The human mind is amazing, beautiful, and humbling. Amazing in its ability to generate effective behavior amidst a tidal flood of information. Beautiful in the simplicity of its strategies for both growth and healing. Humbling because the choices we make linger long after the motivating events.
Largely because of that last factor, often we have difficulty understanding why we do the things that we do. Put two or more of us together, and it is a wonder that any satisfaction is found. Fortunately, as social creatures, our drive to attach is joined to our survival instinct. Grace is found in our ability to find pleasure in each other’s well-being. That capacity, we should be cautioned, needs nurturing, and degrades when we live in chronic fear.
When therapists first sought to heal attachment problems, they focused on minds that were broken. The patient often had trouble making and keeping any agreement. Unfortunately, the language of that therapy has been carried over to describe less serious difficulties These arise when partners trip over conflicting priorities that they don’t know how to expose.
So, when our relationship breaks down because one likes dancing and the other prefers books, we depart hurling a diagnosis of “narcissist” or “bipolar.” In fact, if we can expose the conflicted priorities, most couples possess sufficient good will to make the relationship work and even thrive.
In that work, we need different ways of describing personality than the clinical language of psychopathology. The problem, illustrated by a map of brain functions, is that there are so many places in which conflict can breed. Considering our own weaknesses, we tend to believe that our lover should accept us as we are. In fact, hope and joy is found in becoming stronger and wiser. In negotiating, an effective partner learns how to strengthen the personality.
Accepting growth as our goal, what are the impediments to effective communication? Here we have different schools.
Dr. John Kappas, exploring hypnotic experience, emphasized the balance of activity in the two hemispheres. The bias is established in infancy. Protective (“left-brain”) mothers raise adventurous (“right-brain”) children, while adventurous mothers raise protective children. Kappas noted that this manifested in adult patterns of communication, work/home balance, and sexual expression. We tend to form long-term relationships in complementary pairs – largely because such pairings support effective communication and community. The problems arise in sexual expression: adventurers are, well, eager, and protectors reticent.
Arising in infancy, these social tendencies (or “sociability”) are tied at the lowest level to the survival strategies encoded in our subconscious. This makes them difficult to expose and negotiate when a crisis arises. An adventurer becomes frustrated when asked to stay home and plan. A protector worries that failure will drive their partner away, and resists calling in outside help. Exposing this contradiction was the foundation of most of Dr. Kappas’ couples’ therapy.
(Kappas’ theory was first published as “The E&P Attraction.” His “Emotional” corresponds to my “protector,” “Physical” corresponds to “adventurer.” The terminology is obscure. Emotionals manage crisis through influence, physicals through direct action.)
What was implicit in Dr. Kappas’ theory of relationship strife was that chronic tension can escalate into panic. This reveals a deeper level of the personality – regulation of our metabolism. In panic mode, the body is focused on survival but generates extra toxins that undermine well-being. In sustainability mode, the body creates optimal conditions for growth and learning. When our relationships are secure, our partners support sustainability. When our relationships are neurotic, they drive us out of sustainability toward panic.
The patterns of neurotic relationships are the subject of attachment theory, summarized beautifully in “Attached,” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. They describe two patterns of relationship neurosis: avoidant and anxious. Avoidant partners are conditioned to believe that intimacy brings crisis. Anxious partners are conditioned to believe that they will be ignored unless they create a crisis. The two strategies are mutually reinforcing. When adopted in childhood in response to our parents, the partner considers their pattern “normal,” and one type will seek out the other when forming a relationship.
Attachment therapists counsel that the only sustainable pairings are with a secure partner. Fortunately, most of us are secure. For the unwitting that land in an unstable pairing, the goal is to master de-escalation strategies. The first step toward mastery is knowledge of attachment dynamics, self-diagnosis, and clear signaling to avoid crisis.
What are the relative merits of the two theories? Comparing case histories, we would say hardly at all. This is because most couples seek relationship counseling only after neurosis is established. Kappas’ assertion was that in crisis, even a secure relationship is primed to become neurotic.
As concerns relationship satisfaction, the theory of sociability addresses sexual alienation, which is essential to romantic stability. Kappas rescued the self-esteem of many protective women who were taught that failing to achieve orgasm was shameful. Sociability also can guide our expectations during dating.
Both theories reflect directly upon the psychological traits of extraversion and introversion. In attachment theory, an anxious (or avoidant) strategy can be characterized as the extreme of extraversion (or introversion). Introversion and extraversion are also differentiators between protectors from adventurers. However, inference from attachment theory would counsel against pairing of an extravert with an introvert, while the converse is deemed beneficial in the theory of sociability.
This contradiction reflects a general principle of analysis: as we come closer balance in our relationship strategies, hard-and-fast rules become limiting. Concerning sociability, the traits we express correspond to our confidence in a specific situation. As we learn, we become more adventurous. Ultimately, our confidence in our ability to become confident manifests as personal flexibility, which guarantees the resilience to navigate a relationship crisis.
Attachment theory, as characterized by Levine and Heller, also introduces another dimension of relationship. Secure partners create a “royal room” for the beloved – constantly solicitous of their well-being. This is not sociability – how we get what we need – but nurturance. Nurturing is our strategy for creating space in which our beloved receives what they need. Attachment theory recognizes nurturance (indirectly) but does not provide any taxonomy of its strategies. That seems unfortunate, as masculine and feminine priorities for nurturance can create stress in parenting. As with sociability, when the relative virtues are expressed, greater resilience is gained.
So, what can we conclude about the merits of the two approaches? With frustration, I can only conclude that the defects of psychological diagnosis persist. Our theories of sociability and attachment pertain to particular therapeutic goals and strategies. Each is appropriate to the problems considered by the originators and will lead us astray when extended to healthy relationships.
Fortunately, we have a solid criterion for determining when attachment theory is preferred: the transition to neurotic behavior. I have used this to unify the two theories, to the benefit of my clients. I advise the “avoidant” partner that their dogmatic self-protection, when turned to the service of their partner, is a powerful gift. And the “anxious” partner, in learning to hold her powder until resistance softens, creates adventures that breed grateful wonder in her lover’s heart.