Get the help you and your partner need with Couples Therapy For Insecure Attachment in Vancouver, BC.
Most of us come to intimate relationships with insecure attachment strategies that make it difficult to be compassionate when our partner is being annoying and high maintenance. Having each other’s “Owner’s Manual” and putting each other’s security-seeking parts of the brain at ease, helps couples build a loving relationship that lasts.
Infatuation is not Love
Infatuation is not Love, yet many of us barrel into our relationships high on infatuation – an oxytocin, dopamine, hormone cocktail. When the honeymoon is over, partners inevitably wake up to the reality that up close their partner can be annoying and high maintenance.
The good news is that unless your partner has a significant personality disorder or mental health diagnosis (such as Bipolar, major depressive disorder, or a substance use disorder), MOST of us come into relationships with insecure attachment patterns.
It’s more the rule than the exception.
PACT, the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy, helps partners navigate their insecure attachment patterns so their relationship can become the deep, treasured home they always wanted.
What is Insecure Attachment in Couples?
Insecurely attached partners have trouble with proximity, which means being close and connected. They live in a one person psychological system where concerns about dependency show up as either clinging or distancing.
For Insecures, wanting to be close brings up anxiety that you’re going to leave or betray me, or interfere, smother or consume me. This is based on attachment wiring that developed in our formative years when being close with caregivers was complicated.
The non collaborative, insecure attachment system makes partners function in a sum of one game where “it has to be good for me but if my needs and interests interfere with yours, mine win”. Either “I want you to take over and do it for me”, or “I want to be in charge”.
Neither allows for a secure, viable, two person psychological system.
Your Smart Vagus: The Road to Secure Functioning
Secure functioning partners have each other’s owner’s manual, and trust each other with their lives. They are wise to each other’s insecure attachment triggers, and understand that helping their partner is also better for them.
This is the holy grail of secure functioning – helping your partner is better for both of you.
When partners come into conflict, our dorsal vagal, or dumb vagus, is responsible when all your loving feelings for your partner get split off, and all you can feel is either hatred, anxiety, or despair.
Secure functioning partners work on self regulation skills like mindfulness, deep breathing, and “checking the facts” on their black and white, catastrophizing conclusions. Able to recruit their ventral vagal, or smart vagus, partners are less hijacked by the fear of being abandoned or engulfed, and more capable in managing the inevitable break downs that can happen when insecure attachment weather systems collide.
Tatkin explains that “If I can’t understand you, what scares you, and what makes you do the things that you do, then I will behave in ways that make you worse. I will amplify those behaviours and tendencies, and then I’ll reconsolidate your fears. Your behavior will cause me to act unwittingly in a way that reinjures you. I don’t mean to do that, but that’s the system.”
Mindy grew up with a Dad who constantly broke his promises.
Based on her previous experience of her first husband cheating on her and lying about it, Mindy’s primitive brain was primed to detect evidence that her husband, Keith, was dissatisfied, and plotting infidelity.
In trying to protect her from getting hurt, Mia’s dumb vagus made it impossible for her to trust Keith.
Rather than reassure her, Keith took Mindy’s jealousy and insecurity personally, and reacted with anger.
“I’ve given you no reason to mistrust me!” he said, feeling persecuted.
“It’s so unfair that you’re suspicious of me!” he said, crossing his arms, and walling off.
Rather than assuage her fears, Keith’s reaction to Mindy’s insecurities torched the kindling of her previous trauma.
For Keith, having Mindy’s owner’s manual meant seeing her insecurities as a signal that she needed more care and affection. His love and reassurance helped Mindy’s primitive brain relax, and be present with her actual experience of him.
Have Each Other’s Back In the Face of Life Stress
Life stress is inevitable.
Expecting yourself or your partner NOT to break down is masochistic.
Breakdowns are the negative spiral that couples get into. These are often caused by the primitive parts of our brains which make us good at surviving as a species, but also “self-centered, selfish, aggressive, warlike, xenophobic.” Our survival instincts are geared toward war, aggression, and self-protection, and are not conducive to long-term relationships.
As demonstrated in the case of Keith and Mindy, at the heart of our insecure attachment system is our dumb vagus’s tendency to invent things that aren’t there based on previous unresolved traumas. We are prone to react recklessly based on misguided perceptions of what is true and accurate. In actual fact we often don’t understand other people’s minds, and use memory short cuts that are wrong, and cause us to misunderstand, misinterpret, and vilify each other.
When life stress triggers our primitive, survival brain, it’s so common for partners to turn against each other rather than to have each other’s backs, and work together.
Hail the Ambassador Brain!
PACT sessions often orient partners to have an intimate look at the dynamics that trigger their primitive brains, and the ensuing relationship patterns that threaten secure functioning.
Our wise, steady Ambassador brain can intervene when our primitives take over, and is an invaluable ally in fostering a safe and secure “Couple Bubble”.
A Safe, Secure Couple Bubble
The “Couple Bubble” is Tatkin’s term for how successful couples keep each other safe and secure by putting the other’s security-seeking parts of the brain at ease.
In a secure couple bubble, partners build in reunion rituals to stay connected, and are each other’s go-to person.
Secure partners manage “thirds” well. Thirds are other people and things outside the relationship who compete for attention and resources.
Rather than avoid conflict, which creates distance and alienation, secure partners learn to fight well. Speaking your mind while simultaneously softening threatening facial expressions, body movements, and tone of voice help ease partners primitive brains, and foster collaborative problem solving
Our attachment styles were adaptive because they helped us fit with our parents.
“Island” is Tatkin’s term for people who have an avoidant attachment style.
Islands love alone time. They auto-regulate their nervous system by moving away from their partner. They tend to be heady, and concerned with performing to maintain their self image, a skill they honed growing up with emotionally distant parents who needed them to be self reliant.
Don’t get me wrong, Island parents love their children. They provide material things and meet their children’s basic needs, but over and over again they signal to their child, “Don’t be a bother. Be low maintenance. Take care of yourself.”
Islands don’t like going to therapy. They’re not very expressive, except to talk about subjects that are NOT about “me, you or our relationship”.
Because they learned to be distant from their feelings, they are often emotionally numb. Their numbness to their emotions while growing up hindered their memory acquisition so they often don’t recall much from their childhood .
Hiding, and being secretive is how Islands avoid the shame they’ll feel if you see their true self, and the gamut of emotions that live inside them. For Islands, their emotions are shameful, so avoiding you helps them avoid the feelings that relating to you stirs up, and the shame those feelings trigger.
“Wave” is Tatkin’s term for anxiously attached partners.
Waves tend to seek safety by clinging, people pleasing, and over-giving. The boundaries they need to hold for themselves go out the window to avoid being abandoned which would be intolerable to them.
Waves often come to couples therapy to change their partner, rather than themselves and the relationship.
They regulate their anxiety by venting which can make their partner feel cornered and dumped on, and they act out to feel better at the cost of getting better.
They have a hard time letting go of past injuries, and tend to blame their partner for problems in the relationship rather than advocating for themselves.
Don’t Mistake the Map for the Territory
It’s best to use terms like “Island” and “Wave” as a map while remembering that the actual territory of each person and relationship will have unique features that a map can’t capture.
In other works, your partner is NOT an “Island” or a “Wave”, but they MIGHT be a person who uses Island or Wave strategies.
The spirit of PACT is not to pigeonhole people but to help them understand themselves and each other better so that they can develop secure functioning.
Anchors are secure. They can speak up about their wants and needs, and stay emotionally connected. Their Ambassador brains are less vulnerable to going wild which makes them good at collaborative problem solving.
Unburdened by insecure attachment patterns, Anchors have an easier time honouring their Shared Principles of Governance (SPGs) which are agreements they’ve made to be accountable for doing the right thing when the right thing is the hardest thing to do.
Rather than rise and plummet on the roller coaster of their impulses, and be at the mercy of moodiness, fickleness, and their selfish whims, secure partners bank on love and respect that is earned through deeds, such as being accountable for successes and failures rather than blaming and scapegoating their partner.
Our mythologies about romantic relationships often confuse love with infatuation. The reality is that most of us come into committed relationships with insecure attachment patterns rooted in unresolved trauma. “Islands” and “Waves” are insecure attachment strategies that were adaptive while we were growing up but can derail our adult relationships. PACT helps partners develop self regulation skills, secure functioning, and a resilient couple bubble. A loving relationship that lasts isn’t free of conflict and problems. Rather, it’s loving to have compassion for ourselves and each other in the face of our difficulties, and to do what’s right when it’s the hardest thing to do.
Wired for Love By Stan Tatkin
What Every Therapist Ought to Know By Stan Tatkin