Tag Archives: Attachment

The case of wrongdoings

The couple therapist had a brilliant suggestion: Go home and try to do something wrong on purpose! We giggled and thought that this guy, with typical therapist-looks, was nice, although mildly insane. But we went home and tried. And tried. And did not succeed. Couldn’t, wouldn’t, do anything wrong on purpose.

Finally, I left some clothes on the hall floor after coming home with kids. Purposely not picking up the mittens, hats, and shoes scattered around. It was so hard to do that I finally understood the goal of the exercise: even if things go wrong in a family, it’s barely the person’s intention.

A new insight came the other day when both the girls’ teachers pointed out the importance of daring to be wrong when asked questions in class or not being certain about the validity a viewpoint. She said wrong or ambivalent answers could lead to more interesting discussions. My kids looked puzzled: they didn’t quite see the point of purposefully getting things wrong.

So apparently, what our family needs more of is being able to safely mess up. Get things wrong. Make mistakes. And not be persecuted on the altar of perfectionism – the grand enemy of creativity and happiness.

Being able to handle wrongdoings is an important part of any close relationship. Our internal working models of human relationships determine the way we deal with conflicts. Consider these four ways of viewing close relationships, based on attachment theory, and think about how it will affect the way the person reacts to a conflict.

  • It is relatively easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on others and having others depend on me. I don’t worry about being alone or having others not accept me. (Secure)
  • I am comfortable without close emotional relationships. It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient, and I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me. (Dismissive)
  • I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don’t value me as much as I value them. (Preoccupied)
  • I am somewhat uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely, or to depend on them. I sometimes worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others. (Fearful)

Clearly, those with a secure attachment pattern will have a better inner ability to tolerate the ups and downs of relationships. The preoccupied or fearful attachment styles render the person vulnerable to feeling worthless, not accepted, and that conflicts might mean the end of a relationship. Someone with a dismissive style might be less tolerant to people’s shortcomings and be apt to back off rather than attempt to solve a conflict.

Adding perfectionism to the equation is like asking people to balance on a rope high up in the air while they are trying to deal with an actual or perceived wrongdoing of the other. It will become immensely difficult and shift the focus to not falling down instead of finding a mutually satisfying solution.

I think what the couple therapist was trying to get us to realise is that it is more than enough to have different personalities, cultural or social backgrounds, attachment styles, and temperamental traits involved in any conflict situation. We don’t need the illusion of perfection as a possibility messing up our chances in dealing with it.


Fanni, our eldest, dropped a bag of Danish pastry on the floor yesterday with greasy crumbs scattering all over the floor. My gut reaction was of course to moan and accuse, but I quickly reminded myself to ease off and said it was no problem. The poor kid said about four times that it hadn’t been her intention to drop the bag until she heard what I was saying.

“Those things happen so easily, no problem. Look at the dog praising his luck. Just shove the rest up and it’s gone.” She just looked at me and said nothing, but I know we both felt much better already. If you think this is really basic stuff – good on you! You can advance to the next level of imperfection training.

Our representation of the world

Attachment can be described as the way we internally represent the world. Somewhat more than two-thirds of people are categorised as securely attached, whereas the rest show different patterns of insecure attachment. The systematic observation of attachment was first made by Mary Salter Ainsworth (Patterns of attachment, 1978) who studied the behaviour of 18 month-old children when they were left with a stranger by their mother – the “Strange Situation”, that today is still the standard was of assessing attachment in this age group. When the mother or other primary attachment figure comes back, the securely attached child will seek comfort for a while and then ready itself to continue exploring the exciting toys in the room. Insecurely attached children, on the other hand, will either cling to the attachment figure and not let go and still not be comforted (preoccupied style), run back and forth, not being able to decide whether to cling to or discard the parent (ambivalent style), or entirely seem to ignore the attachment figure (avoidant style). It is as sad to see as it sounds and insecure attachment has long-term implications for mental health problems.

Recent research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (f-MRI) has identified the amygdala as the structure in the brain that “houses” attachment (Riem, Bakermans-Kranenburg, Van Ijzendoorn, Out & Rombouts, 2012). It is an ancient part of the brain, implying that attachment has evolutionary relevance. Apparently, the amygdala fires away like crazy when attachment behaviour is provoked, with rejection/abandonment being the number one enemy. Imagine an infant crying at a high pitch. Apart from the ubiquitous reaction of an increased heart rate, securely attached adults will instantly react with attempts to comfort the child, trying to attend to its needs. Insecurely attached adults are more prone to react with anger, irritation, and ascribing the infant inadequate motives for crying. When I heard professor van Ijzendoorn lecture on this I was ready to despair: is it the case that you cannot give what you yourself have not been given? Well, we seem certainly less geared to form secure attachments when we have insecure representations of the world as our working model, but there is hope. The same professor has done fascinating research on short interventions to improve attachment in children – by teaching parents sensitive behaviour (see Bakermans-Kranenburg, Van Ijzendoorn & Juffer, 2003 for a review). The truth is that at the base of all useful therapy for adults is the therapist’s ability to give the client the “unconditional positive regard” so important for attachment. When you are accepted, met in a respectful and predictable way, you will learn to trust in humanity again.

This is why I found the story told by Johanna so fascinating. Her amygdala must have gone on fire when three of her classmates ran off crying due to a group-fight so typical of 10-11-year-old prepubertal girls. The elaborated version would take several pages, but the point was that she managed to assemble all the girls and explained to each of them why she could agree with their reaction of being upset, but disagree with some of their behaviours that had hurt others. Combined with her humour, which found its way to her after skipping four generations in my family, she managed to have all the girls listen to her “agrees” and “disagrees” until all was fine again. Exhausted, but with a happier amygdala, she had made her way to the leader of the pack in a foreign country in a language she does not fully own. I don’t know if she will become a diplomat, an actress, or a psychologist and it doesn’t matter. The beauty of secure attachment is that it makes the person able to understand that the world is neither black nor white – it is all the colours of the rainbow and that’s okay, as long as no one is left crying alone.