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When Attachment Feels Dangerous

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

It was about year three of intensive training in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples that I began to meet some internal resistance. It was clear that the therapy was working to establish safety and trust in lasting relationships, often by getting down to a client's vulnerability and using that as a bridge to connect two people back together. But what about when the couples office and triggers a threat response in one or more partners? Why would this happen? I came to understand that asking some clients to find safety and lean into vulnerability prematurely was the wrong move. Their protectors were vigilant and sometimes threatened by the request to let go and connect. If a couples therapist doesn't understand that asking someone to feel safe can be threatening and trigger fight/flight/freeze responses, the space becomes unsafe. Clients who present with attachment disorders that are avoidant or disorganized can reflect a history of unsafe attachment. When they thought they were safe, they were in fact harmed, and so attaching is linked with threat. But this doesn't mean people don't want and need connection. Many attachment challenged individuals long for connection in their relationships and are willing to work hard to overcome their challenge. Often they have found a great person to build a life. But in these cases I find that it's important to remove the expectation that couples need to disarm their defenses and become vulnerable in the couples space. Rather, before vulnerability needs to come an ability to regulate internally and feel safe internally. When room is given for this process, and these needs for internal protection are met and witnessed and experienced together in coupledom, there is room to take space and self-care when things in future sessions get emotionally challenging. Methods I fuind for supporting this process are encouraging natural settling time between sessions and not pushing the once a week routine. I use the Safe and Sound Protocol individually with members of the couple who are learning to self-regulate. I invite the protective parts to share their needs and fears and work to support them actively so they don't feel the need to hide in the shadows and sabotage the couples therapy. And foremost I try and educate couples that they aren't shameful or broken for not being able to be vulnerable and connect, but rather applaud their tenacity in seeking relationship despite having parts that are terrified. Think about how much they must love to put themselves through such a gauntlet. With time, space, permission, creativity and flexibility people can find their way to each-other without abandoning the parts that have protected them in the first place.

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