Updated: Jun 28
What is "attachment" in relationships? Tom Philp, LPC, explains different types of attachment and why it's important to understand attachments in your relationship with your partner.
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We talk a lot about attachment in our clinic, but it dawned on me, we've never really formally defined what attachment is. We hear a lot about it these days in culture, but I find that sometimes it gets confusing.
Most people think that it's any form of connection. We can feel attached to a car or attached to our house or our favorite gift of some kind, but that's not really what we're talking about when we talk about human attachment.
I thought I’d take a few minutes and talk about attachment, to find it for us and then talk about the different varieties of attachment.
Let's define it first. Attachment first and foremost is a close emotional bond with another human being, right? And that close emotional bond actually provides specific functions for each of those partners in a relationship.
If I’m hurt, I’m scared, I’m upset, I’m going to turn to my attachment figure in my life to try to be able to get reassurance from my partner. In this particular case it's my wife, right? If I’m concerned, stressed, upset about something, then I can turn to her and she provides me a sense of safety and comfort and reassurance about whatever it is I’m stressed or worried about.
Attachment provides a really important function that, when I need somebody, they are available to me for reassurance.
Another thing attachment does is it provides an emotional responsivity to their partner. Not only is my partner there, but she's able to respond in a way that makes me feel better, that comforts me and soothes me when I’m upset and when I need her and vice versa, a strong attachment relationship certainly goes both ways. We certainly are a rock for one another in times of need, whether it's from stress outside the relationship or from stress just in our own conflicts that come up from time to time.
What's interesting is that there are actually different varieties of attachment. So, I want to pull a story from Colby Pierce in her book “Attachment”, because I think she illustrates it so well.
What she says is that there are three mice and each mouse has a box of its own that he or she lives in and in that box is a little lever and when they are hungry and need food, they go over and they push that lever and food may or may not appear.
So, for the first mouse in the box, when they push the lever a pellet of food always appears: It's consistent, no matter how often that mouse pushes that lever, a pellet is going to drop out.
So, that mouse understands that it doesn't need to push the lever all the time because food will appear and it feels safe and secure in the knowledge and the comfort, knowing that that food will appear when it needs to press the lever. When it's hungry, that level will respond with a reward.
The second box containing the mouse, it goes over and it hits the lever. However, instead of the first mice or the first mouse in the first box, this mouse actually doesn't receive food every single time, it receives food intermittently and so, it creates a sense of anxiety because the mouse is never quite sure when the food is going to pop out.
So, this mouse becomes very anxious about when it might be able to get food and when it's hungry and the kind of responsivity that that lever will give it, when it needs its food and so, it goes over and it might press the lever a lot because food's only going to come out intermittently, periodically and so, it has to go over and constantly press that lever in order to figure out and he's looking for a pattern in that responsivity from the trigger.
The third box with the third mouse, it comes over and it pushes the lever and it never gets food, there's never any kind of response and so, it learns to completely ignore the trigger in the box, because that mouse is never going to be able to get the food that it needs. It's never going to have the response from that trigger when it is hungry to fill its need and so, often what we see, we see a variety of types of attachments. We see a secure attachment, where the first mouse lived, where he could go over and press the lever and receive the food and felt comfort and safety in the responsivity of that lever.
We see anxious attachment in people sometimes, that are never quite sure that they're going to get the response from their partner that they really need. So, oftentimes they'll go over and they'll really push and press and pursue their partner because they're longing for that responsibility that they need and they had it so intermittently growing up, that they're never quite comfortable or reassured they're going to get it when they need it.
And finally, the third box is what we call dismissive attachment because that mouse learned that it was never going to get the food and the responsivity from the lever anytime it pushed it and so, we have some varieties of attachment that occur and these affect our adult relationships in which we live in.
Sometimes we have partners that are very anxious and are constantly needing that reassurance from their partner. Sometimes we have partners that are dismissive and they've almost turned off any need for close connection because they don't feel like they're going to ever get it and their partner is not ever really going to be there for them and then of course, we see partners that are very safe and secure and both are able to turn towards each other in times of need.
I hope this clears up a little bit about what attachment is, what it looks like in couples that we deal with and the different varieties of attachments.
Hey, thanks for watching. Be sure and go to our website stonebridgecouples.com, we've got a variety of eBooks out there. You can download all of them, any of them you want for free. Thanks for watching, we'll see you next time!
- Tom Philp, LPC, CEO
Stonebridge Couples Therapy