• Walt Ferris

Deciphering the Code: Balancing Intimacy and Autonomy in Relationships


We as individuals learn about attachment from the inside-out and the outside-in. From the very beginning, from shortly after conception, we learn about our sense of self-worth and our intrinsic value to others through the ministrations of a responsive, attuned and sensitive care giver. As we mature, we read about it in books and articles. We listen to others talk about it in seminars and podcasts, or we watch it unfold before us in movies and plays. Our beliefs and attitudes about our worthiness for care and comfort are influenced immensely by experiences with early childhood primary attachment figures. The quality of these early encounters determines to a great extent our ability to experience secure, successful intimate relationships throughout our lives. From the very beginning, we as sentient beings are programmed and hard-wired to be held in the arms and minds of an attuned other. We flourish when these conditions are met and poorly when they are not. Our physical and emotional well-being depends on the sensitive response, presence and attunement of our caregivers. It is unimaginable how we would survive, let alone thrive, if these resources were lacking. Gratefully, caregiving and care seeking are basically equivalent components in human nature. We are endowed with the capacity and biological imperative to look after and care for our babies, and they in turn are programmed to respond in kind. We are influenced by our own experiences of being loved and cared for through a series of powerful, attuned and responsive reactions provided by our parents and others. It is very likely that most people would consider their attachment relationships to be their most intimate ones. Such attachments determine how we acquire six key abilities required for intimacy: the ability to seek care, the ability to give care, the ability to feel comfortable with our sense of self, the ability to negotiate time together and time alone, the ability to regulate our emotions and the ability to reflect upon one’s own experience. All of us through a blending of genetic predisposition and environmental nurturance have constructed a set of assumptions, beliefs and behaviors that when activated in times of threat result in individuals seeking proximity to an attachment figure. This system evolved to ensure our safety and survival and influences our perceptions of our worthiness and sensitivities to social rejection. These behaviors and emotions are foundational from the start of life and remain with us from the cradle to the grave. Our worthiness for love and our expectations about our emotional and physical needs being met are created and contained in what theorists and neuroscience experts come to label as an Internal Working Model. Our ability to participate and remain in close relationships, our capacity to love and allow love to come to us, are formed within the parameters of this internal model. The thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, attitudes, perceptions and behaviors are all guided by the cumulative effects of being emotionally held and attuned to by a responsive, sensitive primary caretaker. Expectations of loving and being loved, of real and perceived threats and the capacity to regulate our emotions are based on precedent that have been installed at a very early age and over a prolonged period of time. The degree, quality and consistency of the response and attunement precipitates four basic attachment styles that are predominantly seen and have been described and summarized as follows: • The secure attachment style finds it easy to establish close, intimate relationships with others and allows for comfortable, healthy dependency. A sense of trust is developed that others are available and sensitively responsive, and that the self is seen as loveable and worthy of care. Acceptance, cooperation, availability, comfort and tenderness are qualities and traits associated with this style. Adults with secure attachments are comfortable and enjoy being intimate with other people. The relationships of individuals who are securely attached tend to be warm, trusting, and last for a long time. • The ambivalent/preoccupied/anxious attachment style is noted for preoccupation with fear of abandonment and rejection. There is a preponderance of worry that the other does not love me or at least not as much as would be desirable. This style is prone to highly aroused emotional states and with limited capacity to regulate themselves. They are hard-wired to expect threat in situations when none actually exist. In romantic relationships, there is a hyperactivation of an insatiable need for closeness, to be utterly dependent on another that likely interferes with intimacy and fosters resentment in both partners. • The avoidant/dismissing attachment style relates to the world as if it expects to be harmed or hurt and therefore adopts the defense position of avoiding intimacy and closeness. This style struggles to find how a healthy dependency in relationships would be negotiated and have difficult seeking comfort and care. This attachment style, when feeling negatively aroused, is likely to suppress expression of such feelings. People with this style usually experience support as lacking, often feeling rejected and dismiss the importance of relationships, relying instead on an exaggerated need for autonomy and self-sufficiency. This style is also prone to develop perfectionism as a defense mechanism to rejection. • The insecure/disorganized style is a more recently identified group and is derived from research of high-risk children. These children have had frightening, unpredictable experiences of caregiving from sources that are also the suppliers of needed support and safety. This incompatible, irreconcilable situation leads to development of a set of disorganized, sometimes chaotic internal working models about relationships. There is the simultaneous activation of two competing tendencies; to seek comfort and safe haven from a threatening source while also trying to flee from the same source as well. Relationships are consequently regarded to be hostile, incoherent, frightening and even violent. Although early life experiences with attachment figures are important, it is only one of several factors. Attachment relationships with friends, peers and siblings, as well as current and former romantic partners can contribute to our perspective of ourselves and others. A positive, nurturing relationship with a therapist can facilitate healing for that which had been blocked or deprived in earlier life. For those who have been deprived of these essential experiences, psychotherapy can play a role in helping you seek a different perspective about yourself and secure attachments. A competent, attuned therapist can shepherd you in thinking, feeling and perceiving what is critical and crucial for your healing process.

Written by Walt Ferris, LCSW. Coherence Associates Inc.

www.coherenceassociates.com

info@coherenceassociates.com (760) 942-8663

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