Psychology, like any field of study, has created a unique language to describe its findings. Sometimes the language we use in psychology can sound foreign to those outside the field.
Certain words, like attachment, trauma, and defenses, have made their way into common discourse in Western society, but they still might cause confusion as to what they really mean.
Counseling psychology should bring clarity, not confusion, to people’s lives. It should provide a pathway to growth and healing in everyday language so that others can quickly grasp the meaning and utilize the tools psychology has to offer.
So, what do all these words really mean anyway? And what do they look like and feel like in everyday situations? What follows is a jargon-free guide to some of the most commonly used terms and their everyday situations.
This is a term used to describe the emotional bond between two people. Attachment takes an average of 18 months to develop between partners.
Once established, it is the glue that binds two people together so they are dependent on one another. Attachment is a biological necessity.
We are made to attach to others as a survival mechanism and as protection against the stresses of life. As John Bowlby, the creator of attachment theory, is fond of saying, “We are made to attach from cradle to grave.”
Most couples have been together long enough to become attached, but not always securely. Insecurely attached couples may have frequent ruptures in their relationship that cause conflict, confusion, hurt, and unmet needs. Insecure couples find it difficult to depend on one another for their emotional needs to be met, and they often do not feel safe to be open and vulnerable with each other.
This is a term that is used to describe an experience (sometimes by force of nature, but most often inflicted by another person) that overwhelms the person’s ability to cope and creates a deep emotional wound. The impact of trauma disrupts the person’s ability to feel safe and calm inside themselves, as well as to maintain lasting relationships.
Many couples have a history of trauma, making it difficult for them to create a secure attachment. One or both partners might get triggered by each other, thus reliving the painful past trauma in their current relationship.
Some couples end up creating a negative trauma cycle that comes to define the relationship as both insecure and emotionally unsafe.
This is a term that is used to describe the strategies that people use to protect themselves from getting hurt. We all have defenses we use at various times in our relationships.
When we rely too long and too often on the same defenses, they can often work against us and limit our ability to create strong attachments to others.
There are many types of strategies couples use to protect themselves, but couples often use the same 4: defensiveness, criticism, contempt, and stonewalling.
1. Defensiveness is playing the victim card so as not to take responsibility for your part in the cycle. Defensiveness is a lack of ownership over your own thoughts, feelings, actions, and words.
2. Criticism is blaming your partner in a general way. You may use “always” or “never” as blanket statements rather than being specific about your issues.
3. Contempt is attacking your partner’s character, or using sarcasm, mocking tones, name calling, or disrespectful language when interacting with your partner. It is especially dangerous, because it often means the partner using contempt is viewing the relationship in extremely negative terms.
4. Stonewalling is shutting down and shutting out your partner. It is turning away and turning off any impact your partner has on you.
Most likely you have heard of all these terms before, but hopefully these descriptions have helped place them in a context that makes them more easily understood. Furthermore, they are not disconnected terms — they all hang together.
The attachment bond can be fragile. When ruptures appear in relationships, they are often caused by past traumas that get triggered, causing protective strategies (i.e. defensiveness, criticism, contempt, stonewalling) to arise, thus creating negative cycles in the relationship.
Even so, the attachment drive is always within us, encouraging us and making us strive to feel safely connected to our partner. Underneath the defenses, traumas, and cycles, lie the beating hearts of two people who long to be loved and accepted.
- Tom Philp, LPC & CEO Stonebridge Couples