In early life, we talk about children needing their parents to be “stable attachment objects”. This jargon points to how important it is that children can rely on their caregivers to meet their physical AND emotional needs most of the time, even though the child is not yet able to talk. This level of seeing and knowing the other, being able to anticipate and sense the needs of the infant without clear communication is at the heart of being a skilful parent.
In adult attachment, there are real dangers if we simplistically apply this picture of what a “stable attachment object” looks like to our intimate relationships. While it is unhealthy to deny our emotional and practical dependence on our partner, it is also unhelpful to have unrealistic expectations of their ability to meet our needs without help. As adults, we have much more complex needs than an infant, many more resources of our own and we are wired for autonomy as well as dependence, so we have to strike the right balance between self-care and being cared for.
Our relationship needs to be one of interdependence, of teamwork and mutuality. A leading attachment researcher, Jude Cassidy, suggested* that to make adult attachment work we need to both need to exercise four key abilities.
1. The ability to seek care
If we are feeling stressed or threatened, it is important that we reach out for help, rather than isolate and avoid. This requires trust that other is reliable/responsive and also trust in the self as lovable (developing a positive image of self may require healing). Note that, unlike an infant, an adult is expected to ASK for care. In developmental terms, thinking that your partner “should know” what you need without you asking is a key sign that a person is still in the “symbiotic” stage of development.
2. The ability to give care
If our partner is the one who feels stressed or threatened, we need to be able to recognise this, respond to their requests for help and make our selves available, to put their emotional and psychological needs first (temporarily). As well as being loving, this requires respecting the truth of another, accepting a range of ways of being and feeling that are different from our own (i.e. supporting your partner the way they need it not the way you want to give it).
3. The ability to maintain an autonomous self
Intimacy requires knowing what you think, feel and want as well as taking individual responsibility for your actions and being able to regulate your own emotions. Many of us either are either overly dependent on our partner to feel acceptable, loveable, sexy etc OR we emotionally isolate in an attempt to avoid all emotional vulnerability. Maintaining a strong sense of self whilst staying connected to your partner, regardless of their mood or behaviour (within reason) is essential for relationship stability.
4. The ability to negotiate closeness
We have to be able and willing to deal with the anxiety raised by difference, especially around how much closeness and intimacy we want at a given moment. Partners are often not automatically in sync and so need to NEGOTIATE the level and nature of contact. To be able to negotiate closeness, having positive learning experiences help. Examples include:
- Trust in self (“knowing yourself”)
- Trust in others/the world as reliable
- Trust that this relationship is solid
As well as being essential for secure attachment, points 3 & 4 are crucial to the process of Differentiating (see our previous blog for an explanation of this concept). Note how much these abilities rely on the autonomy and self-regulation of the individual. While we do want people in intimate relationships to be able to rely on each other, it is important that therapists do not over-emphasise the role of the partner in providing emotional regulation. A key reason for this is, when it is a conflict with my partner that is causing me distress, it is often not practical for me to look to them for assistance, at least in the short term. I have to be able to settle myself, soothe my own hurts and behave in a way that is constructive for myself and our relationship.
Paradoxically, if we can both do that, then we will be much less reactive or avoidant in the relationship and hence become “stable attachment objects” for each other over the long term.
* “Truth, Lies and Intimacy – an attachment perspective” by Jude Cassidy (2001). Attachment and Human Development, Vol 3 No 2 September 2001.