Attachment & Bonding: a gateway to reclaim our power
In my Power Reclamation Map article, I share six gateways to explore exiled parts of ourselves and integrate them back home into the wholeness of our being. Challenging or heartbreaking experiences can fragment our sense of self, rupturing aspects of our power and authentic expressions.
This map is intended to serve as a navigation tool for the journey of embodied leadership and power. It is designed to lead to the places where we’ve lost connection, hold unresolved wounds and seek integration. The intention is to reclaim greater levels of self-acceptance, love, authenticity, freedom, and creativity.
Attachment states and bonding is the one of six gateways in my Power Reclamation Map, which is a tool designed to unveil the places where we’ve lost power and can endeavor to reintegrate exiled parts of ourselves back into the wholeness of our being. The six gateways are of the power reclamation map are:
Introducing the attachment states and bonding gateway
We all share a universal need to feel secure and to know that we belong in order for us to thrive and be in our authentic power. Early in life, we learn whether it’s safe to anchor in our bodies and in our relationships to others. Based on what our primary relationships we mirror, we develop secure or insecure attachment states, which will influence our relationship blueprint from here onward.
Attachment wounds are vulnerable and they touch our foundational beliefs about love and safety. Being educated about why we do what we do to bond builds awareness, self-compassion and a greater perspective into our relationship triggers.
Studying attachment is rich terrain for healing and integrating personal patterns of anxiety, control, and self-protection. Many behaviors associated with our attachment template can be the drivers of self-hatred, jealousy, controlling others, withdrawal, blame and judgment.
My desire is to normalize, and bring awareness to our basic need to attach and experience secure connection.
We all need to know that we belong and that we’re part of the whole. We all need safe places to feel seen, loved and held, no matter how messy and unbuttoned we are.
We live in a world that peppers us with messages of how we should be, which often goes against our authentic needs and desires. Advertising campaigns convey that we’re not enough as we are while suggesting that their product or service will fix our inadequacies and brokenness. And closer to home, we may suffer from the conflicts that occur in our most intimate relationships when people try to change us into the fantasy of who they want us to become for them.
The need to change, judge, and control one another isn’t usually linked to an intention to hurt each other. These fear-based, reactive behaviors are a desperate plea from our attachment template to satisfy our needs for security and stability.
Exploring our attachment template is an opportunity to find compassion for ourselves and others, and to consciously embrace a radically truthful connection with ourselves, all living beings, and the planet herself.
Attachment theory overview
Attachment theory is based on infant and interpersonal neurobiology research. This framework is designed to map the complexity of relationship patterns and the specific strategies we use to navigate our needs for connection, safety and belonging in relationship.
Our need to belong, feel safe, seen, attuned to and celebrated reside at the core of our human experience. When our needs aren’t being consistently met, we interpret, and subsequently believe, that connection is not reliable. As a result, we typically develop either a pattern of self-reliance, to avoid the pain of rejection and abandonment, or a pattern of becoming overly dependent on others to meet our needs and save us from the pain of our perceived aloneness.
We share a universal need to belong and feel that our existence matters. When this need is challenged or questioned, we will call upon our defense mechanisms to protect our vulnerability or assuage our anxiety and fear.
Our attachment template is constructed during our early life experiences. It becomes our relational operating system as an adult.
There are two primary attachment states, secure and fear-based. We tend to orient towards different attachment states based on our external relational environment as well as our inner state.
If our primary state in relationship is one of secure attachment states, then it’s likely that in early life, we experienced intimate relationships as safe, reliable, and trustworthy. When we needed attunement and connection, it was available, consistent, and loving enough for us to learn that we’re worthy of being loved. If early attachment bonds were formed in this way, then as adults we hold a secure trust in connection, with ourselves and others, even when conflict or distance arises. This allows us to self-soothe and seek connection simultaneously without a great deal of anxiety.
If we tend to draw more from fear attachment states, then we might have experienced early attachment as unstable and inconsistent. There are many factors that lead to this attachment state. Fear states can be due to our attachment figures inconsistently attuning and responding to our needs. It can be influenced by early trauma such as emergency medical care that was overwhelming to our system and left us feeling alone and disconnected from our source of nourishment.
True to any emerging field of study, attachment theorists present diverse views, which is part of what makes this material so dynamic. Some attachment theorists have curated a framework that feels compartmentalizing and even pathologizing to me. I personally believe that we don’t operate based on one attachment style that’s fixed in all cases at all times. This is why I prefer the frame of attachment states, instead of a fixed attachment styles, because it leaves room for us to orient towards these states as coming and going forms of protection, rather than who we are.
We’re complex beings with a wide array of responses. We may feel soothed by, and experience secure attachment with certain relationships that feel safe, consistent, and loving. Other relational situations may trigger us into a state of dis-regulation or disempowerment, which leads us to protect our vulnerability through responses of anxiety, avoidance, or push-pull.
If you’re anything like me, when a fear state response arises in you, you may have felt that something is broken or shameful about you. But these adaptive strategies are simply our survival method to cope with a lack of safety and security in relationship.
Together we can educate and empower ourselves by curiously exploring the complex ways we navigate our need for safety, connection, and independence in our adult relationships.
As we traverse this evolving field of study, the most reliable marker of truth is what we discover from our own direct experience.
Mapping states of attachment
Our attachment templates play an important role in emotional regulation, giving us a means to manage stress and fear. When individuals (infants, children, or adults) are threatened or challenged, the attachment system becomes activated to alleviate distress and restore felt-security. Our stress response will vary based on many factors, including the type of relationship, such as parental, child, lover, friend and colleague. In this article, I’ll focus on how attachment states manifest in romantic relationships.
Some templates have a secure belief of “I’m safe to be me and I know that I’m loved and when conflict arises I’ll find my way through because love is safe and reliable. My life and existence matters”. There is a trust in the ability to rupture in connection and repair without losing the relationship.
If we draw upon secure states, it doesn’t mean we don’t get triggered, because we do and we will. The differentiating factor here is how we respond when distance or challenge arises. Adults who orient more often towards secure states of attachment hold an inherent trust in relationships being resilient and trustworthy. When a partner disengages with us, we can self-soothe and reach towards the partner with more curiosity than threat. There is enough space inside to pursue a way back into connection rather than spiral out into a fear state. With secure states of attachment, we trust relationship, even if we temporarily go out of connection.
Some states are more heavily woven with fear and anxiety. In which case, when we feel threatened in relationship anxiety rises and adaptive strategies fire to protect us and to seek resolution and repair our fear and sense of separation. There are three variations of fear states.
When connection feels threatened, an anxious state will lean towards the person or situation for further connection in hopes to resolve stress and anxiety. In romantic relationships when stress occurs, the anxious voice may sound like, “when people I love go away I think it’s my fault and I feel anxious and scared. Until I feel their attention and reassurance of love again I can’t concentrate. I feel consumed by the sense of loss and aloneness”. Stress may ignite an existential question, “Does my existence matter when you don’t love me and see me?”
When connection feels threatened, an avoidant state will lean away from connection to manage levels of stress and overwhelm. In romantic relationships when stress occurs, the avoidant voice may sound like, “I need time alone. When I feel engulfed by your needs and wants I panic and seek to withdraw so I can regulate my stress.” As adults, this can look like withdrawing into our cave. It can appear as ghosting, when we stop responding to people’s texts and attempts to engage with us. Or through a variety of additional forms of distancing such as breaking sexual agreements by being with another person or lying to our partner to create space without even realizing what we’re doing. We unknowingly, or sometimes intentionally, deploy tactics that create separation and hurt between one another.
3) Combined Anxious/Avoidant
This pattern is a weaving of both anxious and avoidant simultaneously. In romantic relationships when stress occurs, the anxious/avoidant voice may sound like,“I want to be in connection and I also need time alone. I feel unclear about if I want to be alone or with you so I vacillate and feel confused.” As adults we may find ourselves in unconscious behaviors of push and pull. We seek connection with someone and once we know they want us back our desire wanes and we impulsively push them away. We crave connection and simultaneously we feel a need to withdraw from it.
The architecture of our attachment templates is built over 4 phases
There are four windows of development that carve and curate our attachment template, ranging from in utero to eighteen years of age. As adults, we continue to draw from this template in our relationship to ourselves, others, and all of life.
Phase 1: In Utero through six months
In the womb, and as a newborn, our primary need in relationship is to be provided safety and security.
As humans, we are born before we are neurologically ready. At this point in our species’ evolution, due to the narrow size of women’s hips in comparison to the baby’s growing brain and head, babies need to be birthed before being fully complete with their neurological development.
Newly born, out of the container of our mother’s womb, we are met with a sudden increase in stimulus and sensory input. We have yet to develop our neurological filters. We exist as a soft sponge, absorbing everything and filtering nothing. That includes sounds, sensations, facial expressions, and surrounding energy and emotions. This is raw, unfiltered state of existence. We have no shield. We have no sense of being a separate self.
This phase is the most crucial time in which we develop our attachment template, an internal map related to safety, connection and survival.
During this phase, we depend entirely on others to survive, and we need our caregivers to attune to our every need, with as much accuracy as possible. We rely on others for our food, touch, a calm place to sleep, regulating our temperature, and emotional connection. We lean into eye contact, touch, and the voice tones to determine how safe and connected we are.
This non-conceptual learning window is one of the most critical times of our development. All memory from this period is called implicit.
Implicit memory includes sensation, energy, and emotion stored as somatic experiences. This is why recalling memories from that time of our lives can feel so elusive since our cognitive functions aren’t fully online yet. Memories from this early stage of development can only be accessed through the body.
From a baby’s perspective, communication doesn’t occur through mental concepts or words. Instead, communication occurs through non-verbal language such as facial expressions, sensation, emotion and energy. Before we can think or speak, we’re already assessing and mapping our experience of safety through our sensory perceptions. Our limbic brain stores this material as a framework that will become our belief system about relationship and connection as adults.
If a newborn had the ability to think and speak, it might express thoughts such as:
Please soothe me when I get activated so I feel safe, tracked, and known.
Please notice I need gentle and reassuring touch.
Please make eye contact with me and touch me to keep hormones of connection and love flowing through us.
I need low stimulation because I feel everything. Please protect me from big noise and intensity.
Please notice when I’m hungry, need to sleep, or need to be held.
The baby is assessing, “If I express my needs, will someone respond? If I’m hungry, will I be fed? If I’m cold, will I be warmed? If my breath is laboring, will someone notice and help me?”
Even if we are attentively cared for, certain experiences can rock the foundation of our world. Medical situations can plunge a sensitive nervous system into bright lights, loud noises, chaos and stress. Even with skillful care, the fragility of a baby’s system can be impacted by stimulus that will thrust it into an existential fear of annihilation.
We can assist a baby’s sense of safety by supporting and building a resilient nervous system. Ideally, any rupture of stability for the baby will be attuned to and soothed as quickly as possible. Secure attachment grows when a baby experiences stress, followed by loving connection and soothing that regulates their nervous system. In other words, the baby learns, “I have a need, someone notices, they responds and now I can settle. I’m safe here.”
This kind of consistency fosters an inherent safeness in being alive, a somatic and inner knowing that the baby has a 'right to exist.'
Misses will happen. During this phase of development, a baby seeks attunement every 15 seconds. For a caregiver, this is a lot to keep up with! The process won’t be perfect. Caregivers, medical teams, and early influencers don’t need to be perfect and catch every need, but it’s helpful to establish consistency as much as possible in those first six months of life.
This is the template that the infant will build their entire life upon. Ruptures or ‘misses’ can occur and repair quickly when there is a growing consistency of attunement and responding to needs as they occur. If a newborn experiences inconsistent attunement or neglect, then inner safety is compromised and nervous system dis-regulation becomes a threat to the baby.
This is the same for our adult relationships. Ruptures will happen and it’s how we navigate the repair process that either builds connection and trust or dismantles it.
2. Phase 2: 6 to 24 Months
In this phase, the baby continues to exist as a soft sponge absorbing everything, without a filter. The neo-cortex is still not online, which means the baby is not yet able to self-reflect or recognize itself as separate. The baby continues to swim in a soup of undifferentiated experience.
Attunement to the baby’s needs remains essential and now, in addition, the baby has an increasing need to receive an accurate response to their communication of needs. Responding with accuracy deepens the baby’s sense of safety and trust in the world.
A primal sense of safety begins to establish when a baby’s hunger cry is followed by the offering of food. Conversely, if the baby’s hunger cry is missed, and food not delivered, it will panic because its very existence feels at stake.
The baby is tracking, non-verbally and somatically, how much work is required to get needs noticed and accurately met.
Over time, if basic needs like food and diaper changes are accurately responded to, safety grows. What’s more nuanced and subtle are the baby’s needs for touch, loving eye contact and facial expressions, as well as nurturing coos and sounds. When nurtured consistently the baby feels love. Since the baby still has no filter or sense of separate self, the experience of love, just as everything else in this phase, registers as ‘me,’ which, in a nurturing and attuned environment, translates into an early perception of being loved and lovable.
If there are inconsistencies of loving presence, attunement and response time the baby may sense frustration or other emotions and interpret them as feelings of unworthiness and lovability. All of these nonverbal and subtle experiences lay roots in the infant’s psyche about who they are, how the world works and what they need to do to survive.
3. Phase 3: Two to Seven Years
Around the age of two, we continue our journey through the four developmental phases, which is a hero/heroine’s journey in and of itself. Our pre-frontal cortex begins to come online. The neo-cortex is the aspect of the brain that allows us to self-reflect and make meaning. This supports us to further refine our beliefs as we compartmentalize our experiences into who we are and who we need to be in order to get our needs met.
With access to the cortical structures of the brain, we begin to sense that we are a separate self to the sounds, voices, smells and people outside of us. This is the birth of our conditioned sense of self, and ego-based adaptive strategies established to get our needs met.
At this stage, being seen, loved and celebrated as a unique and special creature is a primary need. It’s common that during this time we will be met with the projections of our caregivers, peers and society which will influence the development of our personality.
For example, if we are praised and rewarded for specific behaviors, we start to amplify the traits we know will be admired and approved of, as an attempt to please and create more connection. We may do this even when the prized behavior goes against another part of us that wants autonomy and authentic self-expression. We disregard our inner need and choose compliance because we need to belong.
If we’re shamed for certain behaviors, we will try to shut this part of us down. For example, if as a child we’re expressive and ‘bubbly,’ but it’s not welcomed in our environment, we will most likely learn to button up our emotions and become contained to avoid judgment and rejection.
4. PHase 4: Seven to Eighteen Years old
As we enter phase four, we’re continue the process of refining our belief systems through our life experiences which will serve to prove or disprove aspects of the attachment template that has become the scaffolding of our reality. This is a complex developmental window during which our belief systems and self-images become more solidified into our personality. We will be in relationship to this conditioned self for our entire incarnation.
With the pre-frontal cortex fully online, we now have the capacity to self-reflect, critique, and assess our value as a unique person. In this stage of development, we respond to our environment and develop the strategies we need to sustain our sense of worth, lovability, belonging and need for connection. Oddly enough, sometimes at the expense of embracing our most sacred and authentic desires.
The influence of missed experiences in adult intimacy and relationships
Depending on our relational environment, a multitude of missing experiences can occur. If our needs go unmet consistently enough we encounter developmental missing experiences. The result of these missing experience heavily influence our beliefs about ourselves and our relationship to others.
Our missing experiences during the four phases of our primary attachment period are significant contributors and the engineer laying down the tracks for our beliefs and behaviors as an adult. As adults, some early attachment templates material that we might hear or observe are:
I want someone to read my mind;
They need to pay attention and get it right;
I don’t trust other people will be able to help me;
I’m not sure I exist without someone else reflecting me;
You need to take care of me;
Something is wrong with me;
You’re bad, and untrustworthy, when you don’t do what I want you to do. So, I will withhold my love until you do what I need to feel safe
Applying attachment theory to relationships, sex and intimacy
Many relationship challenges are a result of attachment dynamics not being consciously seen, understood, and discussed openly.
Most of us don’t realize, that intimate relationships (lovers, partners, friends, and even colleagues) will reveal aspects of our attachment template. If we want to integrate and embody more of ourselves then it’s a worthy endeavor to study the behaviors that arise when we feel threatened, vulnerable, and fear abandonment or rejection in all types of relationships.
If revealing and embracing our attachment patterns is left in the shadows, then we will operate subconsciously through protective behaviors that create disconnection, criticism, blame and shame (whether towards ourselves or others).
The good news is that when we see and take responsibility for how we operate, we create conscious choice and invite our intimate relationships to a whole other level of freedom and acceptance.
What does attachment theory have to do with sexuality?
A lot more than we might think! People are inspired to have sex for a myriad of reasons. In addition to pleasure, procreation and orgasm, sexual expression holds the keys to repair emotional and psychological missing experiences related to safety, trust, bonding and love.
Pairing the study of our attachment patterns with our sexual desires can reveal hidden gems into the mysterious world of our subconscious. It can illuminate why we stay in relationships that are no longer aligned, or why we break up and get back together for sex when all the other parts of the relationships are a bumpy ride on the struggle bus. And hopefully, this exploration can foster self-compassion for how complex it is to be an ego-centric mammal who seeks to bond with other ego-centric creatures.
Studying our relationship to sex can reveal a lot about how we seek attachment and our most common states of secure and fear-based responses to stress in relationship. It can also reveal how we pull away and detach when trauma or core wounds get touched in relationship. It reveals whether we find safety by seeking closeness and intimacy at all times, or by seeking a distanced approach that preserves our autonomy.
To learn more about the connection between attachment theory and intimacy, visit my blog article: How Does Attachment Theory Relate To Sex & Intimacy?
Studying our attachment states invites us home into our wholeness
Studying our attachment states will show us how safe we’ve learned to feel in our bodies, in our relationships with others, and in the world, and whether we have a strong and resilient nervous system that allows us to self-soothe alone or in connection, or whether we have difficulty self-regulating and staying in relationship when under emotional stress
We are born to love and feel safe inside of ourselves and with others, emotionally and physically, but for many this journey has been rocky and complicated. Some of us experience the process of early bonding as filled with more confusion and pain than love. Many of us have created layers of protection in childhood to keep our vulnerable and innocent hearts safe. I’m one of those people, and my journey to bond, trust and surrender into love has been an ongoing experiment and exploration.
Early attachment templates set the course for how we relate to bonding, and our capacity to surrender into trust with others. Patterns of protection can make it harder to bond in deep and trusting ways as adults. The process of healing these wounds is delicate and requires heaping doses of self compassion, personal responsibility, support and grace.
Our unique dance and relationship to how we bond or avoid attachment needs to be held with compassion and understanding.
Whatever attachment state you find yourself in, I hope you can approach these behaviors with compassion and curiosity. They represent an opportunity to witness your intelligent attempt to resolve a missing experiences you had in childhood.
We’re wired to remember our wholeness.
Alone and together, we can change the fractures of separation inside of ourselves that have become projected onto our mother earth and all of her divine creatures of land, sky and sea.