Attachment – The Tie That Truly Binds

Two lovers come into the therapist’s office, raw and wounded from months, or years, of painful conflict.  Perhaps they are in their seventh year of marriage.   Maybe they’ve been together 20 years.  (Marriage expert John Gottman says that the two peaks for divorce are in the first 7 years of marriage or in the 16-20 year range.)   Whatever their time together, there is one thing that most of these very sad and stressed couples have in common:  Their relationship shares the basic need for Attachment that this mother and child display .   What is “attachment?”   As John Bowlby first explained to us, attachment is a fundamental need for connection with another.  It is as biologically driven as food.  Children deprived of a safe, secure bond with a caregiver (usually the mother, but not always) will suffer dearly.  This need doesn’t go away just because we grow hair under our arms.   It prevails throughout life.   Attachment for a one year old means a secure base.  Touch mom.  Know she’s there.  Then explore your world.  Without that base, life is overwhelming and the child is lost.  Attachment means a safe haven.   When life threatens, our attachment figure is where we turn for security.  If you think this is just about babies ask yourself: Have I been more productive and comfortable in the world as an adult when I was in a secure relationship (if you have been so fortunate)?  Ask as well:  Who did adults call on their cell phones when the airliners slammed into the Twin Towers on 9/11?  Their husbands/wives/partners/closest friends…first call was to attachment figures.  The godmother of adult attachment theory and how it affects our intimate relationships is Dr. Sue Johnson.  Her approach to marital therapy for these desperately struggling people who are bonded, yet alienated, is Emotionally Focused Therapy.  Her book  Hold Me Tight is a guiding light for couples seeking reconnection.

The Promise of Neurofeedback

Finally!  Neurofeedback therapy inches its way into the general public consciousness with a very balanced and informative piece on NPR’s Morning Edition on the 1st of this month.  Long recognized as effective in the treatment of many distressing conditions – including ADHD, mood disorders, anxiety and sleep disorders – Neurofeedback has shared the fate of many promising and healing approaches to individual care which are considered “out of the mainstream.”  In a wholly different vein, Collaborative Law, an incredibly supportive (and even healing) approach to the personal trauma of divorce, has faced resistance (and even hostility) from those who can’t imagine doing something differently from the way its been done for a long time.   The rationale for not changing?  “That’s the way we do it.”  One of the great books of the last many years was Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, in which he describes many a movement (social, marketing, etc.) which built and built until something happened….one thing….and all the dormant forces behind the movement were unleashed and the momentum driving the idea or product into legitimacy and prominence seemed, suddenly, unstoppable.   We may have reached that tipping point in the recognition of the promise of neurofeedback therapy.

The Decision to Divorce

Maybe the hardest decision in one’s life – the Decision to Divorce.  In my experience it is never a decision taken lightly.  Here’s how it seems to work in most cases.   You feel disatisfied or increasingly discouraged with the relationship.   After many arguments over the same thing, or attempts to get your partner to hear what is so vitally important to you, without success, the thought of ending the relationship begins to dawn.  Imagine a bright line boundary – on one side is “Emotional Commitment to Marriage,” on the other, “Emotional Disengagement from Marriage.”  You seem to bounce up against the boundary continually, but your commitment to your relationship is stong enough to keep you from crossing over.  It looks a bit like this  ……………….

You can go on for months or years, just bouncing up against that boundary.  You believe you have let your partner know that you were feeling desparate about your disconnection.  You know that you have tried.  Then, one day, something happens inside you.  Maybe it was another fight over the same thing.  Maybe it was just waking up one morning and looking at yourself in the mirror and knowing something has changed inside of you.  Whatever the spur – you have crossed over the boundary…and this boundary that for a moment seemed open enough for you to pass through has closed up.  It has become an emotional, impenetrable wall.   Now your process looks something like this:

When I start the process of divorce mediation with a couple, one of the first things I want to determine is whether one of the partners has crossed over that line.  Almost always this has occurred.   On the infrequent occasions it hasn’t, a referral to a couples therapist is always made. 

A really important lesson I have learned over the years is that once a person has crossed over that boundary they have made a decision that is unchangeable.  If you are the partner who feels left, you may experience a wide range of wrenching emotions – grief, fury, confusion, a sense of betrayal.   My recommendation is to get help with those emotions.  Seek out counseling.  Read helpful books, like Bruce Fisher’s excellent, Rebuilding.  Your life has changed – and while you may need to process through the trauma  and the deep sense of injustice you may feel, once your partner has crossed over the line they will not cross back.  While you may be drawn to do whatever you can to try to get them to do this, those efforts will amost certainly be fruitless and (here’s the important part) they will cause you deep and lacerating pain and frustration.  My hope for those who have been left is that you find the resources you need to manage the pain and direct your energy to caring for yourself and slowly discovering your path to recovery.