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The 4 Relational Attachment Survival Responses in Search of Love and Connection


Relationships can be complicated as well as have a healing impact on individuals who are experiencing them. The bottom line for all relationships is that we would like to have a relationship where we feel seen, heard, valued, secure, safe, cared for and desired.


Interviewing thousands of couples and observing their interactions in research and diverse clinical settings, clinical data has concluded that there are four primary relational attachment survival responses couples turn to in their search for love and connection. These four primary relational attachment survival responses I have identified are connect, appease, compensate and reject. Through these, couples try to make sense of their relationship, themselves in the relational context, and the communication and intimacy issues that arise in the intimate partnership.


In addition to the four main relational survival responses, couples also use six subcategories to organize their primary responses depending on their level of anxiety and avoidance in these four primary responses, or in the subcategories which are:

  • Appeasing connectors

  • Connecting compensators

  • Compensating rejectors

  • Rejecting appeasers

  • Connecting rejectors

  • Appeasing compensators


For example, an anxious appeaser can have many compensating personality traits, and they can meet the criteria for appeasing compensator with intensity on anxiousness and repetition on the appeasing element of survival response. This category is a subcategory for appeasing, but it does not fully meet the criteria for compensating. However, understanding the intensity of anxiety and repetition of appeasing may calm down their, let’s say, anxious compensating partner. Suppose an avoidant compensating partner can’t make sense of their appeasing partner’s anxiousness. In that case, the avoidant compensator comes across as rejecting. The outcome of the relationship becomes a dance between an appeasing compensator and a compensating rejector, who works hard but loses it at times, and turns to destructive relationship and communication patterns, such as stonewalling, ignoring the partner's needs and minimizing their partner’s desire for sex and closeness.


The data I have gathered over 12 years, from thousands of couples and individuals, indicates that developing a clinical tool for assessing couples' internal dialogue, responses to the relationship between them, and responses to themselves and one another were crucial in supporting couples to move from one of the survival relational responses to a secure attachment state. Therefore, the four primary attachment survival responses and six subcategories become the foundation of the Attachment Survival States Interview (ASSI)™,which predicts couples' relational survival responses with 98% accuracy. ASSI™helps couples make sense of their primary attachment survival response as they understand their partner’s attachment survival response, including the level of anxiety and avoidance. The couple, therefore, as a team, now have a chance to establish a secure attachment in the relationship, which often has been victimized by both partners’ survival responses.


The 4 Relational Survival Responses- drawing/ Dr.Julie


Let’s look at these four primary attachment survival responses in detail.








Connect


In this relational survival response, we want to hold on to the other for dear life, just like Scrat, the squirrel in the Ice Age, who would do anything for the acorns he has been chasing day after day. He would sometimes endanger his and other animals' lives to have the acorn. He never stops chasing it.

In the connect state, the yearning and desperation for the other is so deep and painful that one could risk anything to be with the other, or create a sense of connection, even when the other experiences suffocation by the person experiencing the connect state.

We can see the connect survival response in puppies and children. These responses are normal and necessary for survival in childhood. But when they are tainted with trauma and excessive anxiety or avoidance, they become toxic for adult relationships, as we are not able to differentiate between healthy ways of connection and the attachment survival response, connect. When the puppies give you the puppy look, your attachment system is activated, and now you want to nurture and feed them or pick them up. Babies look at you, giggle or cry, and communicate with you through their body language that they will die without your support. You provide connection, food, love, care, and comfort to soothe them. I have witnessed extreme levels of the connect state in children in care. As they have been moved from foster home to foster home, they feel profoundly insecure, and need attachment anchors such as a stuffed animal or a toy.


In many cases, I have witnessed the children intensely experiencing a connect state with pets, not allowing the pets to be alone or have peace of mind. One child would so tightly hug a cat that the cat would constantly scratch them. However, they still would do the same thing to keep the sense of connection, because they could not be on their own. Additionally, they would not trust adults to soothe their anxiety and fear of loneliness. The child would force a connection with the cat because of their intensified fear of abandonment. In a connect state, we would do anything to not lose the other person; their absence would mean unbearable loss and painful loneliness.

In adult relationships, a connect state opens the doors to trauma bonding, codependency and excessive caregiving, with the hope we receive some care or acknowledgement back. In a connect state, the partner intensively looks for closeness through connection and always asks the other person to be in close proximity. The partner in a connect state often struggles to do things independently, for example, going to bed alone. They would rather stay awake and feel exhausted than go to bed on time, just because they don’t want to feel lonely. Furthermore, in adult relationships, a connect state is demonstrated by statements like:

  • I am desperate for a connection with you.

  • I can’t be on my own and soothe myself.

  • I will hold on to you for dear life.

  • You can’t be out of sight because it means I am out of your mind.

  • My need and longing for you are so intense that I am in pain.

  • Please don’t disappear on me, because I will die without you!

  • I will do anything to stay connected with you.

  • I am in such turmoil that you are the only one who can soothe me.

  • I cannot be with myself, but I desperately want you to be with me.

  • I am left to your mercy and love to feel alive and safe.

  • I want you to be with me because I cannot be with me, and I am unsure if I am worthy.

Compensate


This survival response is closely connected to our childhood experiences of neglect and what was lacking in our life. When we are in a compensate state, our internal working models of attachment are activated and we no longer want to be like the caregivers who withheld love, affection, support and kindness from us in childhood. We take empathy and excessive caregiving to a heightened level to meet the need of our partners and sacrifice ourselves because we don’t want them to experience what we did while we grew up. In the compensation state, the belief system about the relationship is that the more I do for you and the relationship, the more you will do for me and the relationship, and we will live happily ever after.


Unfortunately, as the caregiving is romanticized and often the partner does not reciprocate in the way we hoped, a compensating partner often develops resentment and, as time passes, hostility and avoidance towards the partner. At this point, the relationship is not safe, and the compensating partner becomes resentful, avoidant, dismissive and significantly depleted because of giving and giving all these years with no reciprocation.


One of my patients described their experiences of compensating as being the “boy Cinderella”. They had done everything for their partner and the family throughout their lives. They would do everything that was not done for them, and they were overly giving to their friends, family and their partner in order to achieve a sense of connection, family, and love in the relationships. They would clean up after everyone to have some crumbs of love and care. The more they cleaned up after everyone, the bigger their pile got to clean up. Compensation is a one-way highway that ends with a dead end.


The compensate state surfaces in daily life through some of the following statements:

  • I will take care of you and do everything that was not done for me.

  • You will receive everything which I am deprived of.

  • I will compensate for it all to make you happy.

  • Let me take care of you, and we will be all right!

  • If I care for you, our relationship will be ok, and you will not abandon me. I will abandon myself to give you what I never received.

  • I will give myself up to make this relationship work and make sure that you have all I didn’t.

  • If I bend over backwards, you will be happy and give me what I need and want.

Appease


This relational survival state is one of the most practiced strategies if the partner is in a state of connect or rejection. The appeasing partner is often avoidant of discomfort and conflict, and they will agree to anything the partner presents to avoid the tension and discomfort that comes with conflict. They are exhausted from being attacked, cornered in the relationship, and scared of making a mistake. The appeasing partner walks on eggshells around the partner and never wants to make waves in the relationship. Instead, they give up everything important to them and live entirely under the shadow of their partner's wishes. It is better to give up than fight.


The appeasing partner often struggles with depression and low energy levels, as they have given up their desire for life and what is important to them, especially if their partner utilizes rejection as the relational survival mechanism.


Eeyore in Winnie-the-Pooh is an excellent example of an appeasement state. He agrees with everything and everyone and very rarely expresses what he wants. He often sounds depressed and unhappy about what’s going on around him. He lets everyone else call the shots. He does not have a voice.


The appease state shows up in some of the following daily expressions:

  • I don’t want to pick a fight with you, I’ll do everything to go along with you and what you want.

  • I can’t risk you being angry with and abandoning me, so I will do it all in your way to keep the peace.

  • I would rather be a second-class citizen than be lonely and abandoned, because I can’t handle loneliness and conflict.

  • I need you to let me please you!

  • I promise I will attend to all your demands to keep it cool.

  • Please don’t get upset with me!

  • I can’t handle anger, and it terrifies me.

  • I will make you happy regardless of my needs and wants.

  • I am here to submit and agree.

  • Let me know what to do, and I will do it all.

Reject


This survival state is one of the most damaging of the four relational survival states because it brings hostility and intimate punishment to the forefront of the relationship, communication and intimacy.

The rejecting partner has tried the three other primary survival states mentioned above and is ready to leave the relationship, but still needs to figure out how. Instead, they bring escalated conflict and anger to everything presented in the relationship. Rejection survival is based on a deep disappointment in the partner and disapproval of the relationship. The rejecting partner is dissatisfied and hurt for trying the above states and has one foot out of the door. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an example of an individual in a reject state. She has tried all she can to stay alive, but she is so burned and violated by men, time after time, that she disapproves of all they do. She develops intense feelings of hate towards all of them. She stays in a hostile state, even with the man who cares about her and wishes her well. She prepares to leave him before he can come one inch closer to her. She disappears on him to prevent the pain that comes with closeness and commitment. She cannot handle closeness because of her past and must leave before the relationship starts. In short, to survive, she must reject everything, including love and safety, which is interpersonal.


Some of the reject survival state markers in daily life would be statements like:

  • I am so hurt and in pain that I refuse connection, intimacy, and closeness.

  • If you come close, I will go silent and I will be score keeping.

  • My silence and disapproval of you will be the ultimate punishment for your wrongdoings.

  • I will protest and show you.

  • I will hurt and dismiss you before you even think of it.

  • I cannot handle abandonment and rejection.

  • I will reject and abandon you first.

  • If you don’t get it and change who you are to meet my needs, I will turn my back on you.

  • I will attack and show you! I will make you feel so small and insignificant that you must attend to my needs. If you don’t, then I will protest and leave you.

  • I will make you pay for it!

  • I will make you feel like you are nothing.

  • I will ghost you and disappear on you.

In conclusion, if someone stays in one of the attachment survival responses mentioned here, they will be doomed to miss out on healthy relationships where they can feel safety, trust, security, closeness, intimacy and growth.


Security and Self - drawing by Dr. Julie

Each person can be mindful of what they bring to the table and what kind of state they hold onto in order to survive, rather than thrive, in their intimate relationships. Hence, ASSI can be a great start in identifying the relational survival response with the subcategories someone may fall into, which can then lead to working on identified survival states through Attachment Repair and Processing Therapy (ARPT)™ with a therapist.

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