“Are you there for me?” This is the question at the heart of relational conflict. Every close human relationship can be described as two people who innately desire a secure emotional attachment with one another, experience needs for emotional connection, and who both acknowledge, request and address those needs.
The experience of being loved depends on how each one conveys and responds to those attachment needs. Research has observed that humans thrive from infancy in relationships in which they experience accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement from those most important to them.
Dr. Susan M. Johnson observes, “Attachment science is consonant with current research from the fields of neuroscience, social psychology, health psychology, and clinical psychology, the central message of which is that we are first and foremost a social, relational and bonding species. Over the lifespan, the need for connection with others shapes our neural architecture, our responses to stress, our everyday emotional lives, and the interpersonal dramas and dilemmas that are at the heart of those lives.” (Attachment Theory in Practice, p.5)
Attachment Needs Explained
Accessibility answers the question, “Can I reach you?” affirmatively. Responsiveness says “Yes” when the other poses, “Will you respond to my bid for emotional connection?” Engagement is about how focused and interactive the other is with me. Mutual effort and reciprocity are required for engagement.
Our attachment needs are addressed via the accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement of our beloved. Needs for attention, to be important, understood, and accepted are examples of attachment needs in relationships with close others. This article will describe those attachment needs and how they can be addressed in our closest relationships.
Attention or attunement: “I see you, hear you, and am tracking with you.”
Scientific observation has noted that from an early age, humans are wired to respond to care-givers’ empathic attention or attunement, the mirroring of one’s emotional state (e.g. The Effects of Maternal Mirroring on Infant Social Expressiveness and Infant Bonding and Attachment to the Caregiver).
We are hard-wired to seek not just social contact but also physical and emotional closeness to special others who are deemed irreplaceable. (Johnson, p.6) When care-givers are accessible, a baby experiences someone who is present and responsive to his/her cries and needs and is engaged in pursuit and response.
Healthy infant development is correlated to accessible, responsive and engaged nurturing figures. Emotionally close and warm adult relationships are also characterized by easy access to one another, attunement and response and continual engagement or efforts which address each other’s needs for relational security.
When my non-verbal cues (eye contact, body orientation leaning in, acknowledgment of another with head nods) communicate, “I’m here; present; tuned in”, closeness is promoted and care is experienced. When I verbally acknowledge another’s bid for connection, and respond to that invitation with interest, and when I stay engaged to address a need for closeness or reassurance, I communicate to my beloved that I am tracking, noticing, validating him/her.
Importance: “You matter to me.”
At different points in a relational journey, one or both partners can experience insecurity for several reasons. When insecurity emerges, the need for reassurance must be addressed if the relationship is to grow in trust and intimacy. Feeling valued, being cherished, being primary and experiencing another’s commitment are all common experiences in secure and lasting relationships.
Words followed by actions in line with expressions of commitment strengthen emotional and relational bonds. At the core, each spouse needs to experience their partner’s commitment, continual preference or choice of them, for strong marriages. When we demonstrate the priority of our partner we convey his/her value, importance.
When we are accessible and can be reached when needed, responsive to bids and invitations, as well as pursue our partners with our bids, and are engaged with our partner when they reach out, we affirm her/his importance and value to us.
Preference can be expressed through the intentional “speaking” of the other’s love languages, (Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages), dedicating time to daily check-in with one another to track with your beloved’s emotional condition, and taking time to cultivate your friendship are additional ways to address the attachment need of Importance.
Understanding: “I get you.”
Knowing and being known is at the heart of intimacy. Being and feeling safe, trusted and understood are foundational for life-long intimacy. Reflective listening is a tool that people in close relationships work hard to master. While we may hold to romantic notions of a lover finishing my sentences or “knowing without having to be told,” understanding is confirmed most clearly when a beloved can reflect our spoken or observed emotions and needs back to us.
Acceptance: “I accept you and am committed to you.”
Human nature includes dignity and depravity. Our depravity and limitations require grace, forgiveness, and acceptance in close relationships. Acceptance does not tolerate or excuse sin but is the continual offering of love in spite of sin. Healthy boundaries or self-defined capabilities and limits with consequences for hurtful behavior are important considerations when addressing the need for acceptance
At its core, acceptance is a continual commitment to a person, extending forgiveness and grace when needed, and embracing personalities, not immoralities, and another’s repentance when it is demonstrated. How do we offer and communicate acceptance? By celebrating another’s personality, by welcoming connection, by speaking forgiveness and demonstrating grace, by responding to efforts at repair and reconciliation.
Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) can help individuals and couples to make new and emotionally secure connections. EFT aims to heighten awareness of one’s inner world, perceptions, emotions, needs, and behaviors and their effect on others.
EFT also supports and facilitates awareness of the patterns of interacting which leads to disconnection and emotional distress and the formation of new connections via communicating in non-demanding and non-defensive ways. EFT is a setting in which reflection and mirroring skills are developed and honed.
A Christian therapist/counselor can also support and leverage faith in Jesus to cultivate the desire and experience the empowerment to connect with loved ones. Jesus gives us the desire and ability to make secure connections.
Christian therapy and counseling also affirm the belief that God is the only perfect mirror and is the ultimate healer for all attachment wounds so that one’s connection with Him is a source of love for connection with others. If you would like to grow in making more secure connections in your closest relationships or marriage or learn how to address attachment needs, please contact me.
“Love”, Courtesy of Alvin Mahmudov, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Iceland,” Courtesy of Alex Iby, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Together”, Courtesy of Elahe Motamedi, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Shadow,” Courtesy of Henri Pham, Unsplash.com, CC0 License