Attachment Theory Throughout Life
We hear so much about Attachment Theory with children, especially at this time of year. “My child has started school and cries every morning when I leave him, does that mean he is insecure?” Although we know our attachment relationships are important to us throughout our lifetimes we do still experience the notion that as adults we should be able to manage alone. And especially that if we are ‘secure’ then we no longer need the attachment figure. I have even heard potential clients tell me they need therapy because they miss their parents now that they live abroad. Can I help them with this attachment issue?
Death of an Attachment Figure
Following the death of my father-in-law I was reminded of the protective capacity of a secure attachment by how well my mother-in-law managed her loss. She talked to the ashes of her husband often, and admitted to crying when alone. But when her family are present she is cheerful and happy, laughing and whilst watching “The Great British Bake Off” she making negative comments about the contestant she disliked, and cheering on the youngest candidate when he did well. I thought how great that the very happy and secure marriage of 53 years enabled her to experience a security that has helped her grieve but hold within her an internalised ‘husband’.
For her children and grandchildren she maintained the strength and security of a secure attachment figure. Her grown children and grandchildren have looked at her, and to her, and have felt her pain and sorrow and their own as bearable because she is able to bear her own.
I commented to a colleague that this is such a great example of a really good attachment, and one that as therapist we do not get to see often because the nature of our work brings us into contact with those that are suffering rather than those that do manage well.
And then as one might expect my mother-in-law demonstrated her pain in a very subtle way. In her 70’s she has a young disposition, she loves the cinema, especially Sci-Fi and movies such as Harry Potter. Partly this has enabled her to share time and interest with her grandchildren, but she clearly does enjoy these movies very much. And so following an invite to see such a movie she sent a text in reply saying that she was grateful for the invite but did not feel she was in the “right frame of mind” for the movie. Such a delicately worded response, but it was experienced quite forcefully, and I shared it with my husband. We talked about her possible experience of grief, so different from our own.
Gripped By Anxiety
I woke in the night with a sense of anxiety that gripped and would not ease. As anxiety does with me I felt like something was wrong, I am in trouble maybe. When I feel anxiety, identifying its source disperses it. So I began exploring. Not delivering a workshop this weekend, that sometimes brings a sense of anxiety, and no issues with other colleagues, no pressing concerns about clients, my own children managing at present. I could not find the cause. Then my thoughts went to my mother-in-law and the ‘punch in the stomach’ told me I’ve literally ‘hit’ the nail on the head. I experienced a night of fitful sleep, with a crushing dread. When my husband woke his reassuring cuddles eased my anxiety only as long as I was held. Within moments of release I felt the creep of dread return.
We talk of how there is nothing to be done, it can’t be made better. We can support my mother-in-law and see her often, and let her know we care. We can support each other with our own very personal losses, but it must be gone through, no way round.
As my husband left to go to work I was left alone with my anxiety, my own loss, and my concern for my mother-in-law. I thought about this feeling, and how the anxiety felt so different from what I’d felt up until now. I felt shaky, worried, uncertain. I reflected on my sense of danger, this un-named, shapeless danger. Grief has to be experienced and I know that nothing bad will happen, I reassure myself of that repeatedly and then think, so why is this feeling remaining, refusing to ease? It does not change into that familiar dull feeling that sits in the back of my head like a radio I can hear from a neighbours house on a summer day, present but easily ignored until a familiar song begins to play.
The Ability to Manage Our Affect is Essential for Our Loved Ones Whatever Age
My experience of my mother and father-in-law, is one where they have always kept their own problems to themselves, making themselves available fully for their children and families. When worried about their children they are supportive. It is clear they talk in private and it is obvious that they worry about all their children at times of trouble. And this is a clear demonstration of how a secure attachment is dependant on the attachment figure being able to manage their own affect and be there always available to assist with the affect regulation of those that look to them as their attachment figure. Whilst my mother-in-law was able to keep her affect from me I felt an amazing security, my loss bearable. When she demonstrated even the merest piece of her own pain I was shaken, my sense of safety was rocked.
As I realise this, the anxiety eases and I rest, thoughtful and sad, and so appreciative of the secure world they had made for us, and more aware of her need for us to be the attachment figures for her now that her own loving secure husband is no longer here to support and love her.