Archives For boundaries

AttachedAt RatedGRomance, I hear from a lot of women who ache to find a romantic heartmate. They are looking for the kind of guy who craves intimacy; a man who is super attentive – the kind of lover who seems to have a freaky hyper-sense of a woman’s emotional state; a heartmate who believes they must work hard to keep their lover’s interest and are committed to doing so; a mate so tuned into her that he lets her set the tone of the relationship.

When asked, these same women probably would tell you that they don’t want a man who plays games to get their attention; a guy hypersensitive to even the possibility of rejection; someone who clearly has the ability to be “needy.”

I am that guy – both of them – or at least I have the potential to be and I never truly understood why until I read Attached. In their book, Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller use findings from the field of attachment theory to help decode how people interact with those they are closest too.

Attachment theory traces its roots back to researcher John Bowlby.  As stated in the book, Bowlby posited that we’ve been programmed “to single out a few specific individuals in our lives and make them precious to us” and that “from a biological perspective [] dependency is a fact; it is not a choice or a preference.”

For me, this was a big “duh.” However, it is actually a very counter-cultural notion as it puts the authors squarely at odds with the codependency movement and many other popular self-help approaches to relationships. As the authors put it, most current works encourage us to “ ‘keep the focus on yourself,’ and stay on an even keel. If you can’t do that, there might be something wrong with you. You might be too enmeshed with the other person, or “codependent,” and you must learn to set better “boundaries.” ”

Levine and Heller argue that research in the field of Attachment Theory tells us that this one-sided approach to relationship success is deeply flawed. (I’ve seen it described elsewhere as the equivalent to old notions of separating young children from their parents and sending them off to boarding school so that they could become independent & well adjusted.) Instead, they point out that the research shows that it is the quality of our attachments that is at the root of our happiness and relationship success. “Getting attached means that our brain becomes wired to seek the support of our partner by ensuring their psychological and physical proximity.” We need each other. “Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.” Ironically, this means, “If you want to take the road to independence and happiness, first find the right person to depend on.”

If, like me, you grew up with marriage described as “two becoming one flesh,” the notion that we are wired this way is not really news. However, what I didn’t know before reading the book was that, not only are were designed to be attached, we are also predisposed to be attached in one of three major ways:  “Secure [~ 50%], Anxious [~20%], and Avoidant [~25%]. Basically, secure people feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving; anxious people crave intimacy, are often preoccupied with their relationships, and tend to worry about their partner’s ability to love them back; avoidant people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and constantly try to minimize closeness.” None of these attachment styles is pathologically good or bad, but rather, they just are.

Grace & Bubbles by Bill Blevins (sailorbill @ Flikr)It’s not a perfect metaphor, but when describing the concept to others, I’ve been using the analogy of the “attachment” dogs. Imagine three dogs in the backyard that find the door to the house has been shut on them. The “secure” Labrador lays down at the door and patiently waits to be let in. The “anxious” Border Collie is hyper-alert, notices the door closing before it is even all the way shut, runs at it and barks to be let in. Once let in, it calms back down in happy contentment at the feet of its attachment figure. The “avoidant” Pomeranian sees the closed door, has an epiphany and says to itself “I didn’t want all that attention anyway. Why should only cats be free spirits,” and escapes by digging under the fence. Each dog is just behaving according to its nature.

It turns out that I am that Border Collie. Vigilant, loyal, high strung. As described in my intro, I am overtly romantic & attentive but it turns out I also have the potential to be very needy. However, given that I am surrounded by so many “secure” people and I am married to an amazing secure woman, I didn’t really know that I was “anxious” until very recently. As the authors state, “Attachment principles teach us that most people are only as needy as their unmet needs.” Protected in my “secure” bubble, I had no idea I even had a needy side.

However, it turns out problems can arise when people with different attachment styles interact. In my metaphor above, imagine what would happen if the “Anxious” Border Collie tried to maintain its attachment to the avoidant Pomeranian by herding it and pulling at its coat to keep it in the yard. You can just imagine the fur flying. In the book, this exact phenomenon is described in the chapter called “The Anxious-Avoidant Trap” and sadly, it described to the letter a relationship implosion I recently experienced with an “avoidant” friend. The more I tried to mend the relationship and seek out face-time to resolve things I perceived as problems, the more my friend distanced. The cycle spun out of control and ate at my soul. In the end, we parted ways. My friend couldn’t handle my neediness; I couldn’t handle the perceived shunning. Had I read the book earlier, I could have identified the avoidant behavior, made the decision to part ways much sooner or (more likely) could have prepared myself to “settle” for a more distant, acquaintance level relationship without inciting all the drama.

This is where “Attached” has the potential to be such a life-changing book. It will help you understand your own attachment needs and identify the attachment styles of those closest to you and, in so doing, it will enable you to make decisions about your relationships that are beneficial to everyone involved. In challenging our pathological North American obsession with independence, Levine & Heller have created a book that I believe will literally transform the relationship landscape of our day.

Related: Q & A with @attachedthebook

Boundaries vs. Expectations?

December 20, 2010 — 5 Comments

What are boundaries?

I started writing a blog post on expectations in relationships and quickly came to the realization that I am not entirely clear on the distinction between “boundaries” and “expectations.” i.e. If “I won’t allow someone to yell at me” is one of my boundaries, doesn’t that also imply that I have the expectation that your heartmate won’t yell at me?

Who originated the term boundaries in the context of relationship psychology?

It is particularly confusing given that many online experts seem to encourage living without expectations, but also encourage setting boundaries! Help!

Thanks to all in advance.