Having recently attended a wedding and experiencing an opportunity to witness and speak to a newly wedded couple as well as all the couples in attendance I had an opportunity to reflect on what makes lasting romantic pairings. As a provider of couples therapy as well as individual therapy that is often focused on relational issues, this is a particular area of interest.
While traveling, I also spent some air travel time reading articles and reflecting about the topic of emotional focused therapy and the neurobiology of attachment. As a neuropsychologist, I’m particularly interested in the neurobiology of bonding attachment and connectedness.
In this particular journal entry I would like to focus on the essential ingredients of successful romantic relationships as well as a number of potential barriers that are often experienced in this pursuit.
Broadly speaking, humans come hardwired with the underlying neurobiology for attachment.
These systems are fine-tuned in early caretaker attachments as the neurobiology of affect regulation, empathy, connectedness, and mutual attunement unfold become the stuff of emotional networks in the brain.
These capacities develop in the beginning years of life and lay the fundamental groundwork for the capacity to be mutually attuned and affectively regulated by another throughout the lifespan.
The human mind is, in broad terms, equipped with two regulatory systems. One, seeks connectedness, to be understood, seen, felt heard, etc. This system is our more sophisticated and higher order system of bonding.
The other system seeks safety but in a more primitive and immediate way. This is most closely linked with our more limbic or emotional minds. This system is commonly referred to as a fight or flight system, but also includes emotion, motivation, memory, and learning.
When there are any disruptions or threats to our sense of connectedness or safety, this system is activated in order to restore homeostasis or stability. Mild disruptions in our own sense of safety and security are generally able to be regulated by the higher order system of organized thoughts and emotions or connections with another person, which we can call dyadic or interpersonal regulation.
More dire or threatening experiences activate our more primitive limbic reactions as a means of seeking safety and thus regulation, which can often give way to internalized ways of self-soothing and regulating affect, which I shall refer to as autonomous or self-regulation.
What does this mean in terms of relationships?
Essentially, individuals have within them a preprogramed way of relating the people they encounter in life, that was founded on the bonds formed with available care givers as children. So why do some individuals seem more difficult to connect with than others?
Depending on the circumstances under which an individual’s emotional and interpersonal architecture developed, some people tend to prioritize a system based on relational bonds (dyadic), while others tend to rely more on self-regulation (autonomous). The latter can pose some difficulties in terms of romantic attachments owing to the more individualistic way of regulating emotions and navigating relational miscues.
Autonomous soothing can be seen as an act that a child engages in when empathic or connected attachments are unavailable. At the earliest of life stages this can be seen in the form of fantasy as infants learn to engage in fantasy to self-regulate.
As the child develops, this takes on the form of autonomous play and other forms of self-regulation of emotion and affect regulation. Autonomous self-regulation is a very useful defense in that in its pure form, it is lacking in time or space. Time tends to fly by while in a state of fantasy, be it psychotic or dreamlike, or simply autonomous play.
The downside is that while engaged in this state of self-regulation, outside stimulation tends to be experienced as an intrusion and a potential threat. At best, these threats are social demands such as coming to dinner, socializing with others, or being mutually connected with a parental figure or partner. At worst, they are experienced as dysregulating and as an intrusive disruption to the security and safety experienced in auto regulated states.
When encountered in romantic pairings, there are various matches and mis-matches between dyadic regulators and autonomous ones. Often, these are a point of contention in couples that is frequently the result of disconnected experiences and often the presenting issue in couples therapy, or individual therapy when focused on relational difficulties.
To the dyadic regulators, the autonomous’ way of being self-sufficient and isolated unto themselves can be experienced as rejection or neglect. To the autonomous regulators, the dyadic’s need for connectedness and mutual regulation can be experienced as an intrusion that activates the more threat avoidant and distancing parts of the limbic system (i.e. fight or flight). Thus, there is ample opportunity for misunderstandings and misattunement between this couple.
Ideally, couples lean in in the face of conflict, help regulate one another and down regulate any sympathetic activity (fight or flight) in one other. However, sometimes, for a variety of reasons individuals have within their love maps a tendency to be alone or to pull away as a means of regulating.
Prolonged dysregulation is the stuff of disconnection and ultimately of break ups. An individual’s goal is to remain in a relative state of homeostasis or to experience a lack of demands. When individually or mutually regulated, this state tends to facilitate our sense of well-being and connectedness.
Disruptions, be they due to abandonment, withdrawal, or neglect, are counterproductive to this state. Likewise, to the autonomous self-regulator, demands for mutual regulation are similarly off putting, disrupting a state of otherwise harmonic, albeit solitary, homeostasis. Thus, the couple bonding of autonomous and dyadic regulators pose potential problems as a romantic pair due to their differing styles of affect and emotion regulation.
So what happens in therapy?
While the neurobiology of attachment informs the way I understand, view, and work with couples, it doesn’t inherently solve problems. The phenomena I detailed above; of two differing types of attachment, can be observed by a therapist in the form of affects or relational patterns.
Affects are essentially the outward expressions of emotions. These occur at a very granular and finite level that unfolds much faster than dialogue or even thoughts. When made the center of attention in the therapeutic relationship, be it couples or individual therapy, they explain in vivid detail one’s relation to the experiences of connectedness and disconnectedness.
Each of these experiences can give way to a cascade of emotions and various sympathetic and parasympathetic reactions. These can be observed in terms of “bids for connection” or needs to “seek safety” and down regulate. When witnessed in the context of therapy, attended to appropriately, and brought into consciousness while also being experienced interpersonally, these needs and modes of relating can become things we begin to understand instead of merely acting out or being controlled by unconsciously.
If you’re in a relationship where it feels like there are many disconnected moments, or if you’re single and trying to sort through your difficulties in connecting, I urge you to consider what an understanding of your own attachment style and way of regulating may indicate about your relationships, past, present, and future.
Interpersonal, and psychodynamic therapy are focused on understanding the patterns that pervade these relationships. From our earliest emotional experiences of bonding, to our formative memories about how strong emotions are interpersonally regulated, or not, these experiences form a template that informs how we relate to one another as adults.
By understanding, and becoming more accountable for your own attachment styles and emotional needs, individuals are more able to form fulfilling understanding bonds with one another and avoid the pitfalls of emotional dysregulation and misattunements.