A Conversation Between Hadley Davis, LMFT, and Laurel Roberts-Meese, LMFT
Transcript under Read More
LRM: Today I’m joined by my friend and colleague Hadley Davis, who has worked in a variety of community agencies serving populations who really need services. We’re going to talk about attachment because it’s something we all have! We’re all attached, or not attached, in a variety of ways. Welcome, Hadley! Do you want to define attachment for us?
HD: The way I think about attachment is just the way you relate to other people in your life, especially those that you care about; your romantic partners, your children, your family members, close friends. All of that is attachment; how you set up boundaries, how you don’t set up boundaries, how you show love or don’t show love… it’s all related to attachment and attachment style.
LRM: And what are those styles? How would you know what kind of attachment you have?
HD: There’s some great literature out there if you want to get nerdy about attachment styles and what style you have. I find that in my practical work I don’t tend you use the labels often. I don’t find them particularly helpful or useful in guiding the way that I treat my kids and their families. But if I’m dredging up grad school memories.. there’s secure attachment.
LRM: And that would that look like?
HD: That would look like your parents were good enough caretakers. They helped you learn how to receive love and give love, they taught you how to emotionally regulate within relationships, and they taught you about healthy boundaries, how to say no or yes in a way that feels good to you. That’s pretty secure attachment. The vast majority of us have some kind of secure attachment in some area of our lives. Your attachment style can absolutely vary by relationship. And then you have your anxious attachment, and your avoidant attachment. Anxious is pretty self-explanatory: you’re feeling a lot of anxiety in your relationships and maybe you’re more of a pursuer, more afraid of loss.
LRM: And need a little more reassurance.
HD: A little more reassurance, and they maybe don’t feel they’re deserving of the love. They aren’t as secure in that relationship. They don’t feel as though the love is there to stay, or that it’s unconditional, they feel there might be some strings attached to it. And then you have avoidant attachment, which is people that push away, that aren’t willing to take the chance with relationships. They may feel very vulnerable and put up walls, to not want to put yourself out there.
LRM: And I think there’s a fourth type, disorganized attachment, which is a combination of styles, but I know when someone’s sitting in front of me, I’m not thinking “well, what attachment style do that have?” Absolutely not. You’re looking at what their relationships are like and how satisfied they are in those relationships. Are they able to balance vulnerability with self-protection, and most of the time feel fulfilled. Now, there’s no relationships where we feel fulfilled 100% of the time. That’s not gonna happen. But I know a commonality between us is that we’re not out there trying to categorize people. I don’t know that I’d even conceptualize some of my clients that might have insecure or avoidant attachment styles that way; I don’t think that would even enter my mind. It would be much more about what’s sitting in front of me and how satisfied are they [in their relationships] and how can we work toward greater satisfaction.
HD: Absolutely, absolutely. Whenever I use a label or a term, it’s always very consciously as a way to bridge understanding. A lot of these clinical terms I find to be more divisive, or to put too much space or intellectual snobbery in the middle of a [therapeutic] relationship, so I don’t find them useful!
HD: Some people find it useful, in the same way that some people find diagnoses helpful sometimes. Putting a label on something, defining something [can be helpful] and if you’re that person, oh man, that’s great! Go find out about it, read the literature, make sure your therapist knows that it’s important, that this is the framework from which you’re working. I work a lot of teenagers and preteens and I have yet to find a teenager who is interested in naming their attachment style.
LRM: No, and the issue there is that it can be so pathologizing.
HD: Yeah, it can.
LRM: The same way any diagnosis can be pathologizing. Some people, like you said, find it very helpful, but I never want clients to feel pathologized. I sometimes say, when people come to see me they have the issue that brought them there AND their feelings about the issue that brought them there, and sometimes we have to spend a lot of time on the feelings about the issue; whatever shame or guilt or sadness [they have], and sometimes you have to unpack that first. I would never want to contribute to any of those negative feelings. Let’s get in and actually do the work, get you greater satisfaction. I like to say to people “I’m not interested in keeping you in therapy forever. I want you to go on and have a great life.”
LRM: So to that end, can attachment style change? Can you create long-lasting change in the way you relate to people?
HD: Oh, absolutely. That’s one of the beautiful parts of growing up. You get to choose your attachment figures in a way you didn’t get to choose your primary attachment. You’re born into the family that you’re born into and they do the best they can with what they know, and sometimes that can leave us lacking certain things, or wanting certain things, or feeling like you didn’t get everything you needed. Then you’re not stuck there, because at some point you go out and you make your friends, and at some point you go out and you make your romantic partnerships, and at some point you’re able to choose your own family, or you learn enough that you can bring your family [of origin] along with you on your healing journey.
LRM: You start modeling boundaries, you start modeling regulation, you start modeling “this is the relationship I want to have with you, if you want to have that relationship with me, let’s do it.”
HD: “Let’s do it!” And you have the opportunity to amend and change and heal your attachment style in each one of those relationships, and that’s particularly true when you get to your romantic relationships. There’s a potency there that gives a lot of potential for healing.
LRM: And can be the most challenging.
HD: Oh, there’s a reason I chose “potent.” It brings up a lot of those primary, original attachment feelings, and problems, and holes, and abundances. That all is there in those romantic relationships.
LRM: It’s bringing to mind for me Harville Hendrix, who is the creator and founder of Imago couple’s therapy. One of the founding principles of that couples therapy treatment is that we pick partners – and this is so uncomfortable to think about and say – but we pick partners that will help us resolve issues we have with our parents. Now, I’m not saying we’re trying to date our parents, I’m not saying some weird gross Freudian thing.
HD: No, oh gosh.
LRM: No, but a dynamic that you had with a primary caregiver, you may seek to resolve with a romantic partner. It’s what you’re saying, it’s basically, fundamentally, attempting to heal attachment.
HD: It often is. And I would say, with my teenagers and their families, if you find yourself in a particular relationship pattern over and over again, that’s something to really look at. That often tells me that we’re looking at some sort of an attachment issue that you’re trying to resolve, and it has so far been unsuccessful.
LRM: Yeah, they keep trying!
HD: They do!
LRM: They keep trying to resolve it, and that gives me so much faith in human resilience.
HD: Oh my gosh, completely.
LRM: Because no matter how many times you have this thing happen, you still want to try again, you’re still going to try to resolve it, and we will continue trying to resolve it indefinitely.
HD: Absolutely. And you know, I missed an important person: if you decide to go see a therapy, that’s an attachment there too.
LRM: It is!
HD: And oftentimes that therapist, in some cases, might be your first healthy attachment relationship.
LRM: There are boundaries built in.
HD: It’s in there! You have opportunities to practice every type of attachment there.
LRM: And to have the therapist be an active ally in that learning new way of relating to people. That’s one of the things I love most about my job, getting to walk with people through that. Seeing them heal attachment, seeing them have deeply fulfilling relationships, seeing them break lifelong patterns and go on to have these incredible, fulfilling lives. That’s why we do what we do.
LRM: And it doesn’t matter how old you are. I know you work with teenagers, I work with adults. It’s the same material, it just looks different at different points in our lives.
HD: I know that my favorite thing when I’m working with someone and I can tell they’ve really made progress is they’ll come back and say they’re attracted to someone they never would have been attracted to before, or this relationship just feels totally different than anything they’ve had before, and that’s pretty cool because that means you’re healing something, and you have healed something in a significant, lasting way. They’re able to go try something new. That’s what we’re looking for; if something’s not working, can you get yourself to a point where you’re ready to try something that doesn’t feel familiar or instinctual.
LRM: I love that moment too. They may not see it as a win, but I’m like, “Yeah!”
HD: It’s huge! Pat yourself on the back, you did some hard work.
LRM: Absolutely. Well, I think we could keep talking about this, but if people want to know more about attachment and how attachment is healed, they can google it and find some awesome articles as a good starting point. Again, a caution to not pathologize yourself, just look at what is your lived experience and what do you want it to be? And usually at this point as we’re wrapping up I ask how people can get in touch with you if they want to work with you, but you actually do not have a practice that’s accepting clients right now, so unfortunately I can’t send people to you as much as I would like to. If people want to work with me, you’re probably on my website, so you know how to get in touch with me. And Hadley, thanks so much for being here!
HD: My pleasure, thanks for having me.