Our relationships with others often reflect both the relationship we have with ourselves and the programming that was laid down for us very early in life as a result of our attachment experiences in our families of origin, culture, and society – sometimes going back generations. As a result, we can often repeat or attract certain types of relationships that reinforce our limiting false beliefs about our own self-worth or that play out in familiar though unhealthy ways. Our adult attachment style in relationships often mirrors our attachment experiences during our early years.
Another factor to consider that we often forget is how our nervous systems relate to one another. We play off each other constantly, whether we realize it or not. Activation in one nervous system can trigger revving up or shutting down in another nervous system, especially if our bodies are used to feeling that way.
Arousal patterns in couples can be complex, ingrained and tricky to shift, as are our emotional attachment dynamics of relating and communicating, which are all just different sides of the same coin.
Relationships are about two nervous systems
pinging off each other.
Are any of these scenarios familiar?
- You often find yourself giving a lot and receiving very little in return or the boundary between you and others is often blurred (codependency)
- You find yourself hoping that if you try hard enough and are good enough they will stay and finally give you the love, validation and appreciation you have always dreamed of receiving (fantasy bond, longing without satisfaction)
- You have difficulty communicating your needs
- You both feed off each other and situations tend to escalate quickly
- One of you tends to escalate quickly and have uncontained energy, reactivity or drive (fight/flight hyperarousal), while the other is more constricted, small, shut down or disconnected (either freeze or hypoarousal), or a combination of both
- You tend to find yourself in relationships that are abusive, enmeshed, toxic or have uneven power dynamics
- You find that relationships are a source of confusion or anxiety, and that intimacy requires a level of vulnerability that leaves you feeling fearful of rejection or abandonment
- You make others responsible for how you are feeling or for your reactions (external locus of control), and end up feeling helpless and at the mercy of others when in distress
- Finding yourself angry or frustrated that the other person is the way they are and hanging on in the hopes that they change or the belief that you don’t deserve better
- You’ve stopped playing for the same team and want to get back on track to repair your bond
- You’re single but want to sort out lingering patterns to start your next relationship on the right track
The same pinging occurs in our relationships with our children. Children developmentally lack the ability to self-regulate, and rely on the attuned presence, empathy and regulation of their parents in order to soothe distress and co-regulate their emotions and bodies.
The neurobiology of attachment research is demonstrating more and more that strictly punishment-based or cognitive-behavioural approaches are missing the mark when it comes to discipline and parenting effectively. For instance, sending a child to be alone or isolated for a “time out” does very little to teach a child how to modulate their arousal levels or regulate their emotions. Instead, this practice can potentially risk sending the message that they are intrinsically bad and that love is conditional, which sets the foundation for low self-worth and core shame. In a very similar way, studies of babies who had been left to cry it out for prolonged periods of time found that while they did eventually stop crying, their cortisol (stress hormone) levels remained high, and so learned to shut down or disconnect in order to cope with distress. Young nervous systems are easily overwhelmed by no fault of their own, and are dependent on us to soothe them before they are able to learn how to do this for themselves.
Brain-wise attachment parenting involves understanding the impact and importance of a parent’s own ability to self-soothe, self-regulate and modulate arousal, and recognizes the importance of co-regulation to support little nervous systems to express their energy in appropriate ways. This can include the use of time-ins, empathy to build emotional awareness, sensory toys and tools to regulate arousal, and the use of play that explores healthy emotional expression to help discharge stress.
This also involves developing the ability to initiate repair with your children in moments where you’ve been unable to respond in the way you wanted, and be gentle and compassionate towards yourself for the fact you are growing and doing your best.
The Refuge offers support to better understand and work through old patterns of relating and reacting that are no longer serving you, and to help you build your internal resiliency and capacity for self-regulation, self-soothing, and intimacy with others by healing your relationship with yourself. Developing more effective communication and parenting skills also hinges on your ability to modulate your arousal and have emotional awareness.