fine, there is no problem." Therefore, they skip over seeking support (because in their view there is no problem, so they don't need support) and continue with their activities. In a deeper level, it is thought that when their needs were not met they learned that they couldn't count on others. They have a negative view of other people. These people are characterized as being a soloist. When they see someone in distress, they distance themselves because they are removed from their own pain and that of others. They are also characterized by excessive self-reliance, lack of trust in others, and a central motif explaining their behavior is inflating the self, their ego, as if they are trying to justify their internal belief that they need to rely only on themselves. Even in situations of prolonged stress, they will avoid seeking support, and in the end, they will explode. Often, it will manifest with somatic problems.

Sexually speaking, avoidant individuals in relationships both men and women tend to avoid physical intimacy. They don't hug or hold hands when their partner is in distress. As a result, they are less practiced in physical touch and less comfortable with it. Additionally, they have less sensitivity to their partner's emotional state. As expected, their partners are less satisfied with sex with them, and the frequency of sex with them is lower, which further reduces sexual satisfaction in the relationship.

Both avoidant and anxious individuals tend to be controlling and excessively involved in their partner's lives, even when it is not necessary. This harms the self-esteem of their partners, who receive the message that "they cannot manage on their own." Additionally, being controlling is characterized by inflexibility, i.e., "my way or no way," which limits playfulness, exploration, fantasy, and change in their partners. Also this leads to less sexual satisfaction in their partners.

Since anxiety and avoidance are two independent dimensions, there are people who 'win' at both dimensions with a attachment style that is both anxious and avoidant, also known as unorganized fearful avoidant attachment. Often, this is a result of sexual abuse or violence from those who were supposed to be their security figures. They learn to fear the security figure, who sometimes provides security and sometimes exploits them. The sudden loss of a security figure can also lead to learning that one cannot trust a security figure. Those people transition between the two patterns.

However, most people are relatively low on both dimensions and have a secure attachment style - which is great news. Since it is a spectrum, even those who generally have a secure attachment style usually have room for even more secure attachment. A more secure attachment will, among other things, lead to more sexual satisfaction for their partner - as I wrote before. That is, someone who is emotionally supportive when there is a need for it (rather than when there is no need) enhances their partner's secure attachment and ultimately will enjoy more satisfying sex lives. Sometimes there is justice in the world! Why is it important?

Attachment patterns have an impact on how we experience love, our response to difficult events, our relationships and sexual satisfaction with our partners, optimal functioning in other areas, and understanding interpersonal dynamics helps clarify many situations in life. So let's continue.

What is my attachment pattern and its connection to love? It turns out that while people experience love in a similar basic way, different attachment patterns color the experience differently. How does your attachment pattern influence your experience? I took the next part from an older but influential article, and in the future, I will provide more updated information, but this is the foundation. (The article is "Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process," 1987 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology). Read the following three descriptions and choose which one suits you best:

  1. It's easy for me to get close to people and I feel comfortable being dependent on them or when they are dependent on me. Only occasionally do I worry about being abandoned or afraid that someone is getting too close to me.

  2. To some extent, I feel uncomfortable being close to others, it's hard for me to trust others 100% and it's hard for me to be dependent on others. Often romantic partners want more closeness with me than I'm comfortable with.

  3. People are hesitant to get close to me as much as I would like them to. Often I'm afraid that my partner doesn't really love me or doesn't want to stay with me. I want to be completely united with my partner and this passion sometimes scares people.

Roughly half of people choose the first pattern, the secure one. It turns out that these people experience love as something joyful, friendly, and trusting. They are willing to accept and support their partner despite their shortcomings. On average, their significant relationships last about 10 years (which may seem a little short, but considering the average age in all groups was 36, it was not). They report that the intensity of love fluctuates over time and can reach the heights of the beginning.

About a quarter of people choose the second pattern, the avoidant one. For them, love is characterized by emotional fluctuations, jealousy, and fear of intimacy, and their relationships last an average of 6 years. For them, the feeling of being "head-over-heels" in love does not exist in reality, and love usually fades over time, making it difficult for them to fall in love.

For the remaining quarter, the anxious attachment style love involves obsessive behaviour, a desire for union and intimacy, emotional roller-coaster, jealousy, and extreme sexual attraction. Their relationships last an average of 5 years. It's easy for them to fall in love, but hard for them to feel like they've found true love. The fearful-avoidant individuals, those who score high on both dimensions, are a late addition to the model and make up about 5% of the population. Remember that in reality, it's a spectrum and not black and white. Maybe you can see that you identify with the attachment style you chose 70% of the time and with another style 30% of the time.

Attachment patterns and traumas

The same difficult experience can cause one person to experience trauma while another person continues with their life as usual. Why is that? One reason is that secure attachments provide resilience against trauma. A person with a secure attachment knows how to cope with stress and seeks support (as opposed to avoidance), and they don't need to search for it because they know where to turn to (partner, friend, therapist, God, etc.).

People with insecure attachments may find refuge in time of stress in drugs that give them a sense of well-being and calmness. But unlike a attachment figure - which provides both support (come) and releases them afterwards (go) - drugs only bring the "come," and therefore the risk of addiction is higher for them. This is because, unlike other people who take drugs for pleasure, those with insecure attachments seek support for their distress rather than enjoyment as recreation. Similarly, people and animals whose lives are lacking social interactions and support get much more addicted to drugs than those whose lives are rich in social interactions and support.

As expect, it is found that an insecure attachment style is more common among people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is important to recognize this because the likelihood of developing trauma can be reduced, at least in people with an anxious attachment: the more support they receive, even if it is occasional, or the more emphasis they put on attachment figures during a difficult period (such as during war), the fewer post-traumatic symptoms they will have afterwards. However, this only helps people with an anxious attachment. One-time support does not matter to people with secure or avoidant attachment, and certainly does not help people who already have PTSD.

When a difficult event occurs and there is no support for the stress, in anxious individuals the anxiety will intensify and a constant survival alarm will develop, while in avoidant individuals the avoidance will intensify.

Even in individuals who have already developed post-traumatic stress disorder, there is a search for support figures. It is believed that if they are searching, there is a reason for their search: there is a possibility of building a healing experience for them. In other words, although one-time support does not help them in stressful situations, prolonged support from their support figures can create a change and generate a sense of security and a change in their belief in other people. Additionally, the therapist should remember that these individuals are chronically feeling lonely, in a dead end, and rejected. A secure attachment figure improves cognitive functioning. There is a lot of evidence showing how an attachment figure - and in adults even just looking at its picture - helps with cognitive functioning: in hearing tests, when people look at a picture of their attachment figure they hear better compared to when they look at a picture of someone they don't know (!). With children, it has been seen that they perform better in games when their parents are watching them, compared to when their parents are in the same place but looking at their phone. When people see a picture of a hill and are asked how steep it is, regardless of attachment theory, the more tired they are, the steeper the hill appears to them. However, if they are tired and see a picture of a attachment figure, suddenly the hill appears less steep. Also, at the very end of army training, when soldiers are almost exhausted, families join them for the last kilometer of the journey and it suddenly becomes much easier. Taken together: the presence of a secure attachment figure improves cognitive functioning. This means that loosing an attachment figure (after romantic separation or death) may cause a deterioration in cognitive functioning. How does this happen? The assumption is that security allows the brain to be more focused on the task and not be distracted by other activities in search for security.

A bit about the underlying biology: The attachment theory was developed in psychology and its connection to biology is still evolving. The clearest example: voles. Voles are rodents that look like mice, but unlike mice, some of their species are monogamous - meaning they form long-term bonds. They raise their offspring together, stay close to each other, comfort each other, and if one of them disappears, the other becomes depressed. In other words, they are attached to each other and suitable for research on relationships. When monogamous voles whose genetics is similar to the non-monogamous suffer parental neglect, they grow up to become adults who do not form long-term relationships. In other words, genetics, together with the life experience - but not each one alone - shape the ability to connect. In monogamous prairie voles, it was hypothesized that their attachment occurs through substances called oxytocin and vasopressin, and this turned out to be a correct hypothesis. Life events change the amount of oxytocin and its receptors in the brain. Amazingly, the life-style difference between the monogamous and the non-monogamous voles is explained by the the existence of receptors to either oxytocin or vasopressin in some brain areas.

This is just the tip of the iceberg from the biological research on the pair-bond. Following the success of research on prairie voles, a recent elegant study was conducted on monogamous mice (the California mouse) to find, using the most modern methods, the biological basis of bonding without guesswork. However, that will be in another post. There are also brain activity scans in humans in the context of the theory of attachment, and in general, there are thousands of articles on this topic, so I can't cover everything this time.

Criticism of Attachment Theory:

  • The theory places responsibility for our adult behavior on childhood support figures so it reduces our responsibility and can encourage victimization. As always, there is use and there is abuse.

  • In order to be 'good' parents and support their children, parents avoid setting boundaries.

  • Secure attachment creates social people but also obedient ones.

  • The biological mechanism at the brain level is mostly unknown.

Points to remember:

  1. Even as adults, we need attachment figures during times of distress. If they are not available, we can imagine them.

  2. When someone you consider a attachment figure is going through a difficult time, your presence and touch are important to them.

  3. Security is a basic need. People who give a sense of security are perceived as support figures. That's why politicians want to be "tough on security," and it works best for those in distress. The same thing happens in any group: the person who exudes the most confidence will be a support figure, which will be reflected during times of stress.

  4. Faith is based on the need for security.

  5. Cognitive function improves when we feel secure, and the loss of a support figure is expected to lead to a decrease in function.

  6. More than money, what gives us security are meaningful social relationships with people we know we can get support from.

I also don't know everything and would be happy to receive comments, clarifications, and updates!

Bibliography (a limited list)

1. Lectures by Prof. Mario Mikulincer: attachment and psychopathology attachment and trauma attachment and management

2. Better cognitive performance in the presence of an attachment figure: * better hearing

* child play when parents watch

3. Attachment theory and trauma:

4. Attachment style and sexuality:

5. Attachment style and love: 1. Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process (1987)

6. "The genetic basis of parental care evolution in monogamous mice" Nature (2017) Bendesky, Andres, Kwon, Young Mi, Lassance, Jean Marc, Lewarch, Caitlin L., Yao, Shenqin, Peterson, Brant K., He, Meng Xiao, Dulac, Catherine, Hoekstra, Hopi E. Very elegant and recent genetics screen compared two strains of mice that differ in their parental style: the rare monogamous mouse of CA, and the usual a-monogamous mouse. The authors used a beautiful combination of techniques. Vasopressin popped up again, but oxytocin did not.

Image from: Wayhomestudio Freepik

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Kedem isabel
Kedem isabel
23 de abr.

היי חברים, אני אנה קדם, אני חדשה פה אני לא יודעת איך הדברים עובדים פה, אבל קראתי פה תגובות טובות ואוסיף קצת מהחיים שלי כי זה יהיה שימושי עבור רבים אנחנו כאן, מחפשים תשובות ומערכות יחסים לפתרון בעיות. הייתי במערכת יחסים עם סמול ארבע שנים, הוא נפרד ממני, עשיתי הכל כדי להחזיר אותו, אבל הכל היה לשווא, כל כך רציתי אותו בגלל האהבה שיש לי לבעלי, ביקשתי ממנו על כל מה שהבטחתי, אבל הוא סירב. הסברתי את הבעיה של מערכת היחסים שלי עם עמית לעבודה והיא הציעה לי לפנות אל מטיל אהבה שיוכל לעזור לי לעשות כישוף אהבה כדי לקבל גבר הביתה, אבל אני אישה שמעולם לא האמינה בקסם, היה לי אין ברירה, ניסיתי, יצרתי קשר עם מטיל כישוף והוא…

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