When my nephew was seven years old, he walked around with his monkey sock. He ate with it, slept with it, bathed with it, and he played outside in the dirt with it. You could never wash the monkey sock or pry it away from his hands. He was attached to this monkey sock for years. It gave him comfort, especially when he was exposed to new things or tried something new.
It was his security blanket. Kids need a security blanket of some sort to feel safe. That’s how they create attachment to significant others.
Jane, on the other hand, was sitting comfortably in her therapy office, but was starting to feel annoyed. Her husband, sitting across from her, is a computer programmer. She is a teacher. Whenever she has a conversation with him, his eyes are usually glued to his computer screen. She felt that he had turned away from her. He felt that he was multi-tasking; that he could listen to her and check his computer at the same time.
As he sat in the therapy room, he seemed fidgety. He looked around, didn’t make eye contact, and searched for his phone. He quickly flipped it upside down when Jane gave him ‘that’ look. On the surface, this appeared to be a normal interaction that most couples experience. This couple loves each other, has kids, and usually supports one another.
So why are they in therapy?
Jane’s attachment to her husband has been threatened, like my nephew’s attachment to the monkey sock. Jane needs her husband’s attention. This is her security blanket. If it’s not present, then this threatens her attachment to her husband. None of this behavior is necessarily logical. Based on evolutionary research, psychologists have found that a secure attachment to another person dates all the way back to when we were hunters and gatherers. This need for attachment has been around forever, and it hasn’t gone away.
Today, our culture has led us to believe that only children need to feel securely attached. Adults need to be strong, and basically suck it up. If you’re an adult, then you don’t show weakness in a relationship. But we cannot control this reaction. When Jane is threatened, she feels that her husband dismisses her. Her emotional system kicks in and creates a reaction. This kind of reaction is typical for many people in relationships and similar situations.
When you’re threatened in this manner, then the part of your brain called the amygdala hijacks the prefrontal cortex (also known as the logical part of the brain). It triggers an alarm system response. You feel threatened. The security blanket that you are relying on is no longer there. Now without thinking, your amygdala sends a response and you automatically get angry, feel anxious, raise the tone of your voice, or withdraw and be silent. This all has to do with regaining that security blanket.
This is the reason why Jane’s conflict appeared simple, but they were in therapy trying to figure it out. They appeared to have an irrational response to a simple conversation and need. When you notice that your response to your partner or your partner’s response to you seems out of control to simple challenges, ask yourself if they are challenged with a form of attachment in your relationship.
One way to resolve this problem is by acknowledging that it takes strength and courage to talk about your needs in the relationship. It is not a sign of weakness because your brain hijacks and takes over when faced with a threat response. You cannot control the response.
If you discuss how you feel, why you feel this way, and what that means for your odd reactions, then you can help yourself move past the threat response. Your partner might be able to better understand what you need and give you that security blanket that you need to feel safe and secure in the relationship. This is what couples need from each other to overcome their challenges.