My conception of adult love relationships has been revolutionised by two books:
Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – And Keep – Love, by Amir Levine (MD) and Rachel S F Heller (MA) (attachedthebook.com) and
Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr Sue Johnson (holdmetight.net).
They’ve also revolutionised my relationship. My partner and I have a new understanding of one another, a new tenderness, and a new sense of safety. Our bond has deepened, and we see ourselves and each other with different eyes.
It began with an essay proofread for a Masters of Counselling student. The topic was attachment styles in children and how these affect development and behaviour. As a psychology graduate with a perennial fascination with relationships and a taste for the self-help genre, I couldn’t help but google ‘attachment styles’ a few months later when my partner and I were struggling to find common ground over a sticky issue. That’s when I came across Attached the website (attachedthebook.com) with its online questionnaire. I ordered the book at once.
The words ‘secure’ and ‘insecure’ are bandied about a lot when it comes to adult relationships. The impression I’d garnered since puberty was that people with ‘insecurities’ need to get a grip. I didn’t agree with this stance entirely but it was nonetheless deeply ingrained in my psyche. ‘Overdependence’ on a partner was unhealthy, and heaven forbid I ever appear ‘needy’.
So imagine my surprise – and profound relief – to find a book asserting that dependency is not a bad word. Levine and Heller are matter-of-fact about this – it’s been proven by so much research it’s no longer in doubt. In fact, mutual dependence (a secure base) fosters confidence and exploration in adult partners.
Attachment is not a new science in itself, but the application to adult relationships is recent.
British psychiatrist John Bowlby originated attachment theory in the 1940s when the prevailing doctrine on parenting was that mollycoddling ruined the child. His observations did not confirm this view. Indeed,children fed,clothed and housed but deprived of love in orphanages often died of emotional starvation.
Adults are no different. When it comes to relationship problems, Dr Sue Johnson discovered, attachment theory gets to the heart of the matter. Learning to fight fair or communicate better as attempts to heal relationship rifts, simply misses the point.
And what is this point? Across all cultures, humans have a biological imperative to survive, and a mutual and secure attachment helps us do just this. Forget the mythic rugged individualist – those who choose to live alone die alone and lonely. We need one another, deeply.
Ironically, the current cited wisdom on adult relationships is reminiscent of that on mollycoddling children. It goes by names like ‘codependence’ and ‘enmeshed’. And once again, the common view has been proven wrong. Married persons live longer than singles. Loneliness is a health risk as dire as smoking cigarettes. The need for attachment, for a secure love, is so intrinsic it’s essential for our health and happiness, even as adults.
Attached goes on to describe basic attachment styles (secure, anxious, and avoidant) and how to foster a securer bond whatever your style (adult styles can and do change).
Hold Me Tight explores seven conversations designed to help couples create a stronger and more secure bond. Author Sue Johnson pioneered Emotion-Focused Therapy, which is based on attachment theory and has an impressive 70–75% success rate among distressed couples seeking help.
The thing I like most about attachment theory is its simple but overarching paradigm. The model of relationships described in Attached is easy to understand, yet its modest threefold delineation has great explanatory power. Looking back over my twenty-five years’ history of adult relationships, every instance fitted. I saw patterns I had barely or only partially discerned, in myself and in my partners.
Knowledge is power, and the knowledge that the attachment drive is wired in, that mutual dependence is beneficial, gives me a powerful base from which to move forward. No more shame, no more blame. Instead, acknowledgment of my – of our – need for connection, and of how this vulnerability and strength makes us most human.