The Laws of Attachment

It feels like punishment when we break the laws of attachment.

Dysfunctional relationship dynamics typically begin to form in the second year of living together, and become entrenched after the birth of the first child. In the usual scenario, one partner becomes focused on “getting my needs met,” which means the other has to change. The end result is that at least one partner feels manipulated and both feel cheated.

All dysfunctional relationship dynamics violate the Laws of Attachment.

Okay, they’re not really laws, but they are compelling. And they have less to do with individual psychology (or communication between the partners) than species survival. Most anthropologists agree that early humans would not have survived without strong emotional bonds that made us cooperate in food gathering and territorial defense.

Not surprisingly, we've developed pre-verbal, pre-rational, and automatic emotional reactions to behaviors and attitudes that threaten attachment bonds. These reactions constitute the (sort of) Laws of Attachment. The power of the attachment laws depends, of course, on level of commitment and depth of the emotional interconnection.

Attachment Law # 1

Whenever we threaten attachment bonds, through withdrawal of interest, failure of compassion, breach of trust, failure to trust, diminishment of love, avoidance of intimacy, or failure to protect, we experience some level of guilt. Attachment guilt is a kind of distance regulator whose function is to motivate more emotional investment in the attachment bond. Get close (invest more interest, trust, compassion, love, protection) and the guilt subsides, distance further, and it gets worse.

Attachment Law # 2

Whenever we feel that an attachment figure loses interest, withholds compassion, fails to trust, breeches trust, withdraws love, avoids intimacy, or fails to protect, we experience shame and some level of guilt as motivation to repair.

How the Self-Correcting Laws of Attachment Go Wrong

In a word, blame.

If guilt and shame feel like punishments, rather than motivations, there is a toddler-like impulse to blame them on the person stimulating them – “Bad Mommy!”

Blame produces anger or resentment and an impulse to retaliate. It “proves” that our partners are wrong, unfair, or abusive and justifies the demand that they change to “meet our needs.”

Ironically, in terms of the emotions of attachment, it does not matter who is right or wrong, fair or unfair, an abuser or a victim. Whenever we threaten attachment bonds or perceive a threat to them, no matter what the reason, we experience guilt and/or shame.

Thus blame creates a terrible feedback loop: the more we blame loved ones (threatening the attachment bond), the more guilt and shame we experience.

But wait, it gets worse.

Guilt and shame create states of vulnerability, which make the brain hypersensitive to possible threats. The threatened ego (particularly if inflated or fragile) invokes defensive resentment or anger in milliseconds, which is far too fast for conscious awareness. We may know we’re resentful but are unlikely to fathom (without careful introspection) that we are also guilty and ashamed. Hidden guilt and shame cannot function as motivations to love better. Instead, they become a source of fuel for the eternal flame of resentment.

Eventually resentment of loved ones hardens, grows embittered, and turns into contempt. In due time, contempt leads to detachment, a state wherein thinking of the former loved one stirs hardly any emotional at all. Unfortunately, when caused by resentment and contempt, detachment typically occurs many years after actual separation.

Now here’s the good news.

When partners are resentful, they still very much care about what they think and feel about each other. Once they accept that fact, they can reverse the painful process of detachment at any phase simply by respecting the Laws of Attachment. And there’s only one way to do that.

They must follow the natural motivation of attachment guilt and shame to invest more interest, compassion, trust, love, and protection.