To Attach Or To Differentiate

It seems there is a great debate happening out there between therapists in Couples Counseling about the importance of Attachment and Self-differentiation. Here’s a link to one summary.

I believe this debate is like trying to figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg. I have my favorite which speaks more to my own story rather than to any significant truth. I like self-differentiation; I like to think of myself a independent or at least autonomous. Maybe I came out of the womb that way.

When we were designing the Couples Alive series for The Haven with our colleagues, the idea of attachment surfaced in our discussions. I immediately felt my repulsion to the idea, resisting the possibility of someone dwelling on the first years of life as an explanation for any neurotic and irresponsible patterns I carried into adulthood. I felt quite righteous and opinionated about my fight for self-defining and resilience as the more important developmental tasks for aliveness and connection in relationships.

However, when one argues too strongly for a point of view, there is usually something under the surface that is driving the righteous position. So there is little doubt that is/was the case here.

Some would say I am not particularly curious and gracious when I have a strong opinion. However, I often do find myself—after the fight—thinking through the alternative position. With a bit of humility, I often come back to the table or at least arrive at another table having redefined my position, influenced by all that I had argued so strongly against.

It seems this is the case with Attachment vs. Differentiation. I still favor self-differentiation. However, having done some reading and mostly some soul-searching after direct feedback from my partner and friends, I now believe in the importance and prevalence of attachment in couples.

I hate to admit the more helpless aspects of my own personality. The truth is, when I look beneath the surface, I am quite a dependent person. I may look tough or present as though I am not bothered by people disliking me. Yet, I totally crumble if that disliking person is CrisMarie (my partner). If I am honest with myself though, it has been CrisMarie’s willingness to accept and love me in the face of my own self-hate that has illuminated a path to greater self-compassion. Does this mean she needs to always embrace some of my less-than-wonderful traits? No. It just means there are moments when I may ask her to simply remind me that she loves me and is okay with my over-attachment to her. Then we can get back to our self-defining, arguing and enjoyment of our differences. I am willing to offer her that same moment of suspended judgment, that precious space where we can go in our darkest moments, knowing someone is there.

I don’t often reveal those moments to the world, thus my strong position for self-differentiation. I may have survived and even thrived at times on my ability to fight back and stand strong in the face of opposition, making an “I” statement in the face of “we”. But I have learned equally as much about loving and thriving by asking to be held and saying, “I need you to simply accept me in this moment”.

In my view, there is no winner in the great debate between Attachment vs. Differentiation. Both have an important role to play in my aliveness, in my loving others, and in my most significant relationships.