Last updated on 24th September 2014
Yesterday I wrote a post "Meeting at relational depth: what intrigued me most". I described how, in this one day workshop, I paired up with someone I'd never met before and acted as client in a 20 minute role-played counselling session. Every minute we independently estimated how deeply we felt connected (on a 0-10 scale). When we looked at our estimates at the end of the session, they almost exactly matched. I felt as connected to my "counsellor" as she did to me, even though she had said only a few words. What's going on?
I think attachment theory can throw useful light on this experience. I wrote a blog post about a year ago entitled "Behavioural systems: attachment (care seeking), care giving, exploration, sex, & power". Looking at the role-played counselling session through the lens of this "behavioural systems" model helps makes sense of what happened and of a number of other related observations as well. I'm not claiming that attachment theory "explains it all", but I am suggesting that an expanded behavioural systems attachment model helps us understand and make predictions about a good deal of what goes on in these deep relational connections.
So Shaver & Mikulincer's expanded attachment model argues that we all have innate behavioural systems that come online when triggered by relevant external (or internal cues). As I've written in the past "It's a bit like using different computer software programmes depending on the specific task one is facing - for example word processing, slide preparation, database management, and so on. In a similar way, the care seeking attachment system is activated by threats to safety, the care giving system comes on line when one is drawn to provide support and encouragement, the exploration system acts to learn about external and internal experiences, the sexual system is orientated to promote sexual activity with a desirable other, and the power system competes for and protects valued resources". Maybe it would be useful here to say that the care seeking attachment system is activated not only by threats to safety but also by experiences of vulnerability, whether physical or emotional.
So I believe that part of what happened in the role-played counselling session was that I selected another person who I felt I could be "safe" with. One of the findings Mick Cooper noted in his relational depth research review was that clients were more likely to report experiences of deep meeting with their therapist when they "Know what they want from therapy/more considered choice of therapist". I knew what I wanted and chose someone who I felt I was likely to be comfortable with. I'm "securely attached". See, for example, the post "Assessing attachment in adults". The so-called, "secure-base script" runs something like "If I come across difficulties, I can seek comfort and support from significant others, this will be provided, I'll feel better and be able to go back to other activities soothed and confident." I'm also familiar with diving down into "emotional depth" - see the post "Different kinds of group, different kinds of friendship".
I think this is what I did in the role-play. I "stripped off" emotionally, allowed myself to slip down into a place of open vulnerability. When I feel "held" in that place, "met" in that place, I believe something quite archetypal is happening. Or if you prefer, something very physical and biochemical. I'm confident that what happened in the 20 minute session would have been mirrored in hormonal & other changes in my body - see, for example, an earlier discussion on deep relational meeting and changes in oxytocin levels. I also think I chose well - my partner, I believe, had a well tuned "care giving" behavioural system that rapidly came on line in response to my vulnerability. Again a finding reported in Mick Cooper's research review was that counsellors often reported these experiences of relational depth as unexpectedly "coming out of the blue", but clients were much more likely to report them as resulting from their decision to jump, to take an emotional risk, to finally trust their counsellor and really show themselves.
I think once we're in that loop, that care seeking/care giving circle, then we're profoundly connected. It goes down into our bones, into innate behavioural systems that are part of our species and that were already in our neural/hormonal circuitry in our mothers' wombs. I think a major part of the reason we gave such similar ratings of relational depth (and why we could do it so quickly) in our role-played session was that we were rating a so deeply known experience of connection. As I wrote in the earlier post "Meeting at relational depth: what does it involve?" - "In what senses are a baby and a nursing mother better seen as one organism rather than two?" I see something similar, for example, sometimes when I'm working with couples. The other day a couple came to see me once more fizzing with a two day row. I think they both trust me. I gently asked if they could look down under their anger and distance, to go emotionally "naked", to find out and to show what they were feeling under all the resentment and anger. They very courageously did. A need to be loved. Deep feelings of inadequacy. Tears. Care seeking and vulnerability, melting kindness and care giving. When they came back a couple of weeks later to their next session they said it had been profound ... that as the woundedness eased over the next day or so they slipped into a closeness that felt "like a second honeymoon". See ideas here from "Emotionally-focused couples therapy".
I see it too in group work. An apparent paradox - when someone has the courage to work very deeply on a very personal emotional pain, it's as if they slip down the tube of their personal, idiosyncratic experiences and emerge into a place that is "universal", that others in the group link to very deeply. A sensing that we are into territory that is archetypal for all humans - illness, loss, love, death. The stuff of major literature, the tragedies & joys that echo out into our cells. As Yeats wrote in his poem "A prayer for old age" -
God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone.
And as I've written in "Behavioural systems: attachment (care seeking), care giving, exploration, sex, & power", when I feel safe then the "exploration system" can kick in that wants to learn more about external & internal experiences - see, for example, "Relationship influences on exploration in adulthood: the characteristics and function of a secure base". Life is complex, but at least some of this process is mediated via the "calm & connect" oxytocin hormonal system. We know that "Oxytocin enhances the experience of attachment security", that "Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans" and that its release can simply be triggered by tone of voice - "Social vocalizations can release oxytocin in humans". It's an area of major research interest at the moment - see this year's reviews "The peptide that binds: a systematic review of oxytocin and its prosocial effects in humans" and "Oxytocin and human social behavior". As I wrote at the start of this post "I think attachment theory can throw useful light on this experience (of relational depth)" and, at a biochemical level, I believe oxytocin - with it's links to mother-child attachment, trust, empathy, fear reduction, adult pair bonding and prosocial behaviour - may well underpin many of these relationship experiences.