January 1, 2024

Attachment Theory 101

Expecting couple on home counselling meeting


Episode Summary

Welcome to The Communicate and Connect Podcast for Military Relationships. In today’s episode, Attachment Theory 101, our host Dr. Elizabeth Polinsky delves into the fundamental concepts of attachment theory and its impact on relationships, especially in the context of military couples.

Elizabeth, a marriage counselor with a PhD in couples therapy, explores how attachment theory influences the development of personality, self-esteem, and coping mechanisms in both children and adults. Drawing from her research, Dr. Polinsky emphasizes the importance of building secure attachment bonds in relationships and discusses the role of mutual caretaking, sexuality, and exploration within secure relationships. She also introduces the concept of anxious and avoidant attachment styles, shedding light on how they manifest in relationships.

Furthermore, Elizabeth unveils a special freebie, The A.R.E. Quiz, designed to help couples assess the security of their attachment bond. So, buckle up and get ready to explore the fascinating world of attachment theory with Dr. Elizabeth Polinsky.

Episode Transcript

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:00:02]:
This podcast is sponsored by my counseling practice, Elizabeth Polinsky Counseling, where I offer weekly marriage counseling, weekend long, marriage intensives, and therapist training in emotionally focused couple therapy. To learn more about my marriage counseling services, visit www.elizabethpolinskycounseling.com. You’re listening to episode 46, Attachment Theory 101. Hey everyone. Welcome back to the Communicate and Connect podcast for military relationships. This one is just me. I’m about to do a whole series on Attachment theory. So as many of you know, I’m a marriage counselor.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:00:59]:
I actually have my PhD in couples therapy at the time that this episode will be released. I’ll have finished my dissertation and my PhD program, which is really exciting. And I do a type of couple therapy called emotionally focused couple therapy. And it is based on attachment theory. And so I wanted to do this series all about attachment theory. I’m going to have different people who provide emotionally focused couple therapy, some of them EFT trainers, some of them who work with military or who have a family therapy focus to come talk about how attachment relates to couple relationships and then especially around military couples and why it’s important for military couples. This was ultimately the purpose of my dissertation. So you’ll hear a lot of people come and speak over the next several episodes.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:02:05]:
But Attachment Theory was first developed by a guy named John Bowby, and he had different colleagues who helped him formulate this theory. And they first were looking at parent child interactions and why did some kids grow up sort of like healthy and well adjusted? And why did other kids not do this? Back in the day when they were first looking at this, they were looking at kind of like troublemaker kids, kids who would end up involved with the police and things like that in juvenile detention and what was the cause of that, how can we prevent this? So that’s how this research all started. And one of the things that they discovered is that the quality of a child’s relationship to their caregivers made a really huge difference on the way that they developed their personality. So when kids feel loved and they feel accepted and they know that their parents are going to be there for them, they develop a sense of security. And that is an internal template on the inside of them that tells them, I am worthwhile, I’m valuable to somebody else. So this is how they build positive self esteem and it also teaches them that they can count on other people to be there for them for so many reasons. Not all of us have that sense of security growing up and it can be for really good reasons. So then I think like with military couples, if one parent or both parents are deployed, that is a really good reason to not be there.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:04:02]:
Sometimes parents are working multiple jobs and they’re not around. That’s another really good reason why a parent isn’t always there. But what happens for kids when they feel like somebody isn’t there for them? They develop an insecure attachment style and that just means that their internalized template of their self esteem and self worth is not as strong. They may have concerns that I’m not valuable or I have to be perfect or good enough or I have to make sure people like me in order to be valuable. And they may also have feelings of insecurity about if they can rely on other people to be there for them. So that might come with fears of abandonment or fears that someone will always leave being really scared when somebody is leaving even for a short period of time. And it could also look like an over reliance on themselves. So becoming super independent, I’m not going to rely on anybody because they’re not going to be there for me anyway.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:05:15]:
This is sort of how different versions of the internalized template that can happen when somebody has an insecure attachment style. The good news is that styles change. So when somebody, maybe for whatever reason, they had an insecure attachment style when they were a kid, then they had a coach, a football coach, baseball coach, dance, gymnastics mentor, I don’t know. They have this person who is there and has this huge role in their life. They can develop a more secure attachment style in a new relationship and that can then shift their self esteem and if they feel like they can trust other people or not, so they can change over time. The way that we think about marriages is that they are also an attachment bond. So this can happen. Certainly the first attachment bonds that we form with somebody are typically with our parents or whoever is raising us.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:06:30]:
People can form attachment bonds to their siblings, like if they’re super close to their siblings, they can form an attachment bond to a mentor or a coach, to a best friend. And then later on in life they develop an attachment bond to their significant other and then of course to their kids, if they have kids. So it takes two to four years to develop an attachment bond. So this would not really apply as much to somebody who is just beginning dating. I think the way that it would apply if you’re just starting out in a relationship or you’re in a new relationship is that the goal is to develop patterns and habits early on that promote a secure attachment bond between the two of you. For couples who have been together longer, then you already likely have an attachment bond that is already formed and the quality of that relationship can be secure or more insecure. So this is what we’re really dealing with when it comes to trying to help couples have better relationships, but then also military couples navigating military life. So we know from the research that the attachment style that you had going into before you were married the attachment style you had from your relationship with your parents growing up, that is directly related to your resiliency to.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:08:10]:
Your ability to cope, to how, if you have mental health problems, how severe they are, to your general overall happiness and satisfaction with life, but then also to your future relationship satisfaction. My research was looking at military spouses and within the couple relationship, if they perceived that there were secure attachment behaviors happening in their relationship, how did that relate then to their resiliency and their psychological flexibility? Which are some big words, but I’m going to break them down. I think the thing to take away from the research that I did is that the quality of your marriage had a bigger impact on your level of resiliency, your ability to cope with stress than did just your individual ability to cope. So this is pretty significant to me because to me it means that the quality of your marriage is maybe even more important than your individual ability to cope with life stress when it comes to life satisfaction and marital satisfaction and being able to navigate military life. So I’m happy if anyone has curiosity about my research more in depth, I’m happy to share. Just send me a message through the website or through social media and we can chat more about it. Things that are part of security, like when couples have more security in their relationship, their relationship has sort of three characteristics. There is a desire to be close and so if we go too long without interacting, both of us are going to feel it and we’re going to feel the desire to be close and to be physically close, but also emotionally close to be interacting together.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:10:24]:
So there’s this way that people work to maintain closeness when there is an attachment bond. The next element of a secure attachment bond is something called a safe haven. So in any times that I have a lot of anxiety or I’m facing something difficult at work or something really stressful happens in life. If you have a secure bond with your partner, then that person functions as your safe haven. They’re your home that you can go back to. That when the worries of the world are piled on your shoulders. You can go to your partner for comfort, for reassurance, for emotional support and for this feeling of safety. And this is a really important component of a secure attachment relationship.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:11:17]:
The third component is having a secure base. The fact that I know I can go to my partner when there is crazy stuff going on in life and stressful stuff going on in life that helps people have a sense of security and helps them feel confident in being able to wander off. So the way this might look with kids is that if a kid feels secure with their parent, they can go start talking to a new group of kids that they haven’t met before. They might look back and see and make sure that mom is there or that dad is there. They see, okay, I could go back to my parents if I needed to, if something goes wrong. But because they’re there, I know I can keep exploring and I can keep interacting with these people that I don’t know. Or maybe they try out for the band. They know that parents are home and if something doesn’t go well, they can get support from parents.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:12:25]:
Knowing that that support is there helps them have more confidence to take risks to then try out for the band. These are simplified examples for kids, but with couples it works the same way. So when I know that my partner is there as my primary support system, it gives me confidence to apply for a new job, to ask for a raise, to start my own business, to start a new hobby like roller derby or something like this that I know I can take a risk because I have the safety of my relationship to fall back on if something bad happens. So these are the three really important characteristics of a secure relationship. We both are trying to keep closeness between us and stay close. There’s a sense of safety that we are the safe place for each other and that the knowledge that our relationship is our safe place gives us some confidence to take risks in other areas of our lives. This is also connected to other areas of relationships, so it’s connected to mutual caretaking. So if, for example, that’s part of the safe haven thing.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:13:56]:
When my partner is in distress, I have empathy for them, I care for them. I want to help and take care of them and be there for them if they need me. It is also related to couples sexuality. So sexuality in couple relationships really comes online more so when couples feel safe and they feel like they’re not super stressed out. So one of the big reasons that couples have conflict around sex is that when someone is in a lot of stress, they can’t feel sexy. That’s just not how the nervous system works. Stress levels have to be low in order to feel sexy. So when couples can function as the safe haven and the secure base for each other, they help each other co regulate, reregulate their emotions, calm down after stressful events.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:15:03]:
The more this is present in relationships, the more couples are able to calm down their stress levels together and then they’re able to access the sexy part of themselves because that is involved with exploration and play and in some cases like emotional risk taking because it’s a little bit vulnerable. And so the safety comes first and then the ability to explore and be playful in a sexual way. Exploration is literally the next one that I had on my list which has to do with the secure base function of a secure attachment bond that as I know that I have safety with my partner, I can then go explore and take risks in other areas of my life. So that might be like teaching a new class or going and attending a new class, like a pottery class. If you’ve always wanted to learn how to pot things. I don’t know what that’s called. Pottery make pottery things. That’s a good question.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:16:14]:
If anybody knows what that’s called, shoot me a message on social media because I don’t know what that’s called when you make things from pottery. I’m going over these basics of attachment theory because people will refer to different elements of this over the series ahead and they will likely talk about pursuers and withdrawers at different times or people with anxious or avoidant attachment styles. Anxious and avoidant attachment styles. Those are both types of insecure attachment styles. I don’t know that it makes a huge difference. Everybody has like a little bit of both at times and they can fall on a spectrum of how anxious they are versus how avoidant they are. But anxious attachment styles tend to be more concerned about maintaining the closeness. They tend to be very afraid of losing relationships or of somebody leaving.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:17:15]:
And so they feel anxious and then they try to compensate. They try harder to be close. And in this way they are sometimes referred to as pursuers in relationship because they’re pursuing the closeness. They are working over time to make sure that the relationship stays close and connected and to try to prevent the loss of the relationship. Somebody with a more avoidant attachment style has often learned that sort of like emotions are kind of problematic in relationships. They cause chaos. They’re not going to be welcomed by somebody else. I need to handle things on my own.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:18:01]:
Either because somebody is going to tell me that I need to figure it out on my own or they’re not going to be there for me. For whatever reason. I need to be really independent and not rely on somebody. So they tend to withdraw more. And when I think about withdrawing, they’re withdrawing into independence. So instead of pursuing the closeness, if something stressful happens, they might not go to their partner. They might withdraw into distracting themselves in some way, trying to cope with all of the stress on their own and be very, very independent. But you might hear somebody use the phrase avoidant attachment style or withdraw.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:18:46]:
I will say that there are times where somebody with an avoidant attachment style will pursue that closeness and connection and there are times where someone who has a more anxious style will withdraw as a coping mechanism and be more self reliant and independent. So these are kind of generalized terms, but that is what people are referring to in this series. This, I think, is really important. If I had to just have a summary statement here my takeaway is that every couple should be working on building a secure attachment bond in their relationship because this is what is like a key piece to relationship satisfaction and having a healthy marriage. I do have a specific freebie download that I made for this attachment series. You can find it in the show notes for this episode as well as any of the episodes connected to this series. It’s called the ARE Quiz: the “are you there for me?” Quiz.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:19:53]:
It measures your view of how often attachment related behaviors are happening in your relationship, and it can give you an idea of how well you both are doing in terms of having a sense of security in your relationship. And it is a version of the scale that I used in my dissertation research, and I have all the couples that I work with in couples counseling complete this too as part of their intake paperwork. I just think it’s really helpful to have kind of a baseline of this is how we’re both thinking about how secure our relationship is and if we’re both engaging in secure attachment behaviors in our relationship. I hope you enjoyed this episode. See you next time. As part of this special series on attachment in relationships, I created The ARE Quiz. This quiz uses the Brief Accessibility, Responsiveness, and Engagement Scale, which I used in my own dissertation research and I use with each couple when I start working with them in couples counseling. This quiz helps you and your partner know how secure your relationship is, the level of distress you’re in when you should be considering marriage counseling, and what sort of behaviors you both can work on to help promote the security of your attachment bond.

Elizabeth Polinsky [00:21:32]:
Make sure to check out the show notes to download a copy of the quiz. While I am a therapist, this podcast is for educational purposes only and is not considered therapy, and it should also not be a replacement for therapy. If you think you need a professional of any kind, you should definitely go find one. Until next time, our close.


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    About Author

    Elizabeth Polinsky is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist (EFT) providing EFT marriage counseling in the states of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nevada. She also provides EFT training and supervision to therapists looking to become certified in EFT Couple Therapy. As a military spouse, she has a special passion for working with military and veteran couples, and is also the host of The Communicate & Connect Podcast for Military Relationships.


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