Hello, my name is Bri McCarroll. I am the founder and principal therapist for New England Hold Me Tight.
This is the second of a four-part series on the science behind our relationships. This series is based on research in human development and, more specifically, it’s based on the work of Dr. Sue Johnson.
Dr. Sue Johnson is the originator of Emotionally Focused Therapy. She also is the author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations to Last a Lifetime of Love. That is a fantastic book and is actually the basis for my “Hold Me Tight Workshops” for Couples. The Workshop is based on the protocol that Dr. Johnson developed. I strongly encourage that if this video is interesting and you want to get a little more in depth, definitely check out the book. It’s worth your while.
**A written transcription of the video can be read below.
Recap of Part 1: Wired for Attachment
In that first video, I really gave the basic framework about how, just biologically, we are attached as social beings. We are hardwired internally for the need to be connected. When we are connected with someone, whether it be a secure attachment or just a momentary connection, our brain is saying “Ahh, this is safe. I feel OK”. Likewise, when we are not connected and definitely we do not have that attachment, the brain says, “Yikes…Danger, danger, danger! This is not OK”.
I also gave a little bit more information regarding the four components that are necessary for attachment. Lastly, I spoke about how we think of attachment as we think about parents and children, and, again, caregivers and infants. I am using those words interchangeably. We think about that as attachment. We get that. That’s been around for a long time. But research has shown that that kind of attachment that happens in that dynamic is very similar to what happens between two adults in a love relationship.
So that is the reason I am going to keep talking about secure attachment, because I’m also talking about love relationships. I’m talking about your relationship with your partner.
The Impact Our Relationships Have on Us
Today I want to talk a little more about, of course, secure attachment. But, I am going to be talking about the signs we can be looking for to help us know “How are we doing in our relationship? Do we feel secure with each other in this relationship?” and some signs that we might see when it is not so secure. So both the good news and the bad news.
I am going to continue to use that paradigm of the parent and the child and parallel that with us as two adults. It makes sense for us and is something we can wrap our brain around.
Signs a Parent and Child Have a Secure Relationship
Child Demonstrates Some Independence
With the parent and child relationship, if there is a secure attachment, what we can expect to see? First of all, we can expect to see what we call a “safe haven”. This child feels safe and, in that safety, they feel comfortable to leave their caregiver and explore and learn and do what they have to do, as kids. Because they know that “when I come back, that caregiver is still going to be there”. They feel really secure about that so they’re off and able to explore and learn and do their thing because they know that they can come back.
Child Shows Positive Self Esteem
The second thing that we are going to see is that the child has a positive sense of themselves. They’ve been looking at this big grown-up being and they keep seeing this smile, these positive responses. They keep hearing this positive vocal tone even if they can’t quite interpret the words. That child is actually internalizing and thinking, “I keep getting all these positive signals towards me, I must be pretty OK”.
They are not thinking that literally, of course not, but they are internalizing the positive messages. That helps them feel better about themselves. As a result, when they are able to start verbalizing, you may even hear them say, “Good job.” or “I am good.” You are going to hear them saying things and you are certainly going to see their positive affect. You are going to see they’re feeling pretty good about themselves. It’s obvious even if they don’t have the language.
Child Maintains Physical and Mental Health
The third thing you are going to be seeing, when there is a secure attachment, is just general good health. They are going to be showing, overall, that they are hitting their milestones appropriately as they should be. You are going to be seeing that they are growing well. Mentally, they are learning; they are inquisitive, curious and not having to use their mental resources to do other things. Their mental resources are focused on them just developing and growing; what we want to see in our kids.
Word of Caution
I want to say this really quickly. If your child is not hitting their milestones, or if maybe they have some mental health issues, it doesn’t mean there is not a secure attachment. I am just saying that when you look at these three different components, that is what helps you assess the strength of the attachment. If the child is struggling with all three of those, that helps you know that something is happening where maybe that attachment is not so secure. So I just want to make sure we are clear on that.
Signs We (Adults) Feel Secure in Our Romantic Relationships
In our love relationships, what can we expect to look for when we have a secure love relationship, when we are doing well? Again, we are looking at all three components, not just one. So don’t panic if you are kind of dinging on one of them.
Feeling Our Partner “Has Our Back”
First, we are looking for what is, basically, the adult version of a “safe haven”. We want to see that both partners are able to kind of stretch and do things out on their own because they know that they have the safety, they have that backup of their partner. So they are able to strike out on their own. That means maybe applying for a job that’s a little challenging, having a hard conversation with a sibling, or even being able to say to you, “Yikes! I’m feeling really sad right now.”
They are able to do that because they feel safe; because they know you have their back. If we have that sense of safety, we are able to be more vulnerable and to take those chances.
We Feel Better About Ourselves
The second thing that we see in our relationships when we have a secure love relationship happening is that we are able to feel more positive about ourselves. If I can look at you, as my partner, and I see that you adore me and love me, that impacts my self esteem. When you are giving me these positive compliments and reassurances that I am wanted, cherished and loved, you can bet I am going to be feeling pretty good about myself.
In our love relationships, we see that positive sense of self shown in how we are in general. When we have more self-confidence; we say good things about ourselves and feel good about our appearance.
We Have More Resilience Physically and Mentally
The third thing that we see in our love relationships when they are doing well and they are strong, is we also see general good health. Research has shown that when we are in a secure relationship and when we are undergoing a treatment where there might be some pain or discomfort, if our partner is physically there with us, we actually have a higher pain tolerance. We have less sensations with that pain. So we are actually more resilient physically when we are in a secure love relationship. Pretty amazing.
Mentally, we also have more resilience. We have an increased ability to have our resources used in ways that help us learn and feel better about ourselves. Psychologically, we can move ourselves in a positive and healthy way because we are feeling good; we are not having to use our mental resources otherwise.
Again, our brain is saying, “Ahh. I am safe” and, so, it can just do its thing. That’s the good news.
Signs the Attachment Between a Parent and Child May Not Be Strong
There are times when a parent and child are not experiencing such a secure relationship when the attachment has been negatively impacted, due to a variety of reasons. Again, when looking for signs, we are looking at the components in all three areas. So don’t panic if something is going on with one alone.
Child Separates With Difficulty
What we are going to see, first of all, is that there will be some difficulty disengaging. And that can take a couple different forms.
Either you have the Velcro child, the child that is saying, “No, no, don’t go!” and is holding on so tight to the parent’s leg because they are afraid, “If I let you go, what’s going to happen? I might not see you again.” They’re scared; their brain is saying “Danger, danger, danger!” So they are holding on really tight.
We may also see the other extreme: the child is so disinterested that the parent can leave and the child does not visibly show a response. They have lost so much connection that they are not even reacting when there is that separation. So that is one sign that that secure attachment is, maybe, not so secure.
Child Demonstrates Lowered Self-esteem
A second thing we are going to see is, we are actually going to see a negative sense of self. That becomes more apparent when the child is old enough to verbalize. You may hear them say, “I don’t like myself. I am no good.” You are going to hear them say some self-deprecating statements. They may be replicating what they’ve heard already from a caregiver or a parent around them. Remember, they are internalizing what that parent or what that caregiver is giving them. Once they are able to verbalize, they may be verbalizing that negative stuff.
You are also going to see that negative sense of self coming out when you see how the child is carrying themselves. You are going to see a lot more acting-out behaviors or more agitated behaviors or a child who is just not looking happy.
Child’s Physical or Mental Health
When a child is in a relationship that is not so secure, a third area you may notice this is how their health is impacted. Definitely, they are impacted as far as their ability to just hit the milestones normally. You are going to see their growth may be delayed somewhat. And, certainly, their speech and language development can be impacted.
You are also going to see that they may have signs of anxiety or depression. That is manifested in, again, acting-out behaviors. You also might see bedwetting or difficulty with their toileting behaviors. That is often how it manifests with little kids. So, again, those are signs that that relationship is not so secure.
Signs Our (Adult) Love Relationship is Not So Secure
We are Not Sure Our Partner is “There” For Us and End up More Reactive
Between two adults in a love relationship when our relationship is not so secure, what can you expect to see?
Again, like the child, if we are not feeling so safe, you are going to see things happening where we are disengaging from our partner. You may see that we get a little clingy. Perhaps we are checking up on our partner. We may be using that location button on our phone to find out where our partner is. We may be texting and reaching out, “Hey, where are you? What’s going on?”
We may be more reactive when we don’t hear from our partner or interpret signs from our partner that things are not OK. We might perceive a certain expression from our partner and get more reactive. By the way, reacting also can mean shutting down and going internal.
Why do we react? Because we are not secure; we are not so sure that we are ‘safe’. Our brain is looking for all these signs to determine, “Are we OK or are we not?” and reacting based on what it interprets. Again, this happens because we are biologically wired for attachment.
We Feel Badly About Ourselves
Another thing that we see in a not-so-secure love relationship between two adults is that negative sense of self. If we are not feeling good about ourselves in this relationship, it’s going to show. We are going to start having those negative thoughts about ourselves like “Maybe I’m not a good partner or I’m not lovable. I am afraid I’m not good enough. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. I’m a failure.”
When our relationship is not secure, we are going to start to have these thoughts coming up. Then, we are not going to be feeling so good about ourselves. Our self-esteem is going to start going down. We may not be so pleased with our appearance and may not be taking care of ourselves so well. If we think our partner doesn’t care about us, “So what does my appearance matter?”
Our Physical and Mental Health Suffers
Understandably, when we are not in a secure relationship and we are not feeling good about ourselves, we generally are going to start having some depression or some anxiety. We are going to start to have physical symptoms, such as difficulty sleeping or an increase or decrease in appetite. We might become worried more and experience a weight gain or loss. When people are not doing well in their relationships, it shows. You see it physically right on them because, again, we are biologically wired for this attachment.
We need to have people in our lives. Our brain is saying that I need this person. So if that relationship is not doing well the brain is saying, “Yikes. Danger, danger, danger!” and it’s going to react. Just as, when we have a secure relationship, we feel ‘safe’.
I am hoping this is making sense to you. I know I am really highlighting and underlining that biological attachment because that is what this is all about.
Next Video in the Series:
I do want you to know that the next video, my third video, is honestly my favorite one. This one is going to really help you make sense about what you are doing and saying when you are disconnected in your relationship. It’s going to really make sense and help you put the pieces of this puzzle together.
So, I’m excited about it and I am hoping that you will stay tuned to watch that third video.
Strengthen Your Relationship Today with a Private Couples Retreat or a “Hold Me Tight Couples Workshop®”
When our relationships are not doing well, we suffer. You may have recognized parts of your relationship in this blog: not feeling like your partner ‘has your back’, worrying about the difficulties you two have, or poor health due to relationship stress. Although you can recognize things are not ‘ok’, it’s hard to know what to do.
At New England Hold Me Tight, we have skilled couples therapist and relationship coaches that can help make your relationship stronger and healthier. With our Private Marriage and Relationship Retreats or Hold Me Tight Couples Workshops®, we help your relationship. You will learn how to communicate more authentically, address conflict more effectively, and strengthen your connection better than it has ever been.
Start down the path to a stronger attachment in your relationship by following these steps:
1. Contact Bri McCarroll at New England Hold Me Tight.
2. Meet for a free 50-minute consultation to discuss your relationship needs.
3. Determine whether a Private Couples and Marriage Retreat or attending a “Hold Me Tight® Couples Workshop” might be helpful.
Either option will give you communication tools and relationship skills to improve your connection.
4. Strengthen your loving bond and connection.
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