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The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships


Attachment didn’t start with adult relationships.  It started with the study of children and their behaviors.  It started with an attempt to understand why some children would cling to their parents, some would avoid them, and some would explore when their parents returned from a brief absence.  However, since the humble beginnings, attachment theory has become a block of research that reveals The Power of Attachment: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships.

“Little t” Traumas

One of the challenges that is sometimes encountered is when people reject the idea that they’ve had traumatic experiences.  They’ll say that it “happened to them” and not me. (They weren’t the ones with the trauma, others are.)  They’ll explain that it “wasn’t that bad.”  They’ll think that, to have a traumatic experience, it had to have been something major.  In Opening Up, James Pennebaker describes his work after the Mount St. Helens eruption.  (It’s a fascinating study of the impact of sensemaking after an event.)

Most of us, thankfully, will not encounter these kinds of “capital T” traumas.  However, almost all of us will be or have been temporarily overwhelmed or felt helpless at some point in our lives.  These, too, are traumas – and they’re just as important and valid as the big kind.  We’ve had relationships fall apart.  We’ve lost jobs.  We’ve missed opportunities that we deeply desired.  These little things matter.

If not processed, they will, over time, build up and become impediments on the path to our happiness.  The good news about “little t” traumas is that they’re often easier to deal with than “capital T” traumas.  In Antifragile, Taleb explains that we need small challenges to grow.  Csikszentmihalyi says the same thing in Flow.  We need an optimal balance of challenge and skill to be the most effective, and “little t” traumas represent a great way to develop our skills.

Unresolved Trauma

Diane Poole Heller, the author, says, “Unresolved trauma, in my opinion, has led to a nationwide epidemic of loneliness and hurt.”  Indirectly, trauma destabilizing attachment and leading people to avoidant attachment styles certainly can lead to loneliness.  (See also Loneliness.)  The pain of separation from others can also cause hurt.  (See Bowling Alone for our need for social connection.)

However, more troubling to me is the relationship between unresolved trauma and both mental illness and suicide.  We continue to discover that trauma is at the root of many of the mental illnesses that we encounter.  Suicide is practically entangled with trauma with conversations about the role of pain and traumatic events.  (See Stay for more on the role of pain and Suicide and Social Justice for the role of traumatic events.)

Relevant Questions

We have a deep need to be heard.  We need to be understood by others.  Maybe it’s a side effect of the power we developed to work together, as explained in The Righteous Mind.  We’ve even got laughter as an error correction method when our understanding of another person is suddenly corrected.  (See Inside Jokes.)  When we ask relevant questions, we demonstrate our interest.  Even if our understanding isn’t perfect, the structure of a question allows it to be corrected.

Asking good questions is at the heart developing understanding.  James Spradley in The Ethnographic Interview lays out a framework of questions to aid the anthropologist who has landed in the midst of an unknown culture and needs to make sense of it.  Motivational Interviewing is built on an active listening model that encourages deep understanding of the person in session with the therapist.  Chris Argyris approached questions from the perspective of his ladder of inference.  (See Choice Theory for the ladder.)

John Gottman in The Science of Trust explains the need to attune to our significant others and the results of missing out on these opportunities for attunement.  Heller quotes the research of Ed Tronick, which states that we only need to be attuned to our loved ones 30% of the time.  (However, strangely, Tronick’s work is with children so the applicability may be questionable.)

Healthy Dependency

At its heart, attachment is about our need to be dependent on others.  In our childhood, we’re dependent.  It’s part of being a human.  As adolescents, we strive to separate and express our individuality.  (See Childhood and Society.)  As adults, we ideally enter interdependent relationships.  (See Healthy Dependency in Relationships.)  One of the pitfalls that adults can land in is called “codependency,” which is characterized by manipulation and enabling the other person’s bad habits, including addiction.  (See Boundaries and Compelled to Control.)  The anxious insecure attachment style often falls into these unhealthy patterns.

Leaning on Others

Certainly, there’s a time and a place to lean on others.  Dependency is, as was mentioned above, a good thing.  However, there’s one area where leaning on others and dependency isn’t a good thing.  That is when it comes to regulating emotional states.  When we use others to consistently regulate our emotions, we turn over power to them – and we leave ourselves helpless when they’re unavailable.

If we want to be securely attached and receive the benefits of secure attachment, we must learn to regulate our own feelings – without the impact of others.


For those with anxious attachment styles, anything can seem like an abandonment.  One partner rolls over to sleep after 30 minutes of cuddling, and the other partner feels abandoned.  The separation seems to immediately negate the previous time of togetherness.  This may not be caused by the first partner’s actions as much as the patterns of abandonment during the formation of the other partner’s personality.

Take in the Love

When in a relationship with an avoidantly attached person, they’ll sometimes deflect affirmation particularly in the form of love.  When a securely attached person communicates about their love for the other, it’s met with contradiction or deflection.  Instead of accepting something nice – and true – they change the subject or deflect the comment.  This creates problems for both parties.

The avoidant person never really gets the opportunity to understand how much they’re loved.  The secure person also feels invalidated.  They feel as if their feelings and their love aren’t valued by their avoidant partner.  Ultimately, this can be a corrosive force that will lead towards the dissolution of the relationship.

Small Thawing

Sometimes, as Peter Levine explained in Trauma and Memory, people freeze in the face of fear.  For those who become catatonic – and those who love them – the process can be intensely frustrating.  Often, one feels powerless to initiate movements or break the spell they’ve fallen under.  The answer is simple – and small.  If you want to unfreeze a person, the question is what’s the smallest thing that can get them to move – and can you get them to do that?  From blinks to swallowing to twitches of fingers, slow progression can be an effective technique for unwinding a frozen state.

Sometimes, the small movements can result in a powerful transformation, just like understanding The Power of Attachment.