It all begins with Mom.
Our connection to our mother is primal and necessary. As infants, we literally require our mothers to survive. As we grow up, the parent-child relationship will change drastically, yet, the mind and body continue to feel the high-stakes of survival. We may no longer need our mothers to survive literally, but we still view intimate connections as life-and-death and can carry that subconscious feeling into our attachments. The way we attach to our mothers will inevitably inform the way we attach to our romantic partners.
Scott Carrol, a child psychiatrist, and author explains that every relationship a person has, beginning at birth, is rooted in the attachment style learned from their mother. “”Your attachment system that is established by your relationship with your mother will determine virtually all of your future relationships, from your pets to your friendships to your romantic relationships and then will determine how you attach to your children when you become a parent,” Carroll states.
Our attachment style—be it anxious, avoidant, or secure—may begin with Mom, but luckily, it isn’t static. Understanding how a secure attachment is made is the best way to understand all attachments, so let’s start there.
Psychologist Donald Winnicott observed that toddlers whose mothers remain physically close by while they play are more outgoing, curious, and playful. The close proximity of their mother creates what he calls a “circle of creativity.” These children exhibit more confidence to explore their environment, to branch out, and enjoy their autonomy rather than a child whose mother is absent or whose mother hovers too closely. They sense that their mother is nearby and, like a ship attached to an anchor, they can drift a healthy distance from her without ever losing their way or floating off. This interaction is a building block to secure attachment styles.
As we get older and we find adult partners, our circle of creativity extends far beyond just a room. Knowing that we are loved and supported in our relationship gives us more confidence in our work, projects, and every other aspect of our lives.
However, those of us who grow up without a healthy circle of creativity or whose mother was anything other than attentive and loving experience a different style of attachment; anxious or avoidant. When we have an anxious attachment style, we rely on our partners to validate our self-worth. Without a connection to a romantic partner, the anxiously-attached will struggle with a sense of self. This is also why they will cling, sometimes desperately, to their partners.
Ironically, they are more likely to create attachments to the third style: avoidants. Avoidants are precisely the opposite. They trust no one and strive to rely only on themselves, and while deep down, they desire connection, they see intimacy as a weakness. You might say that the anxious and avoidant are a match made in heaven, but it is typically anything but.
The anxious partner bends over backward to please their avoidant partner to keep them in the relationship and, as they do, the avoidant begins to feel smothered, drawing further away from their anxious partner. It is an obvious vicious cycle that is both painful and exhausting. They will break-up—or threaten to break-up—yet the anxious will continue to do anything they can to win their avoidant back and, because avoidants love to be pursued, they’ll fall back “in love” with their anxious partner and the cycle begins all over again.
So how do we break this cycle? How does an anxious or avoidant bring themselves into a secure attachment style?
If You’re Anxious…
I invite you to examine your thoughts when you become anxious in your relationship. You might hear, “my partner is cheating on me,” or “my partner doesn’t really love me.” Does this sound familiar? If so, you’re dealing with a story—an inner narrative that we completely make-up based on something we see.
FACT: My partner hasn’t texted me back in almost an hour.
STORY: They’re cheating on me.
See the difference? Paying attention to what is actually happening versus what we’re making up about it is a critical factor in securing our attachment. The next time you catch yourself telling a story about your partner’s actions say out loud what you’re making up about it and bring your attention back to what is actually happening. The more you do this, the more you’ll be able to see your story. When you see your negative story, you can rewrite it, creating a new narrative that is much more loving to you.
The kabbalists teach that every single one of us is destined for our own brand of greatness. Each of us is given certain gifts and talents and so that we can impact the world in a way no one else can. Understanding that you are inherently special is the first step to uncovering your worth, something that anyone with an anxious attachment style needs. Instead of searching for your worth in the eyes of someone else or basing your worthiness on whether someone else loves, focus on loving yourself.
Recognize your talents, the qualities that make you a good person, the things that make you proud to be you. If you have trouble with this, ask a trusted friend. Get a list going and keep adding to it. While it may take time to break the habit of focusing on another, the more and more you bring your attention back to you, your strengths, and your happiness to closer you’ll be to attaching in a more secure way.
If You’re Avoidant…
I’ll invite you to get radical with your gratitude. It’s tough to be appreciative and avoidant at the same time, but I’m willing to bet that as you shift into a consciousness of gratitude, a softening will occur. Not only that, science tells us that, thanks to the release of dopamine that it signals, gratitude engages a virtuous cycle in our brain. The more time you spend in gratitude, the more your brain will look for things to feel grateful for.
For the next week, list five things that you appreciate about your partner every day. It could be the way they make you coffee in the morning without you asking, the way they text to see how your day is, or just the fact that they support you. The following week, share with them the ways you appreciate them. It doesn’t need to be overly demonstrative or romantic, it can even be in a note you write to them before leaving for work. Regardless of the how, bring as much gratitude as you can into every day and notice what begins to shift.
According to the wisdom of Kabbalah, we are meant to grow and transform, and the kabbalists have long taught that relationships are the most significant source of our growth both as people and as souls. We came into this life to connect, no one is meant to be alone. Based on your earliest connections, you may have learned that creating intimacy either leads to the pain of abandonment or the burden of being responsible for someone else’s well-being. While this makes logical sense, it also isn’t truthful. You can have a beautiful connection with others while maintaining your sense of independence. But, you’ll have to take that leap of faith.
Begin by appreciating the people in your life who bring you joy, whom you trust, and who share with you in respectful ways. How can you open even more to those people? It may feel uncomfortable at first, but try to see that as a good thing. It means you’re shifting! Letting ourselves be loved is bold and takes courage, it also creates that circle of safety we all long for—love is a circle of giving and receiving, we can’t love someone fully if we don’t allow love in. By trusting the process and opening your heart little by little, you’ll be rebuilding that sense of trust and creating more and more secure attachments.
Changing our attachment style isn’t an easy process, but it is essential for our happiness. We all deserve the kind of love that fills us up and makes us feel alive, and romantic connection brings us this and so much more. Yet, whether we are anxious, avoidant, or secure, the spiritual work we do on ourselves will always be the most important. We can only meet another person as profoundly as we have met ourselves.
In times of relational difficulty, bring the focus back to you. Ask what you can do to nourish yourself, take an inventory of where you’d like to grow, and acknowledge yourself for everything you have already learned. Our attachment style may be something we want to change, but it’s also something that has brought us right to where we are now. When in doubt, begin with friendship. Kabbalists believe that friendships assists us in our personal growth and can often be the source of it. Begin with creating a secure friendship and watch how that helps to bloom your heart open.
In the meantime, be gentle with yourself and know that no matter your attachment style, you are worthy of a love that is greater than you could ever imagine.
RETHINK YOUR DAY
How can you care for yourself today? What friendships can you nurture? In what ways can you practice secure attachment while continuing to honor yourself?
What is a True Teacher? Remembering Rav Berg
October 6, 2022
Returning to Teshuvah
September 15, 2022
Reflections on Tu B’Av and Our Silver Anniversary
August 11, 2022