Updated: Nov 8, 2021
Some of us seem to find seeking out and maintaining healthy romantic relationships easier than others. That’s not to say that any relationships are ‘easy.’ There is always work involved to maintain the emotional connection and to negotiate the needs of two people to ensure they are being met consistently. Some ongoing effort is crucial, otherwise we start to take the other for granted and stop paying attention to their emotions, losing deep connection in the process.
Yet some of us seem to chronically choose people who aren’t interested in us, or perhaps they seem very interested at first, only to pull back as soon as we show interest back. There might be people who are available and show genuine interest in us, yet we reject them out of hand, saying we don’t feel a connection or they aren’t ‘our type.’ We might get into a relationship, only to struggle with our emotions to a point that the stress hardly seems ‘worth it’ and then we choose to stay on our own as it feels easier, until we feel lonely or start dreaming of what it might be like again, only to repeat the cycle. Some of us chronically choose people who are wrong for us, unhealthy people who hurt us, and some of us just swear off romantic love forever, saying we ‘don’t need it.’
So what is this all about? Why is it so hard for so many of us? Having been in this situation more than once, I am now ready to share some of the illuminating information I picked up along the way. There are multiple factors at work here, and you’ll be pleased to hear that all of them are accompanied by the possibility for growth and healing.
Intimacy oftens gets conflated with sex in western culture. Its' actual meaning is closer to ‘Into me, See.’ from late Latin intimatus, past participle of Latin ‘intimare’ meaning ‘impress upon me, make familiar,’ from intimus ‘inmost’. In order to maintain a healthy relationship, there must be regular intimacy. Intimacy is having the courage to be vulnerable and honest around your partner. It means you both have to be brave enough to tell the truth about how you’re feeling-even if you’re angry or annoyed at them. It means being honest enough to tell them if you feel scared, down, or any other ‘unpalatable’ emotion. You can see why many relationships crawl to an end. Not to simplify comfort with intimacy into a gender ‘thing,’ because we can all have issues with vulnerability; men often hide their more vulnerable emotions because they have been brought up in a culture that tells them it’s not ‘manly’ to cry, to feel scared or to crave love and affection. Men have to work very hard to overcome their cultural programming in this sense. Women too, can of course have issues with getting vulnerable.
If we have a history of trauma: some event in our past that still affects us today; perhaps we have been betrayed, lost a loved one due to separation or death, been through something big like a parental divorce, our own divorce, or a big break up with a friend; we can carry a fear of intimacy with us into the present. But it’s not just individuals with a trauma history who can struggle with the fear of intimacy, of being open and truly showing our real selves. It can be a large proportion of the average population. Why? Because of our attachment style.
If you haven’t heard of the work by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (1991) on Attachment styles, then I’d like to share it with you as it has been very useful for me. John Bowlby’s theory of attachment suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them to survive. The initial bond of attachment that is formed with a primary caregiver, whether mother or father, is an innate need of every child, and forms a relational pattern in the neurochemistry of the child which imprints onto all later relationships, particularly romantic ones.
Bowlby suggested that there is a critical period for developing attachment, up to five years of age, the crucial period being up to 2.5 years. If an attachment has not developed during this period then, it may well not happen at all, which is very harmful in terms of ability to create future attachments as an adult. Bowlby’s student, Mary Ainsworth, took this study further with her ‘Strange Situation.’ experiment. In this, she had mothers sit in a room with their babies one pair at a time, had the mother leave the room for a short period, then return. The responses of the babies were carefully monitored. The model below is a summary of the classifications put forth by these studies regarding the way that those children form attachments to their primary caregivers, which later governs their romantic relationships.
So what kind of baby/caregiver relationships lead to the attachment styles on the left?
SECURE ATTACHMENT: A child and hence adult, becomes securely attached if they experience primary caregiving which is consistent, the caregiver is for the most part emotionally balanced and attuned with the child. The child experiences regular physical contact, and is responded to in a timely way when they cry.
ANXIOUS ATTACHMENT: A child and later adult become anxiously attached if they experience instances of separation from a caregiver, in extreme cases experience neglect, mistreatment or abuse. At a less extreme level, if a caregiver is emotionally unavailable, mis attuned to the needs of their child, or otherwise preoccupied with their own problems, anxious attachment can form. It can also form if a child is around parental conflict or other tense/highly charged situations or if the caregivers suffer with postnatal depression or other mental health problems.
AVOIDANT ATTACHMENT: Children and adults become avoidant for some of the same reasons they become anxious, it is simply another way of coping, of emotionally shutting down. If a child lives with caregivers who are emotionally closed off, the child can develop this same emotional style in response. We often form the same or similar attachment styles to our parents for obvious reasons.
DISORGANISED ATTACHMENT: This occurs when children have a particularly traumatic childhood, where their primary caregiver is simultaneously a source of comfort and horror, or they might have grown up in extremely challenging circumstances such as war. The child may have been abused, physically, mentally or sexually or never had a secure bond to a primary caregiver. The attachment is disorganised because children understand they need their adults to survive, and want to love them, but if those same caregivers hurt them, you can understand the tension and confusion for the child.
It is estimated that roughly 50% of the population is securely attached, so that leaves a lot of us with some work to do! It is possible to change your relational style, either by forming a relationship with someone who is secure, through therapy or embodiment practices. I’ll now share some ideas with you about where you can start with your healing journey.
If you are a person with a trauma history, or are anxious/avoidant/disorganised in your way of relating to your partners, it is useful to be able to discover some of your ‘triggers.’ Triggers are situations that amp up your emotional response, making your ‘fight or flight’ Sympathetic nervous system switch on. You might respond by shutting down and refusing to talk, by feeling afraid the relationship will end and being clingy or yearning for contact, or you might get angry and say things you regret. Paying attention to when these situations happen is important. They happen because your brain feels in danger, even if it is not, it feels very real and the emotional response can be a big one.
When you feel triggered the most important thing is to be able to calm down quickly. You can’t be thoughtful and balanced when your body is in this triggered state. Here are some things that you can do:
Breath like this: feel your pulse. Deeply Inhale to a count of 4. Hold for a count of 4. Exhale for 4 and hold out for 4. Repeat for at least three minutes.
Put your palms on the small of your back, walk slowly and breath deeply. This will encourage diaphragmatic breathing which calms the mind.
Try these grounding exercises
Tell your partner you’re triggered and you need time out.
In the medium term, when you have managed to calm down, then is the time to talk to your partner and try to re-establish a secure connection with them. This is not possible while you are triggered. Remember that real connection requires emotional vulnerability. You can’t achieve this while your brain is in flight or flight mode. When you can talk, see if you can share that you were triggered and what you think set it off.
In the long term, in order to get over these kinds of relational issues, embodiment practices help to begin to release trauma without therapy. Therapy may be required to deal with relational challenges. In the mean time, here is a mantra and meditation you can do to help ground you and release the energy of past relationships. I recommend doing it for 40 days in a row, every morning, to see lasting and profound effects.
If you are having trouble in your relationships, you can always message me and I can share my experience strength and hope. Know that you are not alone and that this is a fundamental struggle of being human! We all desire love and authentic connection, but this also scares many of us. Negotiating it is a very human struggle, but so worth it. My next blog post will be about relationship maintenance, so if you liked this please subscribe for more helpful information! Love and light to you all X.