Intimacy and Attachment From Cradle to Grave

On 21st May Brighton Therapy Partnership are hosting a unique event with world renown systemic psychotherapist Dr Reenee Singh, CEO of the Association of Family Therapy and Systemic Practice in the U.K, and Founding Director of the London Intercultural Couples Centre.

Dr Singh’s one-day workshop entitled *The Family Dance: An Introduction to Systemic Practice* will help therapists working with individuals to better understand the impact of the client’s family upon the therapy work, and will also be insightful for therapists working with (or wishing to work with) couples or family groups. More information on this event can be found here or at the bottom of this blog.

The relevance of intimacy to our understanding of how people can be with others in family or friendship groups will be important, and to gain greater insight into this we look back at a BTP conference from 2019 on Intimacy and Attachment. At this conference with Jenny Riddell and Linda Cundy we looked at how early attachment bonds influenced our way of living and being with others throughout the course of our life, as well as how our attachment style might impact therapeutic relationships. Our guest blogger is Charlotte Hastings.

Attachment and Intimacy: Definitions

Before considering the correlation between our early attachment experience and our adult intimacy patterns, it is worth establishing what we mean by these terms:
Bowlby believed that there were four distinguishing characteristics of attachment:
• Proximity Maintenance: The desire to be near the people we are attached to.
• Safe Haven: Returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of fear or threat.
• Secure Base: The attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment.
• Separation Distress: Anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.
Versions and echoes of which we see and feel in our experience of adult intimacy.

What do we mean by intimacy?

• A situation in which you have a close friendship or sexual relationship
• Things that are said and done only by people who have a close relationship with one another
• The state of having a close, personal relationship with someone
Notions of love, trust and respect arise, often a romantic relationship, but can equally be platonic, as in a good therapeutic alliance.

“My premise is true love is developmental, live and dynamic.” (Jenny Riddell)

Intimacy Across the Life Span

One way to understand an approach to understanding couples and families it to use Shakespeare’s seven stages of man as a framework. Whilst “attachment behaviour is held to characterize human beings from the cradle to the grave” the focus is on the infant-carer relationship.

However, as the prototype for “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” (Bowlby 1977) it is helpful to recognise our early attachment experience in our adult, intimate relationships.

Reviewing intimacy across the life span, with the various tasks, needs and requirements that steer this path, we understand love/attachment as ‘…developmental, live and dynamic’. Dynamic in the sense that it arises within a social, relational context, out of which our familial narratives are scripted.

Applying a systemic lens to our attachment patterns with the created couple in therapy, gives us a framework for understanding that can de-personalise our behaviour.

The evolutionary foundation of attachment takes a developmental approach, applied across the lifespan. How this plays out in our adult intimate relationships, is not just in moments of regression, but in our basic need for a ‘secure base’ from which to explore the world. The importance of adult intimacy, is indicated by the correlation of social isolation and mental health issues, with a rise in addictive disorders, expressing narcissistic self reliance at their core.

Negotiation, Compromise & Mutual Understanding

As the infant begins to experience themselves as a being amongst beings, they also begin to negotiate their needs in the context of the needs of the other(s).

A theory of mind emerges from around three years, alongside language development. Communication implies a ‘me and you’, indeed an ‘us’ world, in which I can understand and be understood, laying the foundations for reciprocity, interdependence and mutuality.

Bowlby argued that the fourth phase of attachment development – the goal corrected partnership, would characterize future close relationships, as it develops our capacity to get our needs met in synchrony with the needs of others.

Goal corrected partnership

According to Bowlby’s ideas of attachment, goal-corrected partnership is the last stage that a child experiences. It usually happens around age three. As the child begins spending more time with their caregiver, they begin to realize that their caregiver has goals and ideas of their own that may not concern the child. Because of this, the child begins to “mold their behaviour in order to please or impress the caregiver”. This type of bond is most likely to occur between the infant and the mother.

The art of negotiation, compromise and mutual understanding has long-term benefits, with short-term frustrations – for example, waiting whilst a parent settles the baby, so that we can read a story in peace together.

Questions and ruptures arising in adult intimate relationships, may also stem from this obviating the other as in our early attachment relating. Couple therapy that challenges our personal perceptions, assumptions and interactions, asks us to address our goal-corrected partnership within the created couple – with our developmental equal.

Repeating the Affectional Bond

As we consider the characteristics and functions of the ‘affectional bond’ between infant and carer, it is clear how these patterns re-emerge in our adult life, and how they are thereby liable to rupture and need repair…

The Affectional Bond…

• …is persistent, not transitory.
• …involves a particular person who is not interchangeable with anyone else.
• …involves a relationship that is emotionally significant.
• …the individual wishes to maintain proximity or contact with the person with whom he or she has an affectional tie.
• The individual feels sadness or distress at involuntary separation from the person. An attachment bond has an additional criterion: the person seeks security and comfort in the relationship

As these characteristics of the primary relationship between the infant and carer typically form the basis of adult intimate relationships, how they might trigger or repeat early conditioning is self-evident.

However, Hazen and Shafer (1987) found that the key factor in our adult attachment style was the perception people had about the quality of their relationship with their parents, as well as their parent’s relationship with each other, in terms of norms and expectations. It is not so much what we suffer, but how it’s interpreted, and the level of containment we can access, at a personal and interpersonal level.

Moving Through Life and Relationships

Our inner resources, stores and stories built up in childhood, will arise as we tread the path of our seven ages. The therapeutic setting gives us a unique opportunity to compare and contrast our relational understanding, with perhaps a genogram map to help us find our way around. This position presents insight and awareness, but most importantly empathy, rooted in goal-corrected partnership, rewarded with intimacy.

Our early wounds may be both exposed and healed by the intimate other. This maybe in how we are triggered but also in how links from our own suffering can help put in graphic relief a partner’s suffering, allowing both to be felt and seen. For example, as old age prevents a husband from driving and a wife from playing piano, they help one another to face the reality and personal meaning of this loss. When a couple can recognise what they have shared, though personal pain, there is a platform for the growth of intimacy.

Whilst our fundamental attachment pattern will exert itself in times of stress, in different contexts, we will exhibit different attachment styles. Neuroplasticity, even amidst the ruin of dementia, continues until we die. There is then a fluid, even encompassing quality to our relational style. Crucially, we have the potential to achieve ‘earned security’, within trusting adult intimate relationships, that our partners, therapists, supervisors and the like, can enable.

Our seven ages from cradle to grave of attachment need, clearly move with time, but not necessarily in an orderly fashion. Each stage of life gives new roles for Intimacy to perform, from identity forming, to the management of crisis, betrayal and loss.

However, as each new life-cycle milestone is reached, the unresolved trauma or unmet need from our past may also arise in the dynamics of enactment. It is both our conscious and unconscious libido that hunts out our partners, resulting in a ‘compulsion to repeat’, that an understanding of underlying attachment patterns can help elucidate.

A therapeutic perspective may offer the individual or the couple an opportunity to see and be seen, as they are and have been, becoming a resource, rather than problem for one another. It might be helpful here to consider the myth of Zeus’ punishment that split humans in half, that set us on a quest to find our ‘other half’. Each intimate relationship, its attendant ruptures, offers an opportunity for recovering another piece of our quest, perhaps.

Attachment theory’s focus on the primal merger, infant carer relationship, seems to obscure the wider family context. Couple therapy by its nature, raises the question of the role of fathers, but also of the family of origin, how it has and does influence the couple’s intimacy. By holding stories from each partner, the therapist holds up a third lens for a couple to see themselves through. How their separate stories somehow fit – however fractious – together, can witness moments of felt intimacy in the room.

If you are interested in finding out more about systemic practice and the influence of the family in therapy, why not look into attending our forthcoming workshop on 22nd May entitled *The Family Dance: An Introduction to Systemic Practice* with subject Expert Dr. Reenee SinghClick here for more information and booking details.

We really value your feedback so please feel free to comment below. You are welcome to share this article with colleagues for whom you feel this might be of interest.

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