Attachment is an enduring emotional bond with another being across space and time. That’s a very lofty understanding of something we engage in every day, often take for granted, and often don’t pay a great deal of attention to until it is a source of discomfort or stress. It’s as small as the interactions with mere acquaintances, and as expansive as the most important relationships of our lives. It is typically the most important relationships that become the subject of counseling. It is those relationships that can take over and occupy our thoughts and feelings that we seek assistance in finding peace with, family members, colleagues, supervisors, or significant others. But really, it is the client making peace with client that ultimately happens in a successful therapeutic relationship.
First, let’s dispel some misconceptions of attachment and therapy. Therapeutically, attachment is neither positive nor negative. It is up to the individual seeking counseling to determine what they deem as important, not the counselor. This is not something the counselor should decide, even if they disagree with the client. A counselor is there to assist the client in what the client wants to accomplish. A good counselor will reflect back to the individual what they see, and may present evidence for the client to realize things they may be blind to, but ultimately it is up to the client to decide where to go with that evidence. So don’t expect a counselor to tell you whether you should cut off or maintain a relationship. If the counselor does, that is more about them than the client. Find another counselor at that point.
Attachment need not be reciprocal. Typically we assume that attachments need be reciprocal in order to be healthy. Here’s the secret, attachments are almost never in a stagnant perpetual state of being, and invariably one is giving more than the other in a relationship. That’s not to say that reciprocity doesn’t happen. One may give more one day, and the other more the next day. Some relationships may never be perfectly reciprocal, and that is okay. Take for example a healthy spouse when the other spouse suffers from illness. The healthy spouse will typically give more than the one suffering from illness, and that is a choice that they get to make. It is up to them to decide whether they can build skills to make their attachment work for them. Even in some healthy relationships we find one person giving more than the other, and if that works for the people with the attachment, then that is up to them to decide. It comes down to how much energy someone wants to put out for how much they receive.
In some cases, attachment is sought, while in others, attachment is shunned. The question becomes one of the individual deciding what they wish to put their energy toward. There really appears to be one of three therapeutic approaches to take;
- Building greater attachment through communication, respect, and understanding.
- Tolerating distressing attachments through psycho education, skill building, and tempered expectations of accepting another for who they are.
- Severing and mourning an attachment that an individual decides they no longer wish to have.
Building greater attachment sometimes works. This is most successful when both parties want to build communication skills with each other and understanding one another in ways that may not have been realized before. It is hard to grow together if both are not engaged in the growth collectively. Counseling causes growth, and individual counseling frequently results in growth in a different direction than the other person in a relationship. It is something to be cautious about when engaging in counseling. In some cases, an individual can build skills that improve a relationship, but to truly build a relationship in a healthy way, both parties should be engaged.
In some cases, the best attachment we can have with another may not rise to the greatest expectations we hope for. In these cases, it is better to possibly accept that the relationship will not be the goal, but how to maintain that relationship through building skills to tolerate the relationship for what it can be rather than severing the relationship. We discussed an illness situation above that fits this, but another example is co-parenting after a separation or divorce. To best parent a child, sometimes one will have to work with someone that no longer holds the possibility of life partnership “…until death do us part”. In these cases the attachment remains, but learning skills on how to tolerate the “new normal”.
Severing and mourning a relationship is another path, and sometimes becomes the path we must accept rather than the one we had hoped for. In a circumstance of death, we typically must learn how to let go of that attachment to a degree. More difficult sometimes is mourning someone who has not died, but the attachment has been severed. In some cases the realization that this person we are attached to no longer exists is a struggle. Euphoric recall is a dangerous illusion where one remembers the person they fell in love with, and long to be with that person. In some cases the most healing moment is an acceptance that that person no longer exists, nor the possibility of that person exists. It bears repeating for emphasis, this is up to the individual seeking counseling, not the counselor.
There is no superior or inferior approach on handling distress in attachment. Ultimately it becomes a matter for each individual to decide. We do it every day subconsciously. Perhaps if you get nothing else from this writing, consider today what you have done to maintain those relationships you would rather not end up in distress over. Put some energy there consciously.